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.
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.
Nobody in Wasilla could possibly be a bigger fan of Palin, though, than Glenna Edwards, who has known the Palin family for many years. Edwards runs the Valley Medical Supply shop, where she sells $3.95 bumper stickers that say "McCain-Palin, Country First."
I never understood "Country First," I told Edwards. Is that the name of a bank that's sponsoring their campaign?
"It means take care of the country first, the people of the country. And do you know what I like about Sarah Palin?"
"What I love about her is that she's not a blueblood. She's not a regular politician, a Washington politician," said Edwards, who was just getting warmed up.
"What I really enjoy is that she's one of us -- a regular person, pretty, sweet, kind and all those things . . . and she will represent our country in a very good way. And I think we need to get back to nuts and bolts and I think that's what's going to happen."
Edwards said she believes, as does Palin, that creationism ought to be taught in schools along with evolution, and that Barack Obama must be stopped. And Edwards assured me that humans have nothing to do with climate change, a position her pal Sarah used to share but has backed away from in recent weeks, saying that "some of man's activities" are "potentially causing some of the changes in the climate right now."
She's doing her part for the McCain-Palin ticket by selling a $4.95 bumper sticker she and her husband designed, complete with a depiction of a blond who looks like a hooker to me. The sticker reads:
"I Thinc Im Gunna Vote Four Oboma Cuz Thems Hollywood Peoples Like Him."
There you go. I knew I should have turned back when that moose crossed my path.
But not everyone up here is ga-ga over Sarah. Phil Munger, a music teacher and composer who lives on the outskirts of town, told me she's not the sweet person Glenna Edwards described. As for her image as an anti-corruption crusader, Munger said she's much more apt to get rid of anyone who crosses her.
Munger, who writes the Progressive Alaska blog, told me Palin is not just a creationist, but a "young Earth" creationist who believes that man and dinosaurs once shared the planet, and that the world will end in her lifetime.
Palin-tology, you might call it.
Munger claims she tried to stock the local school board with creationists several years ago, which caused him to quiz her on her beliefs.
"She doesn't believe in science, and her father was a science teacher," Munger said. "She told me she felt she would see Jesus in her lifetime."
If true, that's a little scary. But no more so than her view that a woman who's pregnant because of a rape shouldn't be allowed to have an abortion, or that the Iraq war is "a task that is from God." And you have to wonder if Jesus would have sued the federal government to have polar bears removed from the endangered species list.
But as I slogged through heavy traffic on my way out of Wasilla, assaulted by one eyesore development after another, I had an even more critical question for voters:
Can anyone feel good about supporting a vice presidential candidate who ruled a town with worse municipal planning than we have in Los Angeles?
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.
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