Let me start with a question: How do you choose your next travel adventure? Have you ever closed your eyes, spun a globe and let a finger fall randomly on your next vacation spot? Have you thrown darts at a map or let one of those airline pricing errors dictate your next destination? Then, having finally decided on the best course of action, have you ever had to cancel, pushing your plans to the distant future, because holidays, business trips, family commitments and friends' weddings have co-opted all your time? I thought so.
This is my life. I have a large and loving family, and a tight group of friends spread across the continental United States. I should pause and give thanks for that – not all of us have family to visit on holidays, or friends that want us at their far away weddings. And, not all of us have jobs that allow us the income to go anywhere at all. But all this aside, how do you make travel plans when they're already made for you? How do you make the most of your time when you're stuck in a place you never wanted to be? For me, the answer is simple. Instead of brooding on my lost days, I draw a circle on a map around that place and somewhere within that circle is a destination I never knew I wanted to be.
Imagine the most boring destination on Earth. Let's call it "Dullsborough." Dullsborough is your ground zero. Perhaps it's your hometown, or the city your parents retired to, or the hamlet where your provincial cousin is getting married. Now imagine taking a drawing compass, placing the point of the needle end on Dullsborough and tracing a full circle all around it in such a way that everything inside that circle is no more than an hour away. Next, take note of every town, mountain, national park, battlefield, art museum, restaurant, etc., that falls within that boundary. Each of these is a spot that you may never again have the opportunity to visit.
Look up everything you can about each of these places: check out pictures, read food blogs and scroll through reviews and "must do" lists. Stuck in Dullsborough on short notice, with no time to research? Put your smartphone to work. Ten years ago you might never have found that hidden gem of a tourist site without prior research or local knowledge, but these days you can pull it up in seconds.
You'll be surprised what you find within your circle. That green patch on the map might be a national park protecting some natural wonder that exists nowhere else in the country. Perhaps one of your favourite authors wrote her masterpiece in that small white house at the end of Languid Hollow Road. Maybe the modest art museum on East Main is hosting a travelling exhibition displaying two of the most famous paintings in the world, works that you'd otherwise have to travel to Europe to see. If you're lucky, that mouthwatering, award-winning sandwich you once lusted for on the Food Network is lovingly prepared in downtown Dismal Falls, a mere 25 minutes from Dullsborough! I once checked into a small hotel in a quiet town to find that a Star Trek fan had built an interactive, life-sized replica of the interior of the starship Enterprise not five minutes' walk from my room. Without the circle method, I would never have stood in (Bones) McCoy's sickbay or sat in Captain Kirk's chair.
This approach revealed new facets to travel that I had never taken advantage of. I realized that no matter where I was, there was always something to see. I understood how unreasonable I had been to expect gratification only from well-travelled or exotic destinations. I woke up to the possibilities surrounding my own "boring" city. I found myself waking up on Saturday mornings, driving on the spur of the moment to nearby places I had taken for granted my entire life. The world was my oyster – and always had been.
Now, perhaps you're protesting that most of the lost time is spent in airport lounges and bus stations, or behind the wheel on a crowded interstate. How are you supposed to climb Mount Humdrum when you're driving nine hours through five states? Again, look at a map. Rather than simply letting your GPS dictate your route, take in all the options. Modern highways are built to avoid the features of our landscape that once limited our travel, but the old roads are still there, and odds are there is at least one other way you could drive that perhaps passes through a part of the country you never thought you'd see. When cruising over mountains, around lakes and through deserts, the route is the destination.
Now, I won't pretend that driving the Great Dreary Pine Barrens, or standing where General So-And-So died, will justify the four vacation days, especially when you could have spent them in Zanzibar or at Lago di Garda. But if Dullsborough is your destination, which for better or worse it often will be, draw that circle and see what you find. After all, if you're passing through Dismal Falls anyway, wouldn't you kick yourself later if you didn't stop and eat that sandwich?