Gas pinch crimps renowned American road trip

Jack Kerouac wouldn’t recognize it.

Thanks to rising gas prices, the proverbial all-American road trip has shrunk from a long stretch of highway to a neat snip of asphalt, with little left to chance.

The ideal road trip is now less than 200 miles, according to mapmaker Rand McNally, which released a roster of the nation’s top-five highway excursions Monday.

Coast-to-coast they’re not. Try Provincetown, Mass., to Boston, the 120-mile “Charming Coastline” trek - or Branson, Mo., to Jefferson City, which makes up the 35-mile “Exploring the Ozarks” tour.

“A great road trip is about the people and destinations, not the miles driven,” said editorial director Laurie Borman.

The journeys might not have appealed to Mr. Kerouac, whose restless meanderings through the U.S. and Mexico ultimately inspired his 1957 novel, “On the Road,” which resonated with Beatniks and those pining to find their fortune somewhere along Route 66.

Still, Americans are hard-wired to cruise whether gas is $4 a gallon or not.

“We still have that instinct to get out on the road with the wind in our hair. We just have to be more efficient about it now,” said Doug Kirby, publisher of “Roadside America,” a book and an online guide to offbeat tourist attractions.

Hope springs eternal among the nation’s drivers: More than a quarter of us would drive all day to see a much-ballyhooed attraction, according to a reader survey at www.roadsideamerica.com.

“I’ve taken 20,000-mile road trips, and we missed interesting stuff even then,” Mr. Kirby said. “You have to plan and do research now to find that house made of beer cans, or a snake ranch. If you get to see 12 cool things rather than six, you break even.”

The mythology of the road trip may be waning, though.

“People believe they can get out on a two-lane blacktop and find a marvel, or they fixate on the lost world of Route 66 when gas was 10 cents a gallon. Well, it’s just not like that anymore,” Mr. Kirby said. The cost of a gallon of unleaded gasoline is inching toward $4 a gallon.

Beauty - and road trips - are in the eye of the beholder, some say.

“Americans will always have an intense yearning to see what’s beyond that next bend. Whether it’s 50 miles or 1,000 miles, much of that road trip happens in the brain. It’s the experience of it. You can have a road trip driving across town, you can have it during a commute,” said Mark Sedenquist, publisher of RoadTrip America (www.roadtripamerica.com), another Web site devoted to the highway world.

He took his first solo road trip out of high school, traveling 10,000 miles in two weeks at the wheel of a Fiat 128.

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