You can't swivel two points of the compass in your armchair these days without someone else taking a trip. A big trip. An unusual trip. People are crossing the continent by every means known for covering ground: bicycling and unicycling; riding on the back of any available ambulating animal; and, of course, foot-slogging at all the speeds from a slow walk to a quick jog.
The world is waiting, it seems, for the first person to roller-skate from Maine to California - backward.
The quirky, questing trip obviously says something to us. For a couple of months now, ''Blue Highways,'' William Least Heat Moon's report on his meanderings over the secondary roads of America, has located itself on the best-seller list in the midst of all those self-help books, like ''Jane Fonda's Workout Book, ''The One-Minute Manager'' by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, and Helen Gurley Brown's ''Having It All.''
That's no mean journey in itself.
A modest revival of Jack (''On the Road'') Kerouac signals a further interest in vagabond lit. - and vagabond life. Not since the hippies of the '60s, perhaps , has there been a general wandering like this - maybe not since ''The Grapes of Wrath,'' to take another literary landmark. For, on the less fancy-free side, Steinbeck's nomads are back a half century later, chugging from Alaska to Texas, looking for jobs.
Nor can Huck Finn fans be unaware of the new raft-and-dinghy crowd, though most of them are taking to the Atlantic rather than the Mississippi. Just a week or so ago Wayne Dickinson, an unemployed computer operater from Satellite Beach, Fla., completed an Atlantic crossing in an 8-foot-11-inch boat - the smallest craft to have made the trip, according to historians. Dickinson finished off his 142 days spectacularly, crashing on the rocks near Donegal, losing his passport as well as his log, thus becoming the man without a country that every traveler must be, temporarily.
Meanwhile, back on dry land, Robert Roberts of Framingham, Mass., a heavy equipment operator, has just completed a 10-month horseback ride, trotting down Hollywood Boulevard on a seven-year-old Appaloosa named Comanche's Time.
Why do people get trapped into these odd odysseys? The traveler is the last to know why the feet itch, but, on the other hand, nobody can rationalize better. We roamers pick random destinations as if they were inevitable, then tie a red-tag URGENT to our luggage as we hustle to the airport to transport ourselves from A to B. And after a trip we are marvelous at explaining what we learned - about ourselves too. Travel truly is broadening.
But the sensible explanations come afterward, like domesticity after romance. What these dinghy voyages and forays on horseback teach us is that there is something wild and wayward and inexplicable about our most ordinary trips.
If we do count an extra number of eccentric comings and goings these days, why now? Is there something about hard times that rattles everybody's anchor chain? Like Herman Melville's sailors, are we forced by our gales to admit that snug havens are an illusion - that the open sea with waves and winds and nothing solid in sight is a more accurate metaphor of human existence? In the modern mood, the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset went so far as to suggest that shipwreck is our natural condition.
Maybe. But moving - pure moving - is an act of hope, from the moment we come into the world, kicking.
William Least Heat Moon took on energy as he rambled through towns like Nameless, Tenn. - even while hearing about towns with names like Difficult and Defeated. With cautious optimism, he concluded: ''I took to the open road in search of places where changes did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.''
Odysseus could not have said it better.