September 26, 2010 in Travel

Wasilla, Alaska, embraces tourist draw created by Palin

Becky Bohrer Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

The home of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on Lake Lucille in Wasilla, Alaska, is shown in 2008.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

JUNEAU, Alaska – Anyone who doubts Sarah Palin’s celebrity need only talk to Lyn Carden.

As head of Wasilla, Alaska’s chamber of commerce, Carden tends to be the front line for tourists wanting to see Palin, perhaps even grab a cup of coffee at her house. And she’s heard it all.

When Palin makes news, or carries a snazzy purse women want to buy, Carden invariably gets a call, or flurry of calls. Some callers have left credit card information, hoping to get that purse. Others send fan mail, or money for Palin’s political action committee.

Then there are those who just stop in, hoping for directions to her house – which they do not get – or eager to learn as much as they can about Wasilla’s most famous resident. Many snap a photo of themselves with Palin’s cardboard cutout.

“Of course, every single question is about her and where she is and where she gets her hair done and what she eats and what she’s doing,” Carden said.

A year after Palin’s abrupt resignation as governor, interest in her and the small Alaska town she put on the map hasn’t gone away. While it’s not at the fever pitch it reached during Palin’s run for vice president, there remains a steady stream of pilgrims. At least one tour company builds old Palin haunts into a trip that includes a musk ox farm visit.

Some in Wasilla don’t see what the big deal is. To them, Palin’s just a local-girl-made-good, a former mayor and current resident who hits her favorite running trails when she’s in town and runs her own errands, seen at the Fred Meyer, gas station or library, dressed down, without immaculate hair and makeup.

But she’s also one of the most popular, and polarizing, political figures in America – revered by supporters as a God-fearing Everywoman, who fights for what she believes in, and derided by critics as a political lightweight and quitter.

“There’s no gray area,” Carden said.

There’s also no denying the fascination with her.

John Coale, who’s no stranger to celebrity – he’s married to Fox News’ Greta Van Sustern and considers the Clintons friends – recalls a scene in Boston earlier this year when he took Palin and her husband, Todd, to a pastry shop.

Within “seconds,” he said, people started asking for photos, and seemingly out of nowhere, a crowd of almost 100 amassed outside. It took about 45 minutes to get through, he said, with Palin stopping for autographs and photos, never complaining or acting a diva.

“It was like being with a Beatle,” said Coale, who set up Palin’s political action committee.

In Juneau – the state capital where Palin spent as little time as possible while governor, preferring to stay nearer home and work out of Anchorage – the occasional tourist will still ask about her on tours of the Capitol or visits to the governor’s mansion.

Just the fact she once occupied the mansion was sufficient for Julie Pitre and Lucille Godin to hike Juneau’s hamstring-working hills for a quick perusal of the stately home’s grounds.

“It looks more like a family (home) than a big government mansion,” declared Godin, of New Brunswick, Canada.

“She had a beautiful yard,” Pitre added, camera around her neck.

Back in Wasilla, there aren’t many typical tourist-type places. But many die-hards, well-versed in all things Palin, already have an idea of where they want to go, Carden said.

For those who don’t, there are guides like Barbara Adams.

Adams generally drives between 12 and 24 tourists a week around town, stopping at places like city hall, Palin’s old high school, the house she grew up in and her current home – from a respectful distance, across Lake Lucille.

“If someone’s famous where I visit, I like to see a little bit about that person,” Adams said. “There are some politicans or famous people I don’t like but if they’re buried somewhere or something, I’d like to see it.”

The Palin stops are part of a larger trip Adams’ guiding business offers for $199, and she makes them as brief – or detailed – as her customers demand.

Many visitors, she notes, are more interested in the train ride, sled dogs or other wildlife that are also part of the trip. But everyone – and she’s had people from as far away as Australia, Israel, Singapore and Taiwan in her van – knows who Sarah Palin is.

Carden and others say the attention Palin continues to bring to Wasilla has been good for local businesses, and Alaska in general.

The Mocha Moose is one beneficary. The coffee shop sells Palin paraphernalia: sweatshirts, buttons, bumper stickers and T-shirts, with slogans like “Wasilla, Alaska, where men are men and women are vice president” and “Don’t blame me, I voted for Palin.”

It has the added distinction of being a place Palin frequents when she’s in town, owner Ben Harrell said. Her usual: “90 percent of the time, a skinny white chocolate mocha.”

“Financially, yes, she helped me, or the whole thing helped me,” he said, adding: “I don’t know if it’s called excitement or what it is, but it’s still there. She stirs the pot.”

And love her or hate her, Wasilla Mayor Verne Rupright believes she’s done a lot for Alaska’s image.

Now, people know where Wasilla is, he said. And with the lake and mountains often serving as a backdrop for filming or live shots Palin does for Fox News, where she’s a contributor, people get a different view of the Last Frontier.

“That kind of exposure,” he said, “how can that hurt?”

Associated Press reporter Mark Thiessen contributed to this story from Wasilla.

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