“I doubt it,” says one of the original Mat-Su homesteaders. “The people here had a chance to have the Parks Highway bypass the town. But they wanted it. They were hungry, they needed the business. That’s the classic dilemma in a place like Wasilla. You don’t really want to be like the Lower 48, that’s why you live in Alaska. I’m sure Sarah thinks downtown Wasilla is a good compromise. She probably drives down the Parks Highway and thinks it is a triumph because it looks like the rest of the country.”
For many, this “mainstreaming” has been key to Palin’s move up the ladder. “The last thing she ever wanted to be was a townie, you know, Valley Trash,” says one local, referring to the phrase once infamously used by Ben Stevens, son of Senator Ted, to denigrate the Mat-Su demographic. There is a reason, after all, the biggest belly laugh Tina Fey got from Wasillans was when she described Palin as the former mayor of the “Alaska’s crystal-meth capital of the world.”
You don’t have to look hard to find the Trash. Just drive over to where the lost souls hang around the public showers ($3.50 per twelve minutes, clean towel 75 cents extra) in Meadow Lakes, a.k.a. Ghetto Lakes, west of Wasilla. Get a gander at the browned-out dentition and know those boys have been cooking the nastier white lightning. One such individual was inside the shower waiting room staring blankly at the TV bolted to the wall. Sarah Palin was on, being interviewed by Sean Hannity. Asked what he thought of Palin, the meth fiend said, “Who?”
The Mat-Su is a key contributor to the distressing statistics that put Alaska near the top of the nation, per capita, in cases of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, drug abuse, and alcoholism. All those Joe Six-Pack virtues. Last year, a couple of Wasilla young people, Kendra Grace Butts and Amber Marie Martin, were indicted for robbing some little kids of their Halloween candy at gunpoint. They could be looking at seven years apiece.
It gets sad. Up the Wasilla-Fishhook Road, I ran into a girl about 12 wearing a T-shirt reading I MIGHT BE CUTE BUT I’M SMART TOO.
My companion knew her family. “How’s your grandfather?” my friend asked. “He’s in jail,” the girl replied, evenly. “Oh. Sorry.” Hearing this, the girl looked up with a flash of anger. “Don’t be sorry,” she said. “What he did was wrong. I hope he never gets out.” She didn’t specify what crime the grandfather had committed, but the edge in the girl’s voice was unmistakable. My friend and I rode home in silence.
One of the prime complaints against Palin’s performance as governor has been her steadfast cutting of most social programs. Many in the large Native population feel she has ignored their issues. Instead, the governor offers “prayer.”
Luckily, there are many churches in Wasilla. Google lists 766 houses of worship in the general area. No Wasilla church, however, has gotten the attention of the Wasilla Assembly of God church on Riley Avenue, where Sarah Palin was first “saved.” Palin attended the church for more than a decade and makes no secret that she’s been heavily influenced by the teachings of Pastor Ed Kalnins, a Mac Davis–coiffed “pre-millennialist” with a gung ho attitude toward the end of days who once reputedly claimed a vote for John Kerry was a one-way ticket to damnation. It was at the Wasilla Assembly of God that Palin, as documented on a much-watched YouTube video, received a preventive exorcism against the sins of witchcraft from a Kenyan Pentecostal pastor, Bishop Thomas Muthee.
I drove over to catch the usual Assembly of God modern megachurch production: the junior league light show, the overloud ten-piece electric band doing six-part harmony covers of Christian-rock power ballads (one, “History Maker”—“I’m gonna be a History Maker in this land!”—had the Palin vibe). But this stay was short-lived. Already “burned” by members of the secular-humanist horde, Pastor Kalnins had banned press coverage. Denied an opportunity to speak with Bishop Muthee, I was given a souvenir coffee cup and told to leave.
A wholly other experience was offered at the Wasilla Bible Church, where Todd and Sarah Palin currently worship. The congregation sits on lines of folding chairs in a cavernous airplane hangar–like room adorned by a single wooden cross attached to the wall behind the pulpit. Music is provided by a chamber-music-style ensemble: violin, cello, piano, and guitar. There are no power ballads, just hymns and “Amazing Grace.” The pastor, Larry Kroon, speaks in a low-key, almost professorial manner. For a moment, you could imagine yourself among Unitarians.