It started well when the G4S security guard looked up from searching my bag and said, ‘thank you sir’. I mean, it was 8am and I’d been up half the night with waking nightmares of the Spanish Inquisition, but come ON.
Actually, it started even better 24 hours earlier, when – being the catastrophiser that I am – I decided to scout out the route to the US embassy a day early.
Because everyone knows you can’t say ‘no’ to a nice lady with a clipboard, I ended up creating a statistical anomaly that should keep market researchers puzzling for years.
The interview – an unintended rehearsal
‘Hel-LOOOO, just asking a few questions about the purpose of your visit to Duke Street today,’ the interviewer breezed. Argh, eye contact! Fresh off the train from Cornwall, I’d not yet put on my London armour of folded arms and careful pavement-gazing.
‘Um, do you have a box for “I’m trying to find the US Embassy for a visa appointment tomorrow”?’
‘Riiight, so would you say the retail offering was suited to your purchase needs?’
I cast around, taking in the Barbour shop, lobster bar and my own fraying backpack. ‘Can you just put not applicable?’
‘Based on your experiences today, would you recommend the customer experience of Duke Street to your family, friends and colleagues?’
‘If they ever need to walk to the US Embassy, I’ll be sure to recommend the quality of the pavement,’ I thought to myself.
It went on like this for about 20 minutes, the interviewer pressing on with the fervour of one bent on her commission: how did I feel about the Duke Street lighting? did Duke Street leave me feeling relaxed, inspired or anxious? how would I rate Duke Street compared to other leisure destinations in the area? if my first born was a boy, would I consider naming him Duke Street? etc. etc. until at last:
‘That’s all for today! Is there anything you wanted to ask myself today Miss Byrde?’
‘Er, well yes actually, do you know the way to the US Embassy?’
‘I do not.’
The interview proper
If you want to attempt the PCT’s 2,650 miles in one season, unless you’ve got rockets strapped to your feet or you’re called Heather Anderson, a 90-day visa waiver isn’t going to cut it.
So instead, there you are on a November evening filling out a B1/B2 visa application online, gently wondering about the last time you were engaged in terrorist activities, and whether or not any of your unborn children harbour plans to operate a drugs cartel. (In case anyone from US Border Force is reading: there’s never been one, and they won’t.)
You will take a photo of yourself in the weak afternoon sun against the one white wall in your house, angling yourself awkwardly so you cut out the stain from that time you tripped down the stairs with a mug of tea… and then, full of doubts about it being ‘too shadowy’, you’ll head to ASDA and get some more photos just in case.
All of this exciting activity brings you to an all-expenses-not-paid trip to London, and an appointment with the US Embassy.
You will assemble a library of papers proving your financial stability, your hopes and plans, your undying love for Great Britain. You’ll label them meticulously to avoid fumbling embarrassment in front of officials, but they will still fizz with static and spill on the floor the second you take them from their plastic wallet.
You will do a bit of queuing and a bit of fingerprint scanning, and then you’ll be called forward for your interview through a glass screen, which feels a bit like admitting your deepest dreams to a bank cashier.
‘What’s your resupply strategy?’
‘How are you funding your hike?’
‘Have you done anything like this before?’
And before you know it, you’ll be double-checking yourself to make sure your heard it right: you’re visa’s been approved, and you’ll be reunited with your passport in a couple of weeks.
- Your jokes are not funny.
- No one will smile or look remotely pleased to see you. Try not to take it personally or overcompensate with humour (see above).
- Get the 8am appointment if you can – despite nerves about being given the third degree, I was in and out in 30 minutes.
- Have good answers and evidence to prove you’re not going to run out of money and try and work in the US, and that you have sufficient ties to call you back to the UK after 6 months: a partner, a house, a job, a market researcher in Duke Street you simply must talk to again…
Two weeks later, because you are too tight to pay for the passport to be couriered, you will find yourself orbiting an impenetrable industrial estate, refusing to admit you’ve just burned that £8 saving trying to find the f-ing place in your car.
But then… it’s all worth it. You open your passport and trace the lettering of the freshly minted visa, feeling like you are holding the key to something pretty special. This strange, Wednesday-Addams-ish avatar of your real self brings you one step closer to the journey of a lifetime.
It is on.