BY SUSAN KRAUS (2010)
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon here in Alaska and I decided to go look for Sarah Palin. I like Alaska and she really likes Alaska and I figure that gives us something in common. As long as we don’t talk politics, we should be fine. But glaciers, Denali, vast wilderness, waterfalls and fjords, bears and moose and eagles, salmon rushing upstream, land of such beauty that your eyes hurt… I know we can bond over Alaska. I want to know what she loves most and what she wants others to understand and appreciate about her state.
I headed up the highway towards Wasilla. It’s one of the few stretches of road in Alaska that is multi-lane. While the state is larger than 1/5th of the total lower 48 (or “Down South” as Alaskans say) there are fewer roads than Rhode Island. Only about 30-35 % of the roads are paved; the rest are gravel and dirt. The Alaska Marine Highway system (translation: ferries) connects many smaller cities along the southeast coast that cannot be reached by roads or trains. Much of Alaska can only be accessed by plane or boat.
Anyway, the highway to Wasilla is the best in the state. It’s six lanes wide in parts, so when Anchorage empties out at 5 p.m. there is room for everyone to drive north… and then back again in the morning. In recent years, Wasilla has become a popular bedroom community for folks who work in Anchorage.
The drive is lovely, as towering mountains open to the Mat-Su, which is the abridged name for the Matanuska and Susitna valleys, a sweeping bread-basket that is not covered by the pervasive forest. Rich soil, long-long days of summer sunlight, and cool evenings make vegetables grow so fast you can measure them every morning.
It was a quick 40 minutes to the “Welcome to Wasilla” sign. I stayed on the highway, looking for an arrow to direct me to downtown. I tried a ‘Main Street’ but it wasn’t. The sign in front of the UPS store read “We Ship Fish.” A mile or so later the road narrowed to two lanes as I passed the building supplies and large farm implement dealers. Then a sign: “Fairbanks 309 miles.”
I did a U-turn, and drove back, eyes peeled. No luck. So I pulled up to one of the ubiquitous drive-up coffee stands (way, way independent… so not Starbucks) to inquire.
“Hey,” I asked the smiling young barista who leaned out the window, “I don’t drink coffee anymore but can you tell me where the downtown is… you know, where you can park and walk around?” She looked thoughtful for a minute, then yelled back into the shed. “Lonnie… is there, like, a downtown here?” She listened to the mumbled response.
“Sorry, ma’am, but there isn’t one. The strip mall as you come into town is the biggest, and it has, like, these fronts to make it look like frontier-like, so that would be a place to park.” She smiled, factually, without apology.
“No downtown?” I asked again. “No historic center?”
“No, ma’am, just the strip malls.”
“Could I get a plain tea, please?” I felt guilty getting all this guidance without reciprocating.
She nodded, and disappeared behind the window.
Sure enough, there was a bigger strip mall as you came into town that I’d overlooked in my search for ‘downtown.’ It had some faux-frontier or gold-rush theme. I was going to park and walk around, but then I spotted what looked like a classic lodge, with tiered decks, across a pretty lake. I pulled a sharp left. One of the joys of traveling solo is that you can change your plans… or direction… in a nano-second without having to consult anyone.
I drove, making right turns, hoping I would eventually come out by the lodge. I passed a huge, warehouse looking building, painted gray with red trim. Wasilla High School. Another few blocks and I saw a sign: Mat-Su Lodge, Under New Management. Driving down the hill I heard loud music. Live music. “Oh good,” I thought, “some authentic Alaskan entertainment.”
I followed the music to a side door and found myself in a big bar, with at least a hundred people standing around, drinking and eating, the band rocking out. Food was laid out buffet-style. Everyone had a beer in hand.
“Wow,” I thought. “For a Sunday afternoon, these Alaskans sure know how to party.”
I walked through the bar, looked out the big picture windows to take in the view, strolled out on the spacious deck, then came back in to look for a waitress.
Not a one in sight.
“Have you seen a waitress?” I asked a girl standing by the food line.
“No, “ she replied. “ I don’t think there are any.”
That’s weird, I thought.
It was just then that I actually read the poster on the wall behind her back. “Celebration of Life,” it read. Then today’s date. “Join us in remembering….” was as far as I got.
“How did you know Joe?” the girl asked, picking her head up. I saw her red-rimmed eyes.
“Hey, I’ll be right back,” I said. “Gotta make a quick bathroom run.” Which was not all lie.
I don’t know who Joe was, or how he died, but he was young, and, from his poster-picture, sort of a hunk, and he had a lot of friends. Having crashed an Alaska-style memorial service, I figured it was maybe time to get back on track…. the search for Sarah Palin. But the smell of all that food had made me hungry, and it was almost supper-time.
I cruised the strip malls for an appealing restaurant, but it was hard to tell from the outside. A Mexican place had a full parking lot but I wasn’t in the mood. Then I spotted one. Piccolino’s. Greek and Italian. Upscale strip-mall.
An hour later, satisfied by a tasty Greek salad, cheesy breadsticks and a perfectly grilled piece of halibut, I decided to call it a day. I’d read the classifieds while eating (always a good way to get the feel of a place) and learned that when a cabin is advertised as ‘Dry’ it does not refer to the state of the basement but means it has no running water. And I’d gathered some useful search info… Sarah lives on another lake, not the one I’d circled, and I now maybe knew which road to take to find the lake. I was supposed to turn at the sign for the Best Western, then angle back for a ways. I’m not sure what “a ways” means in Alaska, but I assume it is a lot longer than “a ways” in the lower 48. Plus it’s a big lake, and I had no idea how to scout except drive mailbox-to-mailbox looking for “Palin.”
Driving back down the biggest highway in Alaska towards Anchorage, I reflected that perhaps I need a better strategy. Even if I find the mailbox, it’s not like I can just walk up and ring the bell and say “Hi. Do you have about 15 minutes to talk to me? I want to know what you love best about Alaska.”
Or maybe it is that simple.
This is, after all, Alaska.