We found a really nice college town in New England. Everybody was terribly welcoming. Our furniture was all in a container ship, so we had six weeks with nothing to sit on or eat off. Amazingly, the neighbours would come up the front walk with chairs and microwave ovens, and temporarily furnished our home for us. Our life has become easier and more comfortable. Everyday encounters with American people, like going to the Post Office, are also very nice. Once a year they have customer appreciation day and put out coffee and free doughnuts. The staff are helpful and very quick, because in the States you only go there to buy stamps and not to pay your television licence, get a tax disc for the car, collect your pension or any of those thousand other things that make a visit to a British Post Office an all- day adventure.
Yet I knew on day two that I had made a big mistake. I remember waking up in this new house and looking out of the window. It was the beginning of summer and the weather was wonderful, but I put my head in my hands and thought: "what have we done?" It turned out that it was harder for me to live in America than for my wife, who is English, and the children. There was nothing to hate, nothing to complain about but I felt homesick for a country that wasn't my own.
The family loved America because it was a big adventure, but for me it was the end of my big adventure. It was a little like moving back in with your parents again in your forties. If I was going to leave Britain, on reflection I wished we'd gone somewhere new, so there was some forward motion rather than what felt like a backward step. America was too familiar for me.
I'd taken Britain for granted and hadn't realised how much I'd enjoyed it. You're in a privileged position as an immigrant. When the Royal Family misbehaves or England fails to qualify for the World Cup, I can sigh: "nothing to do with me." Yet when something goes well you can step forward and join in the celebration. As an American living in Britain you're not pigeonholed by your accent or your educational background; you can move comfortably through the various social strata. Now it's my wife's turn to benefit from being different. She got off a speeding ticket the other day by being very English: "I'm terribly sorry, I'm new here and not terribly good at seeing these speed signs."
Finally, it dawned on me that I'm a natural outsider; it's a nice position to be in. England is far more tolerant of these dissenting voices; America is a young country needing to establish its identity; there's this feeling that you've got to join in and believe it's God's country.
I realised, eventually, that there was no point rebelling because it was a done deal. So I decided to try to make the best of it and enjoy New England - it's not as if I'm serving some sort of prison sentence. One of the things that charmed me again about America, after having lived away for so long, was the scale. My original motivation for walking the Appalachian Trail, which I write about in my new book, is the immense amount of land that isn't being used. I was drawn to the idea of immense distances without houses. However, the deeper motivation could have been that hiking made me an outsider again.
Walking is uniquely un-American. People just do not walk, it's quite extraordinary. Where we live is about a five-minute walk from Mainstreet, Hanover. It's a level, pleasant stroll through leafy streets and I'm virtually the only person in the town who would think of walking there. My neighbours think it's a rather nice idea but feel they don't have the time, and it's true because they spend all their time looking for parking spaces.
On the Appalachian Trail I was repeatedly struck by how empty it was, even though it crosses some of the most arresting and celebrated landscapes in the country. Half the population, 100 million people, live within a day's drive, and yet even on the busiest days there are only a few thousand people, maybe an average of one person a mile. If you walk on any footpath in the Lake District, it's like the long marches of the Chinese Army. Yet on the Appalachian Trail everybody is bitching that it is getting way too crowded. It's crazy.
You cannot imagine what that is like, to try to cover 2,200 miles on foot. It's like walking from Land's End to John O'Groats, then turning round and returning to Sheffield. In Great Britain you would go through villages, drink in pubs, stop in bakeries. On the Appalachian Trail you're in the wilderness, with all your possessions and food on your back.
I have an ambivalence about the American outdoors. It is compellingly beautiful, with a majestic scale, but at the same time there is also something menacing. You are far enough away from help that if your appendix burst or you broke a leg you could end up in big trouble. Just a couple of weeks ago, they carted the dead body of a kid off Mount Lincoln (one of the peaks I climbed).
I devoted a whole summer to hiking the Appalachian Trail and I never really made up my mind whether I liked it or not. The landscape is so empty, it is like looking at the ocean - featureless. I often thought it would be nice if there were a couple of castles to make your eye linger.
There is a similar tension between being an outsider and joining society. The one time I felt connected in some fundamental way was in Maine, when I went down to a stream to filter some fresh water and saw a moose there. They're striking creatures, ugly but unthreatening, and you have a real sense of being out in the wilds. Yet I was struck by the surreal thought that this was an American moose, and that we were both Americans. If this moose could have spoken, he would have talked with an American accent, too. But even in America they are exotic creatures, and suddenly there was a recognition that we were both outsiders.
`A Walk in the Woods' by Bill Bryson is published on 13 November by Doubleday and costs pounds 16.99.Reuse content