Sarah Palin’s Drive-Thru Alaska

One November morning, several years ago, I set out from Anchorage, Alaska heading north to a place where I heard I could catch a glimpse of Mount McKinley.  In late autumn in Alaska dawn breaks mid-morning and on that particular day its weak rays offered nothing more than a feeble fluorescent glow through heavy clouds.  The sky buried the mountains in featureless gray pressing down on a scabby landscape the color of mud.  It wanted to rain.

To get out of Anchorage, to head north, you must pass through Wasilla, that Wasilla, Sarah Palin’s hometown.  I remember it as a smear of tin buildings and soulless strip malls strewn along the highway across open ditches.  The franchise fast food and gas stations were interleaved with brambly thickets of stunted trees.  Decaying cars marked the entrances to dirt tracks tunneling into the marshy brush.

Sarah Palin had proclaimed the city “open for business,” cheering on the corporate big-box economy and fueling indiscriminate growth.  Driving through Wasilla these days, a town of about eight thousand, you’ll pass two McDonalds, a Burger King, a Wendy’s, an Arby’s, Taco Bell, KFC, Carl’s Jr., Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen, IHOP and five Subway Sandwiches.  There’s a Wal-Mart, and a Target just completed, and a place lined out on the city wish list for a Costco.

They say that the views from Wasilla are spectacular—views that were shrouded by clouds the day I passed through.  These views redeem the city, they’ll tell you, and justify anyone wanting to settle there.  But seen as I saw it, manmade, without the god-given backdrop, Wasilla is characterless, lacking any sense of place.  Besides, Alaska is a state where spectacular vistas are commonplace, and seen without its view, Wasilla could be anywhere in rural America, indistinguishable from any other wide spot in the road where traffic slows, or stops to get gas or a drive-through burger.  Palin and the media has spun the town as quintessentially America, the archetypical small town.  And perhaps it is—but that is a comment on the sad state of rural America, not a recommendation for soulless suburban sprawl.

Dusk comes early up there in November and as the frail light dimmed that day the clouds turned to rain.  There was no view of Denali. 

I turned around at the northern end of the valley, at Talkeetna, a bustling wooden town with buckboard sidewalks and narrow planks crossing the streets turned by the rain into a wallow of mud.  People chatted around the wood-burning stove in the old general store.  There is really nothing else to do in Talkeetna that time of year; it’s cold and dreary, there’s no Wal-Mart or Blockbuster Video, and you have to trek the seventy miles to Wasilla if you want fast food.  I had no reason to stay but I didn’t want to leave. 

It was dark when I reached Wasilla on my way back to Anchorage.  I stopped for gas then passed on through.

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