After spending the morning hanging out in Anchorage with my friend, Susanne, we loaded up the rental car to head to Denali National Park, via Wasilla and Talkeetna. We were meeting up with Frank’s stepmom, Chris, and her sister Ruth and Ruth’s husband, Ralph, for a day tour of the national park. The trip from Anchorage to Denali is about 250 miles on the two-lane Parks Highway. The Highway (Alaska 3), runs right through Wasilla, the town most famous for being the headquarters of the Iditarod and hometown of Sarah Palin.
Longtime readers of this blog know that I am not a Palin fan, but I was curious to see what exactly was in Wasilla, perhaps looking for some explanation for why Palin is so unique. Susanne warned us in advance that there is not much to see in Wasilla.
We made it to Wasilla in about an hour, and what the town lacks in architectural charm, it makes up for in spades by the surrounding natural beauty. Ringed by dramatic black, snow-streaked mountains, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the town seems like one endless strip mall along the highway. I spotted the ubiquitous Dairy Queen, hallmark of small town America. I grew up in an Ohio town of 5,000 people that had exactly one grocery store and a Dairy Queen. We thought we had really arrived when we finally got McDonald’s.
I tweeted that we planned to visit the WalMart there, under the “When in Rome…” theory of travel.We didn’t venture off the main road, but didn’t see a Walmart anywhere. Susanne had recommended Carr’s grocery store for provisions, so we stopped there to load up the car with various snack foods and drinks. Oddly enough, everything inside looked exactly like our Safeway back home, including the grocery bags with “Safeway” stamped on them. Susanne later explained to us that Safeway bought out Carr’s some time ago, but the Carr’s name was so well established as the Alaskan grocery that they decided to leave well enough alone and keep the stores branded as Carrs on the outside.
Wasilla seemed to be similar to small towns all over the US, whether in Ohio or Texas or California. It seemed a little funny to me that with a population of 7,000 would be fourth largest city in Alaska. I wish I could say that there was something special or unique about the town. Unfortunately, other than the super-friendly people we met in the grocery store, it was completely devoid of charm. Even my humble little town in Ohio had a sort of atavistic, Mayberry-esque small town feel to it, but this place just seemed on the verge of having throngs of marauding biker gangs descending like flies on moose carcass at any second.
Wasilla’s first claim to fame, long before Palin’s blaze of self-aggrandized glory, is that Wasilla is considered the home of the Iditarod, a 1,000 mile dogsled race from Anchorage to Nome that takes place in March each year. The ceremonial start goes down Fourth Street in Anchorage, but restarts outside of Anchorage due to terrain and weather conditions. The Iditarod Trail Committee makes it’s home in Wasilla, and for a number of years, Wasilla was the official restart location of the race. The restart is now in Willow Lake.
I think I first heard of the Iditarod in the 1980’s, when the first women won the race. It seemed like an amazing feat of endurance for both the dogs and the mushers. After my single experience zipping around a lake on a dogsled in Canada, I know those dogs can really go at some amazing speeds.
We saw signs along the highway advertising the Alaska Museum of Transportation & Industry, but since we were in a hurry to get to Denali before midnight, we opted to carry on. On the way back, curiosity got the best of Frank and he decided to veer off the highway in search of the Museum. Alex has a great love for airplanes and trains, and this seemed like a place he would enjoy.
Thankfully (for me, at least), the place was closed when we arrived, but we could see plenty from the driveway up. Enough for me to know that this was not my kind of museum. Call me a snob, but a bunch of old rusty tractors, helicopters, and other farm equipment does not scream “museum” to me; more like “junkyard with paid admission” or better yet, “attractive nuisance that my kid would find irresistible and cause him to wind up in the emergency room.”
During the election, Sarah Palin made a point of sucking up to small towns, saying that it is where “real Americans” live. I have no doubt that “real Americans” live in Wasilla, and in the town where I grew up in Ohio, and in small towns and hamlets across the United States. What I object to is the implied notion that “real Americans” don’t live near the beach in Hawaii or high-rises in the Bronx or on Castro Street in San Francisco. We are all fortunate to live in America, to be able to enjoy the diversity of people and landscapes and experiences that we are able to have. What I know is that if you want to go looking for the “real America” you need not look any further than your own backyard.