Into the wild of Wasilla, Alaska, where Sarah Palin once ruled

Fast-food joints, a gun store and strip malls -- they call this 'downtown'? Wasilla's sprawling, poorly planned developments are almost as scary as its former mayor's doctrine of Palin-tology.

WASILLA, ALASKA

I almost ran into a moose on the way to Sarah Palin's hometown.

There I was, headed up the highway out of Anchorage, when suddenly drivers were slamming on their brakes as Bullwinkle humped across the road.

At the airport I'd asked for a mid-size car, and they gave me an SUV. Now it was becoming clear why: A Camry wouldn't have a fighting chance against a moose.

Maybe it was a sign that I wasn't welcome in Palin country and should go back home to California. But just six years after she was mayor of Wasilla, a town of fewer than 10,000 residents, Palin could become vice president of the United States. I wanted to get a better sense of her by seeing the place that launched her onto the world stage.

The scenery on the drive to Wasilla is stunning, with jagged snow-capped peaks and dense birch forests. But if you travel this way, do not make the mistake of thinking you're about to enter a quaint mountain village.

Some towns have character. Some have a sense of place.

And then there is Wasilla, which greets visitors with Wal-mart, Target, Lowe's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Carl's Jr., McDonald's and Taco Bell.

They paved paradise, and all they've got to show for it is chalupas and discount tube socks.

I thought I'd found the town center when I came upon a row of frontier-style buildings, but it was just a Knott's Berry Farm-style facade housing a Señor Taco, among other establishments. Up at the next intersection of strip malls, I found a Chimo Guns shop across from a store offering 15% off of home-schooling supplies.

Sure, every town in the United States has its big-box stores, strip malls, fast-food joints and sprawling churches. But Wasilla seems to have little else.

I pulled into a strip mall parking lot with a giant "Congratulations Sarah" sign on a storefront and asked a woman for help.

"Ma'am, can you direct me to Main Street?"

"This is Main Street," she said.

"Well, where is the center of town?"

"This is downtown Wasilla," she said.

I expected better, Sarah. I really did.

Verne Rupright's law office is also on Main Street. He used to be a planning commissioner -- a position I'm not sure I'd admit to, having seen this place. Now he is one of five people running for mayor, a job with more cachet since it's become a steppingstone to bigger and better things.

Rupright admits the "downtown" area is no model city, with too much traffic and no real center. He'd like to fix that, he said, and the city sewer system is a mess too.

But don't blame Palin, he said, calling her a good mayor and a smart cookie. The town just grew too fast.

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