Send for reinforcements ’cause there’s too much here for me to love

I have a habit of falling in love with places. That’s probably why I love traveling so much, and a part of why I’m so insatiable. But I found myself uncommonly in love with Cordova these past few days. It’s the only town in my section of Lonely Planet’s Alaska 9 that I hadn’t visited, so I scheduled an extra day there to make sure I got to putter around and actually get to enjoy it.

I left from Whittier, which I disliked immensely. I have a tendency to feel like I pick up on the energy of places, and Whittier was oppressing and depressing. It’s such an odd, dark, ugly town, despite the brilliant mountains rising straight up from the ocean. The snow still hadn’t melted, and it was a sort of sloppy brown color. The residents were strange and the whole place has a vacant feel. No real roads, either — just routes weaving through the giant rail yard.

Everything changed as soon as I drove on the ferry to Cordova. I got to take the bright new speed ferry, which cut the old travel time almost in half, to 3.5 hours. All of a sudden the vibe changed from small-town locals practically living in a bunker to pretty pony-tailed mountain girls, bearded guys in fleece vests, and everyone friendly as can be. The ferry was full, and everyone was chatty and seemed to know each other. One woman showed off her new baby, while another girl – who biked onto the ferry – napped in a booth. Someone else was beading and folks kept stopping by to ask her about her project.

I drove off the ferry straight into an old-timey downtown very similar to Seward’s. I tried sleeping at the Alaskan Bar & Hotel, but the jukebox kept me up until closing so not much sleeping happened. Still, the old building had that high-ceilinged, creaky-staired charm that you don’t see much in Alaska. Green mountains covered in low clouds encircled the town, which was covered in salmonberries.

I hadn’t left the mountains – at all – in weeks, having driven up from Seward. So when I drove out of Cordova on the Copper River Highway (nearly fifty miles of shooting gravel and glowing lupine) a couple of days into my visit, I was completely unprepared for the mountains to dramatically step back and the land to open up. The Copper River Delta, spanning 60 miles, is a flat berth of silty, braided branches of the Copper River mingled with bright green fauna. To my left the mountains huddled a few miles off, and to my right the sky seemed to open up forever. I felt like I was looking out onto a prairie, and now I know what people mean when they describe places as having “big skies.”

The release of all those mountains uncorked something in me, and I totally cried – twice. I laughed a lot, too. It just felt so good to be out in the open.

I drove all the way out to the Million Dollar Bridge and Childs Glacier, where I heard but never saw the grumble of calving ice. Then I squeezed in a six-mile run to Saddle Bag glacier and back, where I was dive-bombed by a mama bird who scared the shit out of me. No bears. None this trip, in fact, which is fine with me, since I’m spending 4 out of 5 nights in my tent.

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