When I flew to Alaska to help Bristol Palin write her memoirs, I had to keep it quiet. Our contracts hadn’t been signed, and discretion was warranted. So, I packed my warmest clothes for what I thought would be a one-week stay.
During my travels, I never offered information to the people I invariably encountered. The guy next to me on our very long flight, asked what was taking me to so far north.
“Just work,” I responded.
“So are you going to see Sarah Palin?” he asked, laughing.
“No,” I responded truthfully. In fact, I wasn’t sure if I was going to have access to Bristol’s famous mom. It was Bristol’s book, after all.
When I rented my car, the cashier asked the purpose of my trip.
“Work,” I said.
“What do you do?”
I hesitated, causing the rental guy to look at me quizzically. “Don’t tell me,” he said. “You’re stalking Sarah Palin.”
“Isn’t there anything in Alaska other than the Palin family?” I asked.
He looked me up and down, and noticed my Macintosh laptop. “I can just tell when people like you show up, they’re trying to get close to the Governor.” He continued, “Normally, they carry large cameras too. One reporter bragged that he could take a picture of her from clear across a football field.”
As I signed the contract for the car, he lowered his voice and gave me tips about where I might see the famous family. (This was in Anchorage, which is about an hour from Wasilla. But he still offered vague advice about her possible haunts.) In other words, he was just pretending to have “inside information” because he loved the former governor so much and wanted to be “connected.”
I drove off in my Ford rental car to the location. I figured I’d be staying at Bristol’s apartment somewhere, however my GPS took me straight up the driveway of Todd and Sarah’s house. I lived right there over the next month and got to know them, their extended family, and friends. We cheered Todd as he competed in the Iron Dog race, watched Piper play in her basketball games, lounged in front of reruns of The Office, took road trips, and ate moose hotdogs. I watched in amusement as Gov. Palin – the most controversial and famous politician in the nation – pumped her own gas, greeted the cashier cheerfully, and fussed over Trigg.
The Palins were hospitable, kind, open, and helpful… even though I was there to assist in telling a story that was painful but ultimately redemptive. Todd and Sarah responded with genuine warmth, concern, and kindness as we dredged up the details of events I’m sure they’d rather forget.
But every time I went out into the town, strangers tried to tell me stories – even though I tried to appear as disinterested as possible. Apparently my general appearance screamed “flatlander” — the rubber boots, the laptop, the constant chattering of my teeth. (They seem to consider anyone from the lower 48 a flatlander.) But even after I had a discount card for Carrs and an Alaska Grown shirt, a server at an Italian restaurant told me he could tell me that I was not from around there.
“Because you paid with an American Express,” he said definitively. “That’s a sure sign.” He then also pretended to know the Palins. “It’s too bad you’re here this week, because she’s in the states now,” he said with as much authority as a secretary consulting her boss’s calendar, though I’d just left Gov. Palin at her Alaskan home minutes before.
After a month, I heard lots of stories from people I met around town, those so eager to be connected to the Palins they pretended to have a connection. Everyone claimed to be related to them, know them, or have dealings with them. And even though I was trying desperately not to look like I cared about these stories, the anecdotes came anyway. Some were good, some were bad, few seemed even remotely reliable.
I write this because the guy who bought the house next door to the Palin family has finally published his book, which is based on the gossip he gathered from around the small town. The New York Times reports that Joe McGinniss used his time in Alaska “to chase caustic, unsubstantiated gossip about the Palins, often from unnamed sources like ‘one resident’ and ‘a friend.’” Imagine how much dirt he would be able to get, as a person desperate to get to know the “real Sarah Palin?” Especially since there’s apparently a cottage industry in Alaska dedicated to pretending to know the Palins.
I returned home to Tennessee after staying a month… I was happy to see my family and not so happy to receive a $500 fee at the short term airport parking lot. But I was thankful that the real Palins – the ones who treated me like one of the family for such a long visit – bore little resemblance to the Palins the random strangers tried to tell me about. I’m also thankful they bear no resemblance to the people Joe McGinniss is trying to tell people about.
I might be a flatlander, but even I can tell that.