The Magazine

The Last Frontier

In Alaska, the folks are self-reliant and prefer to take care of things themselves. And they like Sarah Palin.

Oct 27, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 07 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Chapoton--a petite, rosy-cheeked, New Orleans-born woman who styles herself politically as "such a liberal" and a "bra-burner" during her college years who bought into every fish-needs-a-bicycle tenet of 1970s radical feminism--had paid little attention to Sarah Palin's career during the 1990s as a member of the Wasilla city council and then as mayor, despite numerous cordial meetings at school and community events. Then Palin in 2003, after running unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, was appointed to the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission by the incoming Republican governor, Frank Murkowski. She resigned a year later and filed conflict-of-interest charges against two prominent Alaskan Republicans. One, Rudy Ruedrich, now chairman of the state GOP's central committee, was alleged to have used his state office to conduct party business and to have worked closely with a firm he was supposed to be regulating. He resigned and paid a $12,000 fine. Gregg Renkes, a former state attorney general accused of having a conflict of interest in an oil-export trade agreement he was negotiating, also resigned. In 2006, Palin defeated Murkowski in the gubernatorial primary, paving the way for her election to Alaska's highest office later that year.

"That was pretty impressive," the New Orleans-born Chapoton said in a telephone interview afterwards about Palin's ethics-motivated forays against fellow Republicans while still a greenhorn in statewide Alaskan politics. "She was a woman, and she was new on the scene, but she did it, she took them on, and I started paying attention to her. I was a flower child--I had these peace and love attitudes in college--and my father was a union man, a welder, and no one in my family has ever voted anything except Democratic. This will be the first time in my life that I've voted for a Republican for president."

Chapoton's moose soup--actually a dense, savory stew that included barley and Alaska-grown carrots and peas--was as tasty as boeuf bourguignon. Moose meat, if properly dressed (that means dressed fast, according to Buser, who personally shot the animal we were consuming, promptly gutted it, quartered it for carrying--a moose typically weighs up to 1,200 pounds--and hauled it home), does not taste the slightest bit gamey, but rather, like a mild, extra-lean, and, when slowly braised as Chapoton's was, quite tender cut of beef.

At dinner we were joined by two young men, Sean Williams and Magnus Kaltenborn--the latter a Norwegian exchange student--who are helping Buser with training the dogs and building a second, smaller house on a high crest nearby where Chapoton and Buser want to move now that their sons are grown. The conversation turned to a popular topic in the Mat-Su Valley these days: the exotic folkways and strange attitudes of the East Coast reporters who descended in hordes in early September right after John McCain announced that Sarah Palin would be his running mate.

Typical news coverage of Wasilla, a 45-minute drive from Anchorage along the George Parks Highway, focused almost solely on what could be seen of the town while cruising at warp speed: gas stations, boarded-up strip malls from the 1970s, and the big-box stores that have clustered along the highway over the past decade thanks to property-tax reductions and infrastructure-investment during Palin's two terms as mayor. Besides the Fred Meyer, there is a Wal-Mart superstore, which in East Coast journalistic eyes is the American equivalent for tastelessness of the gold-plated 300-acre palace the Emperor Nero built for himself after he burned down Rome, and the Mug-Shot Saloon, a gray-painted wood-frame roadhouse that appeared in almost every Wasilla story in media outlets ranging from New York magazine to the Guardian to Le Figaro. The Mug-Shot features a "Go, Sarah, We Love You!" sign outside and barflies drinking their lunch inside. The news stories, slide shows, and video-clip voiceovers all seemed to express astonishment at the very existence of the Mug-Shot, as at Wasilla's firearms vendors, its four-wheelers, and the copious quantities of gravel (the town sits on a terminal moraine where an Ice Age glacier came to rest after pushing its way between the Talkeetna Mountains northeast of Wasilla and the Chugach range to the southeast, leaving behind numerous lakes and thousands of tons of rocks of every size).

Between mouthfuls of moose, Buser remarked, "A reporter asked me, 'Didn't I think it was strange that there's a gun store next door to the supermarket?' To me, it seems perfectly natural."