The new Vanity Fair Sarah Palin profile is enthralling: rage-fueled breakdowns, domestic violence (is there a battered spouse center for First Dudes?) and Madoff-worthy financial manipulation. Equally fascinating is the climate of fear and confusion that Michael Joseph Gross discovered in Wasilla, where townspeople are terrified of discussing their former mayor/governor, and deeply uncomfortable with the world-famous media creation that she has become. “To appreciate how alien Palin has become in Wasilla, how inscrutable to her own people, you have to wrap your mind around the fact that Sarah Palin is more famous than any other Alaskan, ever,” Gross writes. “It still does not quite seem real to most Alaskans that there are all these thousands of people in the Lower 48 turning out for … Sarah.”
But if they want surreal, they should travel to the Lower 48. Because it’s not until you leave Alaska that you realize it no longer exists – only Sarah Palin exists.
Born and raised in Anchorage, I caught rainbow trout before learning multiplication tables; I camped outside in the middle of winter with my Cub Scout troop; and I once heroically saved my dog (a friendly 135-pound Newfoundland) from an (unfriendly 1,000-or-so-pound) moose. It wasn’t strange to me that the sun barely set half the year and barely rose half the year, or that enormous snow-capped mountains surrounded our cityscape-it’s just how the world looked. But at college in D.C. I’d get asked every day, as if I were from some exotic fantasy land: “Did you mush dogs instead of driving a car?” “Did your family live in an igloo?” “Did you have a pet polar bear?”
No, no, and no, but I loved these asinine, naive, wonderful questions. Saying “I’m from Alaska” was the best conversation starter imaginable, and on countless occasions instantly made me the most interesting person in the room unless there was someone around from, like, Tanzania. (Fun factoid: Jewel used to yodel in the hallways of my high school.)
But it was never the same after August 29, 2008. As soon as John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his VP candidate, suddenly no one asked about months of darkness or snowboarding to school-only about her. Whenever I boasted of my birthplace to new acquaintances, expecting to become the glorious center of attention yet again, I instead became some random guy indistinguishably whining about politics. Nobody cared anymore. And to this day, nobody cares-it’s been two years since anyone asked about gearshifts on dogsleds. Like it or not, America’s most hideous politician has ruined America’s most beautiful state.
Palin doesn’t merely represent the Alaskan archetype in the national consciousness; she is Alaska. The rest of us are stars in her constellation, fish in her sea, decapitated trophies mounted on her cabin wall. I’ll always be proud of my homeland, but if I reveal this to strangers I get snide, collective punishment responses such as “I hate your state!” (Seriously… maybe I should spend more time in Real America instead of at NYC media cocktail hours?) Whereas Alaska used to enter my every conversation, I now rarely bring it up-if I’ve had enough whiskey and someone asks, I’ll grimace and mutter “Palin country.”
But as much as I’d like to avoid the subject, I’m probably stuck with it forever. Recently, while I had my hair cut in the East Village, the immigrant barber asked where I’m from.
“Alaska?” he replied in a thick Russian accent. “I used to see it from my house.”
Marty Beckerman is the author of Generation S.L.U.T. and Dumbocracy, and online features editor at Esquire.
Photo by asecondhandconjecture, from Flickr.