"Fall", as a synonym for autumn, is special to the United States. There, true to form, America makes the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness into something uniquely commercial, turning an Old English monosyllable into a diphthong, ("fa-all"), and scaring up big tourist opportunities. Go to New England and you find these incandescent leaves igniting a last burst of tourism before winter closes in. Here in Robert Frost territory the upstate "road less travelled" fills with camper vans, posses of stray bikers, retirees and "empty nesters". It helps that, as October rolls around, the foliage of Vermont and New Hampshire never fails to perform the role allotted to it by nature. Especially in some trees, such as the maple, glucose is trapped in the leaves after photosynthesis stops. The combination of sunlight and the first chills of autumn turns this glucose blood-red.
So while America lurches from left to right in a nationwide nervous breakdown, this part of the US displays sturdy, traditional American colours: a spectrum of viridian-olive-green-lime-yellow-sepia-orange-russet-vermilion-purple. Among the beeches and silver birch, the willow, oak, dogwood and spruce, the arboreal palette ranges from amber, saffron and russet to ochre, orange and cinnamon. Laurels and white cedars don't mutate, of course, but it's not unusual to see maples seared in half between brilliant summer green and blazing autumn gold.
To witness the American fall in all its splendour, you have only to drive north from Boston, less than 100 miles into the heart of the Granite State, New Hampshire. Route I-93 snakes like an asphalt river through bluffs and escarpments familiar to the armies of the revolution. As you cross the border from Massachusetts the visitor is exhorted to "Live Free or Die", the New Hampshire state motto.
That's a peculiarly American proposition: rhetorical, intolerant and slightly crazy. Why, one is tempted to ask, should we not live, like most British people, under a mild domestic oppression and survive to fight another day? "Live independently and score useful tax breaks" might be a more appealing slogan. Still, "Live free…", coined by General John Stark in 1809, anticipated the maverick libertarians of the Tea Party movement by at least 200 years. New Hampshire is natural Tea Party territory: in the late summer sunshine there seem to be plenty of ornery conservative seniors shopping for anti-ageing cream. The economy is on everyone's mind. Just after the NH-Mass border, I passed a deserted car dealership with the foot-high letters: PUT OUT OF BUSINESS BY OBAMA'S POLICIES. (Well, at least the apostrophe was in the right place.)
Around Manchester and Concord, in contrast with the red-blooded libertarianism of the state, its autumn leaves are an impressionist palette from burnt umber to bleached, watery yellow. Winslow Homer painted such scenes but, remarkably, Cézanne never did. Perhaps everything seemed too English. Arlington, Shaftesbury, Rupert, Sunderland, Dorset, Rutland: many of the towns here are named after the courtiers of Charles II, and sponsor a powerful sense of the colonial past. I switch on the car radio to break the monotony of the interstate driving, and there is the mahogany voice of Garrison Keillor hosting the "Prairie Home Companion", still riffing on Lake Wobegon, the place where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average". Keillor must now be in the autumn of his career. A vintage cello tuned to A minor, his voice offers a mixture of ironic commentary and old-fashioned storytelling; it held my attention effortlessly until the radio signal broke up in the fold of the hills. We are passing through Laconia and the lake region round Meredith. Up here in October the place to head for is Lake Winnipesaukee. With late sunshine blazing on waterside moorings crowded with summer craft, townships such as Meredith, Center Harbor and Wolfeboro have the desolate appeal of the out-of-season resort.
The lake is ringed with hills from which you can get spectacular views of the fall's panorama. If you want to combine this with a bit of Gilded Age nostalgia, head for Moultonborough and Lucknow, the former home of Chicago footwear millionaire Thomas Plant. Renamed the Castle in the Clouds, this is really a poor man's Hearst Castle (in San Simeon, California), an Arts and Crafts-style mansion perched on a rocky escarpment overlooking rolling vistas of autumn leaves. The castle has the usual complement of rich-man's toys (primitive intercom; "self-cleaning" stoves; an Aeolian Co organ; busts of Napoleon). Appropriately for Recession USA, Plant's story was of rags-to-riches-to-rags. Despite his final bankruptcy, Lucknow has survived, more or less intact. Today, on my visit, it was a convenient vantage point from which to see the approach of rain from the west.
Actually this was no disappointment. After the sunshine, all that New England's leaves needed, for that authentic fall melancholy, was a seasonal downpour. Right on cue, next morning the weather arrived: bruised, rain-heavy clouds, a roaring gale and the rumble of distant thunder. So it was time to negotiate a route past fallen trees and swept-away roads and find some shelter. Out here in the sticks there are several overnight options. In the competition for leaf-watchers, a raging battle is fought over the word "inn". An "inn" sounds homey, comforting, warm and domestic. Inevitably many hotel chains have wised up to this: Hampton Inn, for example, is simply a heartless hotel chain glossing its functional cut-price utility.
Genuine inn-keepers fiercely defend their independence. In Bethlehem, New Hampshire, Brad and Ilja Chapman manage Adair, one of the loveliest inns in New England, a remote 1920s country house hidden down a twisting drive about 20 minutes from Meredith. They run the place themselves, with a chef and a couple of maids, and pride themselves on knowing their customers. The bedrooms have neither phone nor television, which contributes to the restful air. Ilja, who is Dutch, likes to talk about the "Adair family", which gives you some idea of what you might expect as a guest.
From Bethlehem I followed a route through the Franconia Notch State Park into the White Mountains towards Stowe, which in winter becomes a popular skiing centre.
Driving northwest on Route I-89, I crossed into Vermont, where "New England" begins to lose its meaning. Everywhere there are little reminders of the former French influence – fur trappers and traders – moving up and down the trails into New France (Canada). Montpelier, Barre, Vergennes… at Lake Champlain I stopped for my penultimate night among the leaves at the Basin Harbor Club, a residential playground offering golf, tennis and water sports, run by the Beach family and overlooking one of the most hauntingly beautiful stretches of water I've ever seen. When Bob Beach took me out on the lake in his powerboat we swiftly spotted two bald eagles lazily patrolling the shoreline.
For the final leg of my trip I had arranged with the poet and critic Jay Parini to visit Robert Frost's house (Homer Noble Farm) near the delightfully named Bread Loaf Community, just outside the college town of Middlebury. Here, the splendour of "the sere and yellow leaf", Shakespeare's image for his autumnal years, is matched by the sinewy lyricism of America's greatest 20th-century poet. His house, and especially the remote cabin in which he used to read and write, internally linked by a wind-up telephone system, became the apt culmination of my journey. Behind Frost's spartan retreat Norwegian pines soar like a sylvan cathedral. Through these grey-green columns the visitor can glimpse a riot of fall leaves: oaks and chestnut, spruce and larch. Standing there, then, at the height of the fall, I found Frost's memorable lines popping into my head: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep/ But I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep."