Archive for the Travel Category

On Being Uncomfortable: The Akha Ama Coffee Journey

Posted in Travel with tags , , on April 15, 2014 by ilikemountains

To reach Maejantai, you start with a songtaew. It looks like a word scramble, I know. How about: to reach a rural Thai village, you start with a taxi-bus-truck. You wake up early on a typically sunny morning in Chiang Mai and catch a red local songtaew — a complicated-looking name for a truck with two rows of benches in the covered bed that functions as a public bus. Have your driver drop you off at the Akha Ama coffee shop, where you and twenty other people will crowd into two bright yellow, privately hired songtaews (pronounced “song-tow” – rhymes with “ow,” not “toe”) and drive north into Northern Thailand’s mountains.

After several weeks of travel and research, a whirlwind island romance, some jerks stealing my purse and everything important in it, and two nights crashed on my friend’s tiny couch, I arrived unprepared and exhausted at Akha Ama for the two-night Coffee Journey. The participants, roughly two-thirds foreign travelers and one-third Thais, sat sweaty thigh to sweaty thigh on the vinyl seats as we set off. Lee, the 25-year-old entrepreneur who founded Akha Ama, handed out motion sickness pills like candy. The back of the trucks had an outer low rack used for a step, a luggage rack, or, in Lee’s case, for extra passengers. He stood easily on the back, holding on to a rail with one hand while the truck whooshed up the highway.

Maejantai, Lee’s home village, sits up where an arm of Thailand stretches into a culturally shared space with northern Laos and Burma, as well as China’s Yunnan province. Even northern Vietnam almost gets a hand in there. Long the region of ethnic minorities, the mountainous area was coined Zomia by a historian in 2002. Willem van Shandel noted this region has historically stayed beyond the various government controls in the lowlands, and despite political boundaries many of the ethnic minorities still share languages, customs and cuisines.

Zomia is one of my favorite places on the planet. I’ve always been drawn to mountains and mountain people, and Zomia (feels like home-ia!), with its green mountains, red dirt roads and strong-backed locals carrying baskets of firewood on their backs, has consistently called me back. I feel a kinship with mountain people, even if I can’t really call myself one. I love the smells of wood smoke, the thin morning fog in the hills, and the steamy pleasure of a hot cup of green tea in chilly mountain air. It sounds like a cheesy Folgers’ commercial, but I really mean it.

The region is notoriously poor; the laws may have a harder time reaching hill tribes in this no-man’s land, but then so does the money.

Enter Lee. Lee is Akha, an ethnic minority that resides in Burma, Laos, Thailand and China (where the Chinese government classify them as Hani). Lee’s family straight up walked down from China several generations ago, and have been living in Maejantai ever since. Lee is the only person from his village to go to college. With his shiny black bowl cut, skinny jeans and broad, charming smile, Lee looks as urban as any 20-something Thai kid in Chiang Mai. But behind his typical Thai smile, Lee is seriously commited to pulling his village out of poverty by organically and sustainably growing the planet’s favorite upper: coffee.

Our yellow songtaews pulled up to a dirt parking lot in Chiang Rai, where five small 4×4 trucks were waiting for us in the shade of tall leafy trees. “Okay, we go!” Lee said, with a round-up motion of his arm. We climbed into the open beds and perched on the edges. From there we headed straight up into Chiang Rai’s surrounding mountains. The black, dirty trucks rumbled up impossible roads constructed mostly of mud, potholes and rutted red dirt; I felt like I was in a 4×4 commercial. The trucks kicked up a steam engine cloud of dust, so that everyone but those in the front truck was constantly doused with a gritty film of dirt.

I’ve always thought of myself as a good traveler, one who takes things in stride. I’ve found that broken-down buses, bad roads, hard-as-cement pillows and food poisoning are just part of the experience, and the experience is what I’m after. But after the previous two weeks, my resilience was down. I’m embarrassed to say that despite familiarity with tough car rides, trekking and uncomfortable sleeping situations, I had an ego-shatteringly rough time in Maejantai.

It took us two hours in those trucks to get to Lee’s village. Every time we hit a bump, there was a collective groan in the bed as our heads bobbed and our sit bones were pounded. I eventually stood up and held on to the bars over the cab, which allowed my knees to bend and absorb the bumps.

We arrived at the village around 5:30, just in time for sunset. A collection of wood homes high in the hills, Maejingtai is typical of villages in Zomia. Same look, same feel: soft rolling mountains, with tracks and red dirt roads popping through tall, green trees. The shady hillsides are a coffee plant’s happy place.

We had stopped for lunch at 11:30, and by 6 p.m. my blood sugar level was uncomfortably low and I was woozy from the ride. We stood around as Lee assigned host families and sleeping situations, directing participants to places like “the third house around that corner.” Lee’s own home was two stories — the ground floor was really just the foundation and used for storage, with chickens and dogs scratching around the dirt floor. Upstairs was an open room with mattresses lined along the wall. Sacks of coffee beans were piled in the corners. His mother and sister cooked outside behind the house.

As the sun sank behind the hills in a goodbye wave of tangerine, it got cold. We’d traveled in the open sunshine in t-shirts, but now we stood shivering and hungry. Lee directed me to my host’s house: a very small one-room shack with a packed dirt floor. A small kitchen area behind that room housed a smoky twig fire on the ground and in front was an oversized outhouse with a water hose attached to a propane tank.

My two roommates were cheerful Thai girls from Bangkok, one improbably pudgy. “Hello!” she boomed. They chatted with our hosts, an older, broad-faced couple with strong cheekbones and deep lines at their eyes. I wondered what their relationship was with Lee’s family and how they felt about Akha Ama and the burgeoning coffee venture. After showers in the exposed night air, the three of us walked up the hill to Lee’s home, where his sister and mother served us hot soup with greens, savory pork, and bowls full of fluffy yet sticky rice. We sat on the wood floor and leaned against the solid coffee sacks, then men outside on the porch and the women inside under a bare bulb that cast shadows behind the bulging bags.

One man, a coffee importer from Australia, brought his young Thai companion, a girl with braces and sparkly gold toenail polish. I wished I understood Thai; I felt uncomfortable with the idea that she might be hired, and wondered what Lee thought. I was curious about the dynamics; what did the meticulously made-up, high-class girl from Bangkok think of this coarse escort?

I left dinner early and walked down to my host’s home with my headlamp clamped to my forehead. I could see faint white lights coming from the clutter of homes I passed. When I walked in to my house, a crowd of villagers sat on the edge of the platform that held our mattresses. They huddled shoulder to shoulder, mostly men in long-sleeved shirts smoking cigarettes under a weakly blue light bulb. The center of attention was a small boxy TV with rabbit ears and a Thai soap opera on the screen.

We did the smile and nod routine, and shoulders parted to let me crawl up to my pillow where I’d stashed my small backpack. I pulled out my toothbrush and pajamas, and flapped out in my sandals to the bathroom.

I immediately regretted my choice of sleeping clothes: tiny jogging shorts and a tank top. Thais are pretty conservative with their clothes: your average Thai goes swimming fully dressed. And this was a rural mountain village. I thought about the handful of men in there, and how uncomfortable I was going to make everyone. Why hadn’t I considered my sleeping situation before I’d left the city? I knew better than to assume I’d have my own room, but I hadn’t given anything a thought.

I crossed my arms over my chest and scuffed back into the house, my toothbrush in one hand. Nods, smiles. Shoulders parted, shoulders rejoined, and I crawled into my bed and covered myself with a lumpy blanket, the TV audience at my feet. It was chilly, and I wondered when the blanket had been washed last – and I disgusted myself with these thoughts. I swallowed a melatonin, put in my earplugs and then read a book with my headlamp.


I love the sound of roosters in the morning, because their aggressive caw and weakly garbled finish always make me smile. Plus, I am always traveling when I hear them, so waking up to a rooster means I am waking up somewhere new and different.

I woke at sunrise, around 6 a.m., to roosters. My bunkmates cheerfully popped out of bed and showered, but I just waited my turn for the bathroom hut and changed into the same dusty clothes from the day before, trying not to get my pants and feet wet on the bathroom/shower floor.

I noted a funny twinge in my lower stomach but ignored it. Breakfast, on the wood floors of Lee’s home, was Thai omelets and rice, plus greens from the night before. The twinge got worse during breakfast, and I knew the signs of at bladder infection well enough to recognize I was in trouble.

I never travel without specific pain pills and antibiotics for my predictable UTIs. But again, I wasn’t thinking much before this trip. I made my way around the mingling group after breakfast, asking each Western woman, “Do you have any pain pills for a UTI?” No one did. Finally, I approached Angie, a young Thai women helping Lee out with the trip. I was about to cry, still tired from the journey and being uncomfortable with my surrounds.

Sweet, pixied, wide-smiled Angie! That girl jumped on it. While the rest of the group set off hiking to the coffee fields, she got Lee’s brother to drive me down the lumpy road to the next village in a rusty sedan. The village’s clinic was open-aired and dusty, and I squirmed in a plastic blue chair while Angie explained my symptoms in Thai. The doctor, a greying Thai man wearing frameless glasses and a faded button-down shirt, slowly dropped pastel pills into miniature plastic bags. He handed them to me and Angie explained.

“These ones for pain. These ones for antibiotics.”

The pain pills looked like basic Tylenol. I asked if they had any of the kind that make your pee turn orange. They didn’t. I didn’t trust the Tylenol but I didn’t have a choice – I just hoped the antibiotics would get to work right away. More than anything, I just wanted them to work so that I wouldn’t be THAT person — the high-needs girl hogging attention and resources. Also, I hoped Lee, whom I considered a friend in Chiang Mai, didn’t think I had an STD.

Lee’s brother, who didn’t speak any English but smiled a lot, drove Angie and through I Maejantai and along winding dirt roads to the coffee fields. No one made a big deal about my absence, and I blended right in, spending the rest of day picking coffee cherries under light clouds, the primal, berry-picking side of me taking over.

The rest of the weekend played out like the first 24 hours. It was chilly, I was tired, I wanted to cry, and I was ashamed and embarrassed at my discomfort. Here I’d thought I was a seasoned, tough traveler, yet I was struggling when everyone else on the trip seemed to be just fine. I felt privileged and snotty, and worried I was a voyeur. I wondered what Lee’s neighbors, many of whom bought into Akha Ama but several who hadn’t, thought of his venture and of him bringing outsiders twice a year to the village.

On the last day, we repeated our journey in reverse: down the mountains in 4x4s and into the yellow songtaews and the heat of the lowlands, as though Chiang Mai was sucking us back. I came home to the apartment I rented only the day before the journey, and fell happily into my large bed.



Cake is for eating

Posted in Travel, Uncategorized, Writing on November 28, 2012 by ilikemountains

You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d — you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction

before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart.

You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you;

What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,

You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands towards you.

                                             Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road, Verse 11

My job gets a lot of reactions – nobody ever hears what I do and then says something bland and polite. Not surprisingly, especially when I’m leaving for someplace exotic (and particularly if it’s during an Alaskan winter), I hear a lot of “you have my dream job – I’m so jealous.” I don’t necessarily correct people, because to be honest, I kind of like the ego boost. I don’t talk about economy class and overnight bus rides and food poisoning and bug bites and impossibly hard pillows. But the most thoughtful reactions are the ones from people who realize that travel writing is a job, and that there are drawbacks to what I do. Most obvious is the toll on personal relationships.

“You can’t have everything.” Someone said this to me in passing last night – a small piece of a larger conversation that was dropped nonchalantly. But it stayed with me and I heard it over and over again all night and this morning. “You can’t have everything.” I keep trying to make sense of that sentence: what does it mean? My first thought is to wonder what it is I want, and what I appear to want. In the context of the conversation, I wondered what it was the speaker thought I might be asking for that I couldn’t have. Outside the context, on a larger scale, it’s a sentiment that has been repeated to me in various forms over the past few years. Dating is interesting: many guys are enamored by my lifestyle, but I know they’ll make the same mistake my ex-husband did: assume that some day I’ll change. I know that these guys aren’t interested in me in the long haul, even though it might take them years to discover that. And when I mention this to my friends, there’s always the inevitable “have you thought about sticking around for a while? How do you expect to have a relationship when you’re always running off somewhere?” No one ever says, “have these dudes thought about dropping their careers and traveling with you? Have they considered changing jobs to make the relationship easier?” No, of course not.

“You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” This sentiment also gets passed on to me, the assumption being that my work and my relationships are mutually exclusive, and that I can’t have one if I have the other. As though it is preposterous to even try on my part to maintain what I’m good at and passionate about. As though my career is frivolous.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my was-band early on in our relationship. He’s a super talented artist, and he told me that woodworking is what gets him out of bed in the morning. “It’s the one thing I’m really good at,” he said. I felt kind of sad for a while – I couldn’t think of anything like that in my life. And then I realized: travel is what I’m good at. This was long before I was a travel writer, and so the discovery that what got me out of bed in the morning was the anticipation of a new culture, new food, and even the smell and energy of an airport seemed a bit tragic and wasteful. Teaching seemed to be the only logical way to use my graduate degree. But then, with surprisingly little effort on my part it seemed, I was a Lonely Planet writer. And it was a job that made perfect sense – until my marriage deteriorated.

The thing is, I tried to change. I thought for sure that being in a quiet place would quiet my mind as well, that I would fall into the rhythm of a schedule and routine and appreciate my simple life in my small town. Instead I found that the lack of stimulation and variety drove me crazy, especially during winter. Anchorage — and its international airport, and Asian grocery stores, and movie theaters, and places where you could buy pants — was over two hours away on a road where I totaled my car my first winter living in Seward.

There are people who are good at managing people, good at being moms, in love with crafting, don’t enjoy travel. They’re finding their places in the world, doing what they love and what they are good at. They have successful relationships. My friends are incredibly successful people that amaze me at their abilities to grow. Their lives are relatable, tangible, and many fall into categories that our culture understands. Me not so much. I’ve wanted so much to be like them, to WANT consistency, and to be able to reap the benefits of stability. I’ve spent many lonely nights in buggy hotel rooms typing on a slow, tiny netbook, thinking about how if I had a regular job I could have money for a Mac, and a gym membership so that I could fit into (and afford) sexy jeans, and an awesome, successful boyfriend. In this daydream I drink a lot of wine and go out to eat a lot and take weekend trips, because isn’t that what you do?

Thankfully, Thailand has offered me a new crop of girlfriends, ones who are more like me (and here I am not discounting my incredible lady friends back home). These ladies are single, smart, savvy, and successful (apologies for that horrible alliteration). Independent and motivated, they lead lives that I can understand. One of these friends pointed out recently that our lives are flexible to a degree that makes most of our back-home friends uncomfortable. I realized how true this was when my bank account went into the negatives yesterday. But that flexibility allows us a freedom that most people can’t understand, and I think that that freedom is the reason behind what we do.

I understand that by eating the cake, it means you can’t have it — it’s gone. So you truly can’t have your cake and eat it, too. But I can’t just sit and stare at it. I’m going to fucking devour it.

On being published

Posted in Travel, Uncategorized, Writing on October 4, 2011 by ilikemountains

Note: this is a piece I came across from early 2009, so it’s 2.5 years old. It was saved in my drafts queue, and I kind of liked it so thought I might as well publish it. Enjoy.

Alaska - coming soon to a store near you!

Alaska - coming soon to a store near you!

This year, I will have five books out there with my name listed as a contributing author. I haven’t seen any of them yet (though Pacific Northwest Trips is available for pre-order on Amazon – order your copy today!), and having them on the shelf is both a source of pride and anxiety. Why I’m proud is obvious – being a travel writer is a goal I methodically and passionately worked towards for several years. My anxiety is multi-faceted, but mainly it’s the the fact that now I’m out there for the world to see – and judge.

There was a moment on my Thailand research trip when I realized that as a traveler, I had sort of come full circle. The moment came when I was unceremoniously deposited from a local bus into the rain – one of those scenes where the bus doors hiss shut and the wheels toss muddy puddle water onto me and my luggage. I knew what town I was in, but had no idea where in this town I was.  I called the guesthouse I was supposed to stay at, but we couldn’t communicate so I shoved the phone at a Thai guy standing near me. He shouted into the phone for a few seconds, then handed it back to me. I gathered through the broken English on the other end that I should cross the street and someone would come to pick me up.

I wasn’t necessarily in a town, but a sort of highway stop on the outskirts. Everything was a rain-slicked cement shade of gray, and a giant pedestrian overpass loomed above. I sloshed across the highway, pulling my wheeled bag through the water, to a Thai-style tire shop (ramshackle, housed in what Americans would normally view as a large storage locker) and stood waiting for a few moments. Realizing I might be waiting more than just a few moments, I eventually took a seat at a small table.  I wasn’t worried or nervous or impatient; I had complete trust that someone would come to get me eventually. I knew that I stood out as I sat in the rain outside the tire shop, but Thais are notoriously friendly and polite, so we all just smiled at each other and then went about our business.

Flash back almost exactly ten years: here we have 21-year-old Catherine who has never traveled, and – sadly – has never really even rode the bus. With no real forethought to self-preservation, she’s embarked on a solo trip through Europe, and everything both delights and frightens her. The trip is marked with lots of crying (beginning with the sobbing breakdown upon landing at the Athens airport), but also the huge self-esteem boosts of figuring things out On Her Own.

But right now we see her in Germany, in a spa town called Baden Baden. Though she made a few friends at the hostel, she somehow lost her swimsuit at a hostel in Switzerland (don’t ask) and so can’t join her new friends at the non-naked baths. So she takes a bus to the clothing-optional baths, frolics around naked with a bunch of middle-aged German men (not as pervy as it sounds), then catches the return bus to her hostel. Throughout this trip, she’s relying blindly on her Western Europe Lonely Planet to tell her which bus to take, which spa to go to, etc. She hops the bus, but doesn’t realize it’s going the wrong way (how this happened, I have no idea. Blame it on the  heady elixir of being massaged while wrapped in a heated blanket at the end of her spa visit).  Eventually, the bus gets to the end of the line. It’s near midnight, and there’s no other passengers. The bus driver doesn’t speak English, but he makes it clear she is to get off the bus. She cries (as usual), and eventually he communicates that she should cross the street and wait.

So, at midnight on the outskirts of an unfamiliar town,  I did just that. And I sat on that curb and sobbed, wondering how the hell I was going get myself back to my hostel without being mugged. My only solace was that the bus I had disembarked sat across the street, the driver reading under the fluorescent light.

Twenty minutes later, the same bus makes a u-turn, picks me up, and resumes its route in the opposite direction. Why that driver made me cross the street and sit on the curb for twenty minutes I’ll never know, but I made it back to my hostel just fine.

So now I’m in Thailand, watching teenage boys fill tires while I wait in the rain for a ride. I can’t help but think of the symmetry of the two trips, the crossing and waiting, the not really knowing if a ride is coming, and the perfect time span of an exact decade. And as I mentally pat myself on the  back for becoming such a calm traveler, I have another realization: now I’m writing the guidebook.

That’s a lot of pressure, but thankfully I have the memory of 21-year-old Catherine and all her anxiety. Because of her, I know I’m going to make sure all the bus information is correct. Because, at 27, she had to hitchhike to a hospital in the middle of the night in Panjim, India, I’m going to make sure to find out where the hospitals and clinics are. I’m meant to do this job, and I know I can do it well.

Summer makes me crazy

Posted in Alaska, Travel, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , on July 29, 2011 by ilikemountains

I’m continually amazed by summer’s ability to both energize and exhaust me. It’s the same every year — just like with abundant daylight and and winter’s lack of sunlight, it’s something I always comment on even though it’s super consistent.

On overstimulating summer days like the one we had today (70 degrees!), I find myself daydreaming about fall harvests: canning, freezing, cooking, storing. I’m ready to pick berries already. I need that focus, the kind of primal attention that centers me. I need to stock up on salmon. I’m craving sleep.

There’s a possibility that I’ll be in Thailand for two months this fall, and while I’m excited about it, part of me wants that autumn period to quiet and calm down. Thailand is for late November and beyond, when I want to wear warm, humid air on my skin instead of an extra layer of wool long underwear. It’s hard to imagine jumping from an intense Alaskan summer to an intense tropical country.

I suppose most of this kind of mental craziness stems from my inability to be fully present in the moment: though I love it, I’m constantly thinking ahead (and also behind) to other seasons and times. Also, the kind of intense daydreaming and planning I dive into keeps me from getting very much work done. My house is a mess and I’m not where I want to be on my Lonely Planet write-up, yet I’m Googling canning recipes and thinking about buying 50lbs of tomatoes for sauce. I’m making self-improvement lists, forgetting that having a clean house and productive work life would probably improve a lot of things for me, particularly my stress level. But it’s not a coincidence that I’m choosing this moment to write a blog post after ignoring it for nearly three years.

On that note: back to work.

Korea’s Incheon Airport rocks my little world

Posted in Travel, Writing with tags , on January 29, 2009 by ilikemountains
My bed for 5 hours

My bed for 5 hours

Despite my best intentions over a six-week trip to Thailand, I wrote very little for personal reasons since I was writing a lot for business reasons. My detailed journaling stopped after about a week and a half, and I even stopped taking a lot of photographs with my crappy, blurry, out-of-date camera. Nevertheless, I kept track of things I wanted to write about, so following is one of those topics.

We all know that air travel can be a degrading, soul-sucking experience that can turn even the best travelers (me) into enraged, tantrum-throwing toddlers (me after my seatmate not only monopolizes the armrest, but also my personal space both with his elbow and his smelly farts).

I arrived in Seoul after such a twelve-hour flight, which was preceded by a wedding in Santa Barbara and not much sleep. I miscalculated some times – as usual – and what I thought was an eight-hour layover en route to Bangkok was actually twelve. I grabbed a blanket from my flight, preparing myself to find a corner somewhere and sack out on the hard floor. But as I plodded through the airport in silent pre-dawn, I immediately noticed that this airport seemed different from the chaotic mess of many travel hubs. Sure, it was early and therefore less crowded than usual. But it was also polished and clean, with some of the spic-n-span-iest Asian restrooms I’ve been privileged enough to sample.

I wandered into a large hall and saw a sign that read “Rest and Relaxation.” That sounded exactly like what I needed, so I followed the sign and took the escalator up to a small area furnished with leather cots. A few other travelers were sleeping, so I decided to look no further and passed out for a few hours. I should’ve kept going, as leather cots weren’t the best thing yet. After I woke up, I explored the floor a little further and found a clean and bright spa, complete with a shower room, massage chairs, and salon. Further on were tables and leather lounge chairs, with nearby outlets that I used for my laptop. Free wireless meant I could entertain myself with the Internet for as long as I wanted. Leather recliners looked out over the main hall, where shops like Burberry and Coach glam it up. There’s even a transit hotel – I didn’t look into prices but I wish I would have. Twelve hours is long enough to warrant a hotel room rental, especially when I’m traveling for work.

Though the airport is a bit sterile, there were still little memory cues that reminded me I was in Asia: despite air conditioning there was a slight humidity in the air. Every now and then I’d catch a familiar savory scent from a restaurant. Little clues like that got me excited for my upcoming trip; they were small, familiar sensory hints of what was to come.

I still can’t get over the fact that Incheon caters to travelers who are in transit. I mean, it’s not such a novel idea, yet this is the first airport where I haven’t spent a long layover either crashed out on the floor or wishing I practiced yoga as I tried to mold my body around the inconveniently-protruding armrests of the dirty seats at some departure gate.  I slept and worked – comfortably – free of charge for a whole 12 hours.  Plus, as I noted on my way back from Thailand (and therefore a 6-week-deep coffee deprivation), you can buy a decent Americano. There’s not much else I can ask for of an airport.

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

Posted in Alaska, Travel, Writing on June 20, 2008 by ilikemountains

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.