Big Lake, Alaska
Kathy Chapoton, 55, a newly retired schoolteacher, and her Swiss-born husband, Martin Buser, 50, live in a 3,000-square-foot, two-story house on a lot carved out of the forest in this unincorporated community of 3,500 in Alaska's Matanuska-Susitna Valley (Mat-Su, for short) just north of Wasilla, the now-famous home of Alaska's governor, Sarah Palin. With its open-plan spaciousness, its birch-laminate floors, its tasteful array of lived-in furniture and houseplants that bespeak middle-class comfort but not opulence, its large wood-framed windows that look out to vistas of towering spruce and birch trees, the Chapoton-Buser residence might appear at first glance as though it could be located in any woodsy large-lot suburb or second-home enclave in America: in Vermont, on the San Francisco peninsula, in the horse-filled exurbs of greater Washington, D.C.
Then you see the dogs. Some 80-odd sled dogs, each tethered by a long chain to its individual kennel, seem to occupy the entire middle distance between the triple-paned picture windows in the living room-dining room and the gorgeous landscape beyond. Some of the dogs look like lean, half-grown versions of the fluffy, blue-eyed Siberian huskies that are common pets in the lower 48 states, others like junior wolves. The compact sled dogs, weighing about 60 pounds on average, bear the generic name of Alaskan husky, but they're actually a variety of mixtures of northern canines including Siberians, malamutes, and whatever else will produce speed and endurance.
Martin Buser is an Alaska celebrity, a four-time winner of the Iditarod, the grueling late-winter Anchorage-to-Nome dogsled race. In 2002, he set a record by finishing the 1,150-odd miles in less than nine days and received his U.S. citizenship at the end of the race. A slender, blue-eyed, surprisingly youthful-looking man with a thick shock of brown hair, Buser is already training for the 2009 Iditarod this coming March. (His goal is to match the record of five-time Iditarod-winner Rick Swenson, set during the 1970s and 1980s.)
The 30 acres that Buser and his wife own in Big Lake are not only his home but also the site of his business, Happy Trails Kennel, where he raises, trains, and shows sled dogs, stages dry-land mushing demonstrations, and shares Iditarod lore with busloads of summertime tourists up from Anchorage. The dogs, some standing atop their kennels, some scrambling at the ends of their chains or skittering up and down exercise slides, were mesmerized by the sight of five humans sitting inside the house at the capacious Chapoton-Buser dining table and consuming a Sunday dinner of moose soup, Australian shiraz (purchased by me at the Fred Meyer hypermarket in Wasilla after an impromptu invitation), hot French bread, and homemade chocolate cake. The dogs were mostly silent--except when they were not. Their intermittent howls ranged from the high-pitched ululations of the contentedly fed to alarmed growls suggesting that some other needle-toothed critter, perhaps a fox, might be lurking in the Chapoton-Buser curtilage. Sled dogs are affectionate, and they warm to human companionship, but their perpetual craving for exercise makes them unsuitable as house pets. Chapoton and Buser have two dogs of conventional breed, a Jack Russell terrier and a dachshund that just had a litter of puppies.
The couple has known the Palins off and on for years. Palin's husband, Todd, once had a snow-machine repair shop in Big Lake. He and Buser became friends, and they share an identical number of victories in Alaskan big snow races (Todd Palin is a four-time winner of the Iron Dog, the 1,950-mile Wasilla-Nome-Fairbanks snow-machine race). Buser recently traveled with the Palins on the campaign trail in New England. The Buser sons, Nikolai and Rohn--now off attending the University of Washington and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute respectively--played hockey on the Wasilla High School team with the Palins' son Track.
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."
Another topic of conversation was the "End-of-the-Roaders," the Sixties types who, drawn by the state's libertarian ethos (until recently, possession of small quantities of marijuana was legal, and even now, the bars in Wasilla and some other Alaska towns stay open until 5 A.M.), drift northwards from Berkeley and Seattle and hole up in cabins amid the spruce trees hoping to find a far-northern hippie utopia. The quintessential End-of-the-Roader novel is T.C. Boyle's 2003 bestseller Drop City, about a busload of stoners who decamp from California to the banks of the Yukon River in 1970 and, both literally and figuratively, freeze to death. The signature End-of-the-Roader movie is Sean Penn's 2007 Into the Wild, narrating the real-life story of Christopher McCandless, a 24-year-old suburban Virginia idealist who wandered into the wilderness near Denali National Park without a map or compass, shot a moose but didn't know how to preserve the carcass, which promptly spoiled, and starved to death a quarter of a mile away from likely rescue. McCandless is romanticized by outsiders but not by Alaskans, "Yeah, after he killed the moose, he felt sorry for it," said Williams, shaking his head.
In numerous ways Chapoton and Buser have led lives parallel to the Palins'. Like Todd Palin, Buser used to spend summers as a commercial fisherman, trawling for salmon in the Cook Inlet off Anchorage. While the Palins named their 17-year-old daughter Bristol, after Bristol Bay on the Bering Sea where the Palins fished for salmon, Chapoton and Buser named their sons Nikolai and Rohn after checkpoints on the Iditarod trail. If Sarah Palin grew up in what was virtually a one-room house in Wasilla with a wood stove for heating and whatever the family shot and caught for food, Chapoton and Buser spent part of their own first six years together in Alaska living in a "tiny little cabin" (Chapoton's words) on their property and later in their 900-square-foot basement while they built the house above them, doing without running water, shooting their food, and relying on a wood stove for heating.
The first five acres of their land, on which the house is built, came free. In 1982 Chapoton, then employed as a social worker in Girdwood, a ski-resort town 38 miles south of Anchorage, got the parcel by driving up to Big Lake on a weekend and staking it out herself with tape and a compass, so as to qualify for a homestead-like state land giveaway program. (Of Alaska's 360 million acres, only 1 million are in private ownership, with the U.S. government, the state government, and corporate entities controlled by Alaska's Eskimo and Indian populations holding the rest.) Anyone could qualify who had the gumption to walk the boundaries and the desire to make a home on property lacking electricity, plumbing, sewage disposal, roads (the house now sits on a paved road, but back then you had to hike in), or even access to water. (The couple purchased the rest of their land from neighbors over the years.) Chapoton had come to Alaska on a lark after a friend who had moved there during the pipeline-construction boom of the 1970s talked her into pulling up stakes. She met Buser in the state land office where he was contesting, with some success, a rival bid to land he had staked-out farther north. He had sled-raced in Europe and came to Alaska in 1979 to learn about the more-developed Alaskan version of the sport.
A week later, Buser showed up looking for a job at the home for troubled young people where Chapoton was working. He got hired on as a house parent, and they soon became a couple. They married in 1983. (Chapoton, who was teaching in Anchorage by then, kept her maiden name because "Buser" rhymes with "loser," and she was afraid her sixth-graders would never stop snickering.) In 1987 they moved into the cabin on Chapoton's land in Big Lake, and Buser started training dogs. "We had to lug our water up from Anchorage," recalls Chapoton, who by this time was teaching school there. "We'd get it in five-gallon jersey jugs, fill up a 55-gallon drum, and then drive it up as close as we could get to the cabin in a pickup truck and move it into the house in five-gallon batches. Then we'd move out the empty drum."
That same year Chapoton became pregnant with Nikolai, and they learned that the state would be building a road alongside their cabin, too close for the sled-dogs. So they hastily cleared a second space in the spruce forest and dug a basement for a new home in a mere 50 days. They lived in the basement for two years because of Buser's build-in-the-summer, race-in-the-winter schedule. "There we were, the two of us, plus Nikolai and a one-and-a-half-year-old baby living in 900 square feet," says Chapoton. "We heated everything on a big wood stove that we kept burning all the time. We had electricity by then, but no running water and no indoor plumbing and little breathing room. Then we got running water, but only in a hose. Six months later Martin gave me a flush toilet for Christmas. Of course you'd have to pour in water from a five-gallon bucket to make it flush." The family bathed in a sawed-off 55-gallon drum. "We'd heat up the water on the stove, and first I'd get in and then Martin," said Chapoton. "It was okay for him, but I had to go to work so I had to be clean, which was hard when you're trying to get clean in a 55-gallon drum."
Such tales of subsistence living, which in the lower 48 states would be associated with extreme rural poverty or survivalist eccentricity--are not uncommon among Wasilla's prosperous middle class. Carol Kane, 65, a Big Lake neighbor of the Chapoton-Busers and former assistant school superintendent for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, lived with her husband in a 900-square-foot cabin without running water for several years while they built a bigger house. "We finally had a well drilled," she told me by telephone, "but it was pretty primitive for a while."
Kristan Cole, 46, owns a real estate business in Wasilla. She grew up around the corner from Sarah Palin and her parents during the 1970s, when Wasilla, originally built for the Alaska Railroad when it was hauling gold mined in the Talkeetna Mountains, had only 400 residents. Cole was born in Kansas, but the family moved to Alaska--five children in all--after her father got a job with the railroad when she was eight. "First we moved to Whittier--it's 30 miles south of Anchorage. I went to school in a two-room schoolhouse where there were nine kids in K through 12, and my family made up three of the nine. Then we moved to the valley in 1971. Back then Wasilla consisted of one country store and one gas station. The Parks Highway wasn't built, and it was a two-hour drive to Anchorage, so we ordered our school clothes from the Sears catalogue. Food was expensive, so we had a big garden, and we grew lots of vegetables, the kind that grow in cold climates: cabbage, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, onions," she said. "One year our family harvested 1,200 pounds of potatoes. Every year we'd get a moose or a caribou. We'd quarter it, and my dad would set up a meat grinder in the garage, and we'd grind the meat and freeze it. It's probably difficult for outsiders to understand, but at any given time we have a two-week food supply because you never know about the weather. We have to be prepared, not as much as we used to, of course. Now, it's a lot easier to buy food and there's a lot less of that, but a lot of people in Alaska still choose to fish for halibut or salmon and go hunting, because the meat has a lot less fat and it's a healthier way of life."
"I've got 200 pounds of halibut in the freezer," added Cole, mentioning that she put together two boxes of moose meat, reindeer sausage, halibut, and king salmon as an Alaska souvenir for Greta Van Susteren when the Fox newscaster was in Wasilla as part of the September press herd.
Dan Kennedy, 51, a certified public accountant, took me in his 1992 Chevy Blazer on an enthusiastic tour of economically mushrooming Wasilla. He showed me the row of shotguns (unloaded, he assured me) that his family (wife, also a CPA, and three teenagers) stored next to the boots and winter parkas in the mudroom of their lakefront house on the town's eastern edge. An avid outdoorsman who climbed Mt. McKinley on its difficult southern buttress, Kennedy admitted that he didn't get a moose this fall. "But my [16-year-old] daughter Rachel and I shot a couple of ducks from our porch yesterday, and we had them for dinner with merlot--delicious."
Not long after Sarah Palin's selection as the GOP's vice presidential nominee, Camille Paglia wrote an encomium to her in the web magazine Salon:
The gun-toting Sarah Palin is like Annie Oakley, a brash ambassador from America's pioneer past. She immediately reminded me of the frontier women of the Western states, which first granted women the right to vote after the Civil War--long before the federal amendment guaranteeing universal woman suffrage was passed in 1919. Frontier women faced the same harsh challenges and had to tackle the same chores as men did--which is why men could regard them as equals, unlike the genteel, corseted ladies of the Eastern seaboard, which fought granting women the vote right to the bitter end.
Paglia's comparison of Alaska to the frontier West is apt. Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Colorado, whose terrain resembles that of Alaska, were the first to enfranchise women. So is the comparison of Palin to Annie Oakley, the legendary female sharpshooter who could slice a playing card at the thin edge from 30 paces. Oakley, like Palin, was deeply religious and read the Bible daily. The self-confident, genially contemptuous song lyrics that Irving Berlin put into Oakley's mouth--"Anything you can do, I can do better / I can do anything better than you"--as she went up against her male sharpshooter competitors in Annie Get Your Gun, the 1946 musical based on her life, might well apply to Palin's bold forays into territories usually ruled by men, such as the Alaskan oil and gas commission.
Palin represents a uniquely American brand of feminism, rooted in the material hardships of frontier life which demanded women not only nourish and raise their children but also do men's work because there always was so much work to be done: clear the trees or help your husband on his fishing boat. It is a feminism that couldn't be more at odds with the relentlessly ideological post-1960s feminism that, paradoxically, presents women as weak and needy creatures, victims of men, who need collectivist boosts from the government in order to hold their own in a male-dominated world. Not surprisingly, Gloria Steinem, the doyenne of 1960s feminism, called Palin a tool of the "patriarchy" who had failed to make "life more fair for women everywhere."
In Alaska, there seems to be little room for perceptions of female weaknesses. The state's history abounds in stories of tough-minded women. Jean Dementi, a nurse, started running a hospital in Nenana, on the Tanana River, in 1953, after the doctor in charge walked off the job. There was no doctor anymore, so she started making the diagnoses. Or Mary Carey, another nurse and a graduate of the Yale School of Nursing, who married the famous trapper Fabian Carey in 1942 and spent three decades living with him in the woods near Manley Hot Springs, mushing alongside him to his traplines in the nearly perpetual darkness of the northern winters.
Alaskans even look different, comfortably casual in their outdoor clothes and contrasting with the Patagonia catalog victims who come up from the lower 48 wearing enough high-tech winter gear to last out a polar expedition. Alaskans really do spend a great deal of time outdoors, and the climate is serious, which weeds out those who can't take it. The winters along the coastline and even in Wasilla are relatively mild--by Alaska standards, which means that the temperature seldom dips below -20. That compares with, say, Fairbanks in Alaska's interior, where -40 is the wintry average and -60 not unknown. Winter starts early, too. By late September, the Mat-Su Valley is deep into fall, and snow is falling in Fairbanks. For maximum heat retention, the windows of Alaskan buildings, whether shacks in Fairbanks with their yard decorations of boats, scrap metal, woodpiles, and 55-gallon drums, or multistory office structures in downtown Anchorage, tend to be narrow and small, like slit-eyes peering into the cold.
Alaska is indescribably beautiful, with its royal blue skies and glistening snowy mountains, but the arboreal landscape looks dramatically alien. It is as though you woke up and found yourself transported to a harsher geologic age. It is hard for a visitor from the automobile-clogged Eastern Seaboard not to feel overwhelmed by the vast, forest-green swaths of emptiness and the almost vehicle-less roads.
Alaskans are quite aware that their state is like no other (they don't call it "the last frontier" for nothing). Several I talked to were eager to remind me that Alaska had practically no government of any kind from 1867 (the year of Seward's purchase) until it became a state in 1959 and that the vast bulk of Alaska's land still belongs outright to the federal government, which until recently invested almost nothing in highways or other infrastructure (one reason the Alaskans don't mind grabbing for earmarks, Bridge to Nowhere notwithstanding). They might be libertarians, but they approve of the state's quasi-socialist ownership of all subterranean oil, mineral, and gas rights (which translates into an annual royalty-like payment to each of the state's residents) and no state income or property taxes.
Many Alaskans also proudly engage in activities that are considered by many in the lower 48 to be cruel, dangerous, politically incorrect, or all three: gun-owning, hunting, trapping, riding around in snow machines. The Iditarod, for example, is anathema to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who say that sled-racing entails dog abuse. (I did see a P.E.T.A. bumper sticker in Alaska, but it spelled out the acronym as "People Eating Tasty Animals.") In August the Alaskan electorate voted down a ballot measure that would have banned aerial hunting of wolves (which is actually not as bad as it sounds--the hunters have to land their planes before shooting--and other mountainous states allow the practice as a form of predator control).
It is not surprising, then, that many Alaskans have a pragmatic attitude toward, say, drilling in the portion of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge that abuts the North Slope platforms, as Sarah Palin has urged. The alternative could be an economy increasingly based on tourism: waiting for the cruise ships to dock at quaint, pretty southern coastline towns such as Sitka or Homer or Ketchikan and dreaming up summer festivals--arts, jazz, whatever--designed to keep the visitors coming. It is equally unsurprising that numerous residents of the Mat-Su Valley find the distinctly un-quaint Wasilla that Sarah Palin helped bring into being to their liking.
"In all honesty, Wasilla never was much," said Judy Patrick, a photographer specializing in taking pictures of North Slope drilling sites. Patrick, a Southern California native, has lived in Wasilla since 1981 and served on the city council under Palin during the 1990s. "It was laid out by the railroad, and the lots were pitifully small and useless. Then you've got two lakes, the railroad itself, and a highway. There's not much you can do. It seems to be the Alaska way--one building here, then something else over there. You should see Barrow."
"There are 7,000 people living in Wasilla, but it services about 50,000," Dianne Keller, who succeeded Palin as the town's mayor, told me in an interview in her office. "Some people come from as far as Valdez." Wasilla collects a 2.5 percent sales tax from this activity that has enabled it nearly to eliminate property taxes and still take in about $30 million in revenue last year, including a small percentage of federal and state grants. Keller pointed out that Wasilla's nearest neighbor, Palmer, county seat of the Mat-Su Borough and boasting a historic district, boutiques, and Democrats (it was one of the few places in Alaska where I saw Obama bumper stickers), had vetoed a Wal-Mart. "That's all right with us," said Keller. "Their people just come over here to shop."
Such attitudes might be one reason Alaskans have consistently given Sarah Palin high approval ratings. Up in Big Lake, Kathy Chapoton gave another, something she had been thinking about since 1996, when a forest fire burned for a week, destroying 300 homes in the immediate area. The Forest Service had ordered all residents to evacuate, but Chapoton and Buser along with several neighbors defied the order and worked together to save their homes by hosing them down day and night. The electricity went out, and a friend rushed over a borrowed generator on his four-wheeler, chased by a state trooper. Buser had been a volunteer fireman, so he and another friend went over to a fire station and drove an unused fire truck through the station's locked door and up to the house.
"Everybody who stayed at their houses saved their houses," said Chapoton. "We knew [the Forest Service] couldn't protect us and said to ourselves all of a sudden, 'You've got to take care of yourself.' In Alaska, you've got to have a certain amount of self-reliance. You're on the road in the winter and you get stuck--you've got to get yourself out or you'll die. So you build up your self-confidence, and you feel good about what you do. You can take care of yourself. What Sarah stands for is less government and more self-reliance, more personal responsibility. If the government intervenes, it should be more helpful, and there should be less red tape. That's what I learned."
Charlotte Allen, a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute's Minding the Campus website, is writing her doctoral dissertation in medieval and Byzantine studies.