In 2008 the town of Wasilla vaulted into the big time as the home of Alaska’s then-governor (and vice presidential candidate), Sarah Palin. Her meteoric rise to fame and infamy simultaneously brought international attention to Wasilla. Although widely regarded as the hands-down ugliest town in Alaska, Wasilla does have some redeeming qualities, most notably the gorgeous mountains at nearby Hatcher Pass. You may not be able to see Russia from here, but you can see Alaska from Wasilla.
In 1977, Wasilla consisted of a landing strip and a grocery store that advertised the convenience of flying in from the bush, buying Matanuska Valley produce, and flying out again—without the hassles of Anchorage. Then, when the capital looked like it might be moved to Willow, 25 miles up the highway, Anchorageites began to discover Wasilla’s quiet, beauty, and affordable land, and contractors took advantage of the town’s lax restrictions on development. And develop it did, with a vengeance.
During 1980–1982, the town’s population of 1,200 doubled, then doubled again in 1982–1984. Stores, malls, and fast-food chains popped up faster than you could say “We do chicken right.” Teeland’s General Store was jacked up, moved from the corner it had sat on for over 60 years, and unceremoniously dumped in a parking lot around the block to make way for a 7-Eleven. The original airstrip, which had kept Wasilla on the map for so long, was moved out from the middle of all the hustle and bustle of town.
The unbridled growth continues today, as relatively low real estate prices and good roads make the area a favorite of Anchorage commuters wanting a piece of the suburban lifestyle. In the 1990s, Wasilla’s Wal-Mart proved so popular that after just a few years Wal-Mart built a new and much larger version across the highway. It’s been followed by Target and Walgreens stores, plus dozens of strip-type buildings crowding the highway.
Driving south into and through Wasilla on the Parks Highway is like passing through a space warp and reemerging in any Southern California suburb. It’s the kind of place where locals give directions in relation to the nearest big-box store: “It’s up the road a half-mile beyond Wal-Mart.”
Getting to Wasilla
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition