I came here to take the pulse of Wasilla and to discover the truth about its most famous citizen. I feared the small-town rubes would spot me as a cheechako (Alaskan for "newcomer"). I feared subzero williwaws and clouds of bloodsucking insects. I was terrified of encountering a moose, billed as the most dangerous animal in North America.
Sure enough, when I walked into the Mug-Shot Saloon I was ridiculed by the regulars—middle-aged men with enormous heads, thick necks and linebacker shoulders—for using ChapStick. They made degrading jokes about my long johns and Ugg boots. They chided me for overuse of the word dude. They referred to their ultra-Republican, family-friendly saloon, where the worship of Sarah Palin is rivaled only by a devotion to God, as "the only gay bar in town."
But when I asked one patron what had brought him to Wasilla, I acquired an instant friend. I was besieged by welcomes, with offers to take me bear hunting and ice fishing. People smothered me with testimonials about the wonders of life in Alaska.
I asked the cabbie who drove me from the Mug-Shot back to my motel that first night if there was anything bad about Wasilla. He fell silent. Then he said, cryptically, that there was good and evil in Wasilla—and not much middle ground. I remembered a blog I'd read, written by the 19-year-old sister of Levi Johnston, the young man who'd become famous for having gotten Bristol Palin, Sarah's daughter, great with child and for having made a politically charged appearance with the Palins at the Republican National Convention in 2008.
Since May 2010, Mercede "Sadie" Johnston had been waging a war of words to "expose the truth" about the Palins and to defend her own family, the alleged victims of harassment, setups, conspiracies, vandalism and the attentions of the Secret Service. I wondered if the war between the Palins and Johnstons was the subtext of the cabdriver's dark comments.
Sadie has committed to be my guide in Wasilla. I realize this arrangement almost guarantees attracting the wrath of Sarah Palin herself, a formidable polemicist who could summon thugs to silence me. My thoughts are probably already being monitored by cold-blooded assassins.
She shows up at the Grand View Inn for our interview the next morning. The dash of her VW is decorated with a picture of her nephew, Tripp, at five months. Sadie laments having missed so much of his life—his first crawl, first walk, first words. "The second I found out Bristol was pregnant, I went to Anchorage and spent more than a thousand dollars on baby clothes," she says. Since then she's been pretty much excluded from Tripp's life. "I never knew I could love someone so much until the day he was born," she says.
We head to Evangelo's restaurant. I tell the waitress I'd like to sit in a corner, away from the window. Sadie reassures me I have nothing to fear from eavesdroppers—or snipers. "You're completely safe, I promise. I haven't told anybody you're here, so you're good."
PLAYBOY: Can you say something about your character?
SADIE: I've always been independent. I've always put family first. I can take care of myself. If my plane crashed and I ended up in the middle of nowhere, I know how to catch a fish, cook it, feed myself, build a fire, shelter.
PLAYBOY: What's life like in Wasilla for you now?
SADIE: It's hard to get a job in this town because of the Palins. That's one of the worst things to come of this whole ordeal. I've worked since I was 13 years old. People say, "Oh, Mercede Johnston, I don't know if people are going to come in if she works here." Or, "We love the Palins, so we're not going to hire her."
PLAYBOY: What was it like when Sarah Palin came on the national scene?
SADIE: I was working in a coffee shop, and reporters would show up or wait outside for me. There were 70 reporters camped outside my house, videotaping 24-7. Some of them were extremely rude, yelling questions and obscenities to get a response.
PLAYBOY: How did it make you feel?
SADIE: We didn't ask for this. Not once did Sarah contact us and say, "Is this okay?" She literally took Levi from a hunting trip and flew him to the Republican convention. He didn't have a choice. I don't blame John McCain—this is all Sarah Palin. She didn't have to announce on stage that Bristol was pregnant. She doesn't care, as long as she's going to the top. But it's screwed my whole family up. Levi was a prop, and once they didn't need him he was out the door.
Sadie has a relaxed vibe and style, equal parts feminine and tomboy. She's wearing a dark sweater, black jeans, a shell necklace and rings on both hands. Seconds after settling into a booth she leaves to take a call from her mother, who's sick with chronic pain, scurvy and "literally everything you can think of," having undergone some 30 surgeries in the past decade. She's also on probation for selling pain pills to a local miscreant who later ratted her out.
The night before, Sadie went to bed at three a.m., slept two hours, made breakfast, then took her mom to see her probation officer. Taking care of her mother, who can't leave her house more than four hours a week without permission, is a full-time job. As a result, Sadie is stuck in "Silla" for the time being.
Sadie takes me on a tour of the town. We drive by Lowe's, the Brown Jug liquor store, Oriental Massage, Walgreens, Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen, the movie theater where Levi went on his first date, the armed forces recruiting center, Arctic Ink (one of several tattoo parlors), Wasilla Lake, Radio Shack, Señor Taco, Safeway, Chimo Guns, Mocha Moose and Wasilla High School. Small-town Wasilla is a hive of entangled relationships: Bristol Palin is dating Sadie's ex-beau Gino. Sadie can hang out with her old friend Paige now that Paige has broken up with James, who is Track Palin's good buddy.
Sadie claims to have received "hundreds" of threats from Bristol's friends and supporters—to vandalize her car, ruin her reputation, beat her up. "Bristol won't be friends with anyone who's friends with me," she says. "And the same goes for Track and Willow. Piper's too young, thank God, but that's how all of them are."
Sadie has a lot to say about Bristol. "Everything is about her, her, her," she says. "She has to have her own way. She'll be super-sweet and then she turns into the most evil person I've ever known." The last time they met, in the parking lot of Target, "she flipped me off. She doesn't like me having a voice."
PLAYBOY: What's Bristol into?
SADIE: Um, stealing her parents' credit cards to order clothes. Literally. And chasing after men and partying.
PLAYBOY: Do you think you and Bristol will ever patch things up?
SADIE: I tried to make amends and say I'm sorry. I know I've done wrong and said some things. She's done and said things too. But we're adults, and for this little boy we need to at least be civil with each other. We don't have to hang out or be friends. But she'll just say, "F you. Don't contact me ever again."
PLAYBOY: What do you think of her abstinence campaign?
SADIE: I think it's really messed up. She's preaching to all these young children.
PLAYBOY: What's Bristol's personality like?
SADIE: A psycho. A sociopath. She doesn't think anything she could do or does is wrong. She needs help, really, because obviously her mental insecurities are bad.
PLAYBOY: Is Bristol pretty?
SADIE: I don't think she's ugly. She's just kind of average, plain. I think Willow's prettier than Bristol.
PLAYBOY: Is Bristol smart?
SADIE: I think she has average intelligence. She portrays that she's more intelligent than she is.
PLAYBOY: How mean is she?
SADIE: Honestly, she is the meanest person. I didn't know someone could be so vindictive and evil. I'm not saying that because I don't like her; it's just all the stuff she's done.
PLAYBOY: What was the text message Bristol sent you a couple of Valentine's Days ago?
SADIE: "I hope it was worth it having Lenisha [one of Levi's exes] at your house 'cause you're never gonna fucking see your nephew again, bitch."
PLAYBOY: And she sent one to your mother, too?
SADIE: "I can't believe you would let that fucking bitch in your house. You stupid bitch. You are such a messed-up mother. I hope you and your chaotic family have a good life." That really hurt my mom.
PLAYBOY: And also one to Levi?
SADIE: "Ever since the moment I found out I was pregnant, I prayed to God you weren't the father."
By my third day I've hidden my ChapStick at the motel, shed my long johns and established myself as a regular at the Mug-Shot, situated right off Parks Highway. In the gravel parking lot is a Chevy Silverado with a bumper sticker: ANNOY A LIBERAL: WORK HARD AND BE HAPPY.
The bar dates back to 1962. The airport was right behind it and pilots would make "emergency landings" for drinks before taking off again. It had a reputation for operating a whorehouse on the second floor. It went out of business because there was "too much fucking overhead," according to the standing joke. In the old days you could order a beer with or without a bag of coke taped to the bottom of the bottle or score some Matanuska Thunderfuck, a legendary, now extinct, strain of marijuana.
"Everybody you talk to here has a damn story. It's crazy," bartender Dana Rush tells me one afternoon. Fox News is on a big screen with the sound off, and the jukebox is spitting out country and classic rock. When a Blue Oyster Cult song comes on, one joker calls for "more cowbell!"
A bear of a man sitting on a bar stool actually answers to that name. "I'm Bear," he says, extending a paw. Bear, 55, grew up in Oregon and moved here in 2007 after getting a divorce. He's an avid hunter, shoots elk and moose—but not bear. "For one thing, I don't like the meat. Plus, I love the bear." What's an ideal day like for him? "Going to the fucking lake. Sitting in my fucking lounge chair. And fucking fishing." What's his take on Sarah Palin? "Who?" he responds. "Over it. I don't like the chick myself. She's too plastic." But she's sexy, right? "Fuck, no! I'd rather pork my old lady than have to look at her." Then Bear gives me a searching look and muses that I look kind of like a nerd.
Steve, who claims to be half Native American, pronounces me a cheechako. Another man comes to my defense. "Anyone in this fucking bar right now is a fucking Alaskan," says Mike. Barroom pronouncements fly around: "There are no Democrats hardly allowed in here." "Liberalism is a disease; it's ruining this country." "Everything I'm against, they're for." "Is there something wrong about our Constitution and what our founding fathers wrote?" "Canada can kiss my ass because they got fucking rules. Fuck Canada!"
"You know what Wasilla means, don't you?" asks Annemarie, a dreamy middle-aged hippie chick. "'All I saw,' backward." Which means? "You went there and you saw what you saw." I ponder that Zen statement, waiting for enlightenment.
At some point all conversations return to Sarah Palin. Someone trying to get my attention makes the incredible claim to have snorted coke with her at the Mug-Shot and points to the very spot on the bar where said lines were cut up. The same regular assures me that "Ted Stevens did more for the state than all the Sarah Palins ever could."
I tell one woman about an article I read that called their hometown a "shithole." She admits there isn't much to say about Wasilla. "We have a movie theater, a Blockbuster, a couple of strip malls," she says. "But if you talk to any person here, they're not here because they want malls or an IMAX theater or to go to a Hollywood premiere. There's not a lot to do compared to Denver or Minneapolis. People are here because they want to be."
PLAYBOY: Here's something from your blog: "I'm not afraid of the Palins. And yeah maybe it is me up against the huge army of Palin supporters, but really what else can they take from me? Nothing. In the end the truth shall prevail."
SADIE: The truth about the Palins will come out. People will eventually start putting things together, and they'll realize who they really are. Bristol's pregnancy wasn't unexpected, an accident. She and Levi planned it. They were trying to conceive for months. Sarah says she met me only once. That's the biggest lie I ever heard. I played hockey with Track when I was like four years old. We went on hockey tournaments together.
PLAYBOY: So you want people in Wasilla to reveal what they know?
SADIE: If everybody who truly knew the Palins would speak up, people would not still think Sarah's a good person. But they're afraid to because the Palins have so much money they could do almost anything. Actually some people tried to go to the media and get their story out, but they were afraid. The trouble Track would get into. He would do a lot of drugs. He did OxyContin and mostly cocaine. He didn't choose to go into the Army; he went there because his mom made him, to get him out of the way so when she was at the convention they wouldn't know he does drugs and would think he was a patriot. It's a front. It was all to get her son out of the way so it didn't ruin her reputation.
PLAYBOY: What percentage of Wasillans can't stand Sarah Palin?
SADIE: I would say 70 percent.
The next afternoon at the Mug-Shot, I meet Tom Abbe, who offers to show me the vast wilderness just beyond Wasilla's city limits. He's stocky, ursine, a man's man and soft-spoken until we've had a few more drinks and he's confirmed with my fiancÈe in Brooklyn that I'm for real. Tom, who works on the pipeline, has two free days. He bombards me with options. "You ever been in a snow buggy? You want to go ice fishing? Come on, you want to go? Two hours. Done deal. You're not gay are you?"
We agree to meet the next morning, but it's too windy for ice fishing. Tom is going to take me to Willow instead. Willow is unspoiled, like Wasilla was two decades ago. We have breakfast at IHOP. Then we're off to the country in his Chevy truck.
"This is Alaska," Tom announces when we're 10 minutes out of town. A bald eagle flies past. Up ahead looms Mount McKinley. (Tom calls it that, in defiance of the prevailing name, Mount Denali.) After spotting a moose on the side of the road, he stops so I can snap a cell phone pic and suggests keeping a safe distance unless I want to get trampled to death.
Tom's cabin is at the end of a gated community in Willow. Eventually he and his wife, Carol, will retire there. He makes sure everything's secure: an American flag and an Alaskan flag on the wall. In the kitchen, a sign announcing that Martha Stewart doesn't live here. Last year Tom spotted a bear outside the cabin, grabbed his rifle, shot the bear and skinned out the hide, which is now on his living-room floor.
Sadie's friend Paige Hardy shows up at the Trout House restaurant on Parks Highway. They have known each other since elementary school but had to stop talking when Paige began dating James, who is good friends with Track Palin. After Paige and James broke up last fall, Sadie and she started hanging out a lot.
PAIGE: I've witnessed their cruelty and negativity and how they think they're Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. She preaches about how family is first, but family isn't first in her household. I witnessed it firsthand. My ex-boyfriend is best friends with her son, so I was over there pretty frequently.
PLAYBOY: What about Bristol?
PAIGE: All those nasty things Bristol says about Sadie, none of them are true. Yeah, we've all done stupid stuff in our high school years; we've all partied. But Bristol's not innocent. There are privately owned videos of her making out with guysSADIE: I have some stuff.
PAIGE: We could call up multiple guys right now who would probably send us naked pictures of her. I think a lot of them are scared. My ex-boyfriend claimed to be having a thing with her just recently.
SADIE: Just recently, while she was supposed to be dating my ex-boyfriend Gino.
PAIGE: She's scandalous. She's not classy whatsoever.
PLAYBOY: Is Bristol pretty?
PAIGE: She's plain. I think she tries to be classy, but honestly, enough MAC makeup in the world can't make her—my mom has this theory she's had a boob job.
SADIE: Yeah, she's had two.
PAIGE: She has giant boobs.
SADIE: She's had numerous surgeries on her face, her chin twice or three times. Does that chin look like Jay Leno or what? Before Tripp was born she had liposuction here and liposuction elsewhere—where, I'm not supposed to say because Levi made me promise. And she had something else done after Tripp was born.
PAIGE: The Palins are not very nice. They're really stuck up. The last week me and my ex were together we went to Iron Dog, the snowmobile race that Todd races in. Willow showed up and was giving everyone the nastiest looks.
Verne Rupright is mayor of Wasilla. He describes the Palins as "just regular Wasilla people, no different than anybody else." He doesn't see Sarah often these days. "I've seen Todd and Bristol around before she went on Dancing with the Stars and moved to Arizona, I guess." His daughter went to school with Willow.
We're sitting in his conference room in City Hall. Mayor Rupright, a rugged 60-year-old who resembles Rip Torn, has been busy dealing with the budget. But he has some time to talk. "The interesting thing about Alaska is that you either love it or you hate it," he says, adding that you may come to Alaska and leave it twice, but the third time you come back, you're never leaving again.
Rupright, who grew up in North Boston, first came here a year before serving in Vietnam. He's worked on the pipeline, raised cattle and been a corrections officer and a criminal defense attorney. When he moved from Anchorage to Wasilla in 1983, it was a town of 3,000. Today there are 11,000 residents.
Asked about Levi Johnston's plan to run against him for the office of mayor, Rupright doesn't have much to say except that he knew Levi's grandmother. ("I think it would be wise for him to get a high school diploma and keep his clothes on. The voters like that," he told Entertainment Tonight in 2010.)
PLAYBOY: Does Todd Palin call the shots?
SADIE: No. Oh my gosh, no. He's so whipped.
PLAYBOY: Was Levi blinded by love and the Palins' manipulation of him?
SADIE: Absolutely. Levi was whipped like Todd, because Bristol is very manipulative. She'd use sex to get her way on many things.
PLAYBOY: Do you have anything positive to say about Sarah Palin?
SADIE: She looks younger on TV and in magazines. She looks good with makeup on, and she's in good shape for her age. But looks aren't anything. They'll fade, so she has nothing.
PLAYBOY: What kind of president would Sarah be?
SADIE: I think she'd have had a mental breakdown if she was elected. As governor she quit on us. What does that say about her? Is she prepared to govern the whole country? Absolutely not. She can't even answer Katie Couric's questions.
PLAYBOY: What about Sarah's Mama Grizzly thing?
PLAYBOY: Is Sarah a good mother?
SADIE: No. She's never there for them. She doesn't make her kids go to school. She'd rather parade them around and put on a show at book signings or conventions.
PLAYBOY: What was the deal with Bristol and Levi's brief re-engagement?
SADIE: I don't think Bristol wanted to be with him whatsoever, not at all. It was all about her using her body to get Levi to retract his statements, and it worked.
PLAYBOY: Did Sarah have anything to do with the rapprochement?
SADIE: Everything. Ev-er-y-thing. It was all planned. They only wanted them back together so they could control Levi, have him say he lied so no one would believe what he said and no one would believe Levi again. That's bull crap. Everyone who knows Levi knows everything he said was true and then some. [Editor's note: In 2010 Levi told People magazine, "Last year, after Bristol and I broke up, I was unhappy and a little angry. Unfortunately, against my better judgment, I publicly said things about the Palins that were not completely true."]
It's my last night. Roger Erdmann understands my reluctance to leave. "Where do you see people hitchhiking in America other than Alaska?" asks the cabdriver and Desert Storm veteran. "Here we do it all the time, but not down in the Lower 48. Everybody helps everybody out."
Pulling into the Mug-Shot, Roger begs me to keep Wasilla a secret. "Don't tell everybody about Alaska. Let them keep thinking it's dark and 60 below." He promises to return at midnight, and if I'm not outside he'll come find me.
Inside the bar are three Steves, who all give me shit for staying home the night before. For one thing, the famous Fletch brothers strutted around in their thongs. "Oh, we had fucking fun, dude. That was one of the best days of the bar in a long time. You really missed out. So your pussy was hurting?"
When "Afternoon Delight" comes on, Steves Newman, Kenison and Harvey start calling another guy in our group "Ron Burgundy" and making Ron Jeremy jokes. I haven't officially met Ron Taber, an unusually enormous regular who looks like he could pop all of our heads like zits. But he's mellow, nursing a 32-ounce mug of Coors Light.
Ron arrived here from Oregon in 1980, bounced at a strip bar and worked in construction until an injury forced him into blissful retirement. Now at 50 he can do whatever he wants. "That's a beautiful thing about Alaska: We can do what we fucking want here." He doesn't think much of Sarah Palin's liberal detractors: "They're trying to take our country down, trying to make us join the European Union. They think they're saving the fucking world by breaking our country. This country is blessed by God, period."
The White Stripes are on the jukebox, then Green Day. A group of young people sits in the corner. Tony Jensen, 21, is a lifelong resident of Wasilla and never wants to leave. He's eager to tell the world why: "The air here is just crisp and clean and fresh all the time. There's more jobs up here than there are people. I've been to California, Texas, Florida, dude, Arkansas. This place is awesome. Even the cops are nice. They'll smile at you, man. I had a cop pull me over once, and she asked how I was doing. Everybody who comes here will move here, and everybody who moves away comes back. The pot is amazing; the people are friendly. In Wasilla the women are great. I've never heard of my friends having any STDs, AIDS, herpes, genital warts—I'm serious."
"There is chlamydia, though," his pretty sister, Sasha, interjects. "It's actually the chlamydia capital of Alaska."
"I have heard of chlamydia," Tony replies. "But only a couple of really low, bottom-feeder people."
The siblings attend community college and live in the taxidermy-filled house their father built. Tony makes $18 an hour working construction on the pipeline. "Seriously, up on the slope there are people who live down in Florida and come up here because there's not enough people to fill the jobs. Dude, jobs are so easy to get here. I swear I've had like 20 jobs."
Sasha advises him to pipe down, then is forced to confess that she made 40 grand before tips waitressing at Jalapeños last year.
"I want people to move up here!" Tony roars. "It's no bullshit. Dude, I got one thing to say: You catch a fish in the Lower 48, you don't even know if you got it hooked. Up here, you catch a fish and it's trying to pull you out of the boat. You catch a 30-pound halibut and it's starting to tip the boat."
He tells me about the dividends the state pays its 700,000 citizens. "Yeah, they're just like, 'Come to our state and we'll give you $2,000 a year.' One year, it was $3,200 they just gave to everybody in the whole fucking state!" After Sasha notes that the educational system is really great, too, I wonder if this is a put-on. How can two kids be this excited about their hometown? It's almost un-American.
"Because I have seen the other places, and they're horrible," Tony says.
"They suck. They're terrible. They're concrete jungles," Sasha concurs.
After "Wouldn't It Be Nice" comes on, I ask Tony to describe a perfect day here. "I wake up, the sun's shining, the air is fresh, I hop on my four-wheeler, I ride around the block like 10 times, I smoke a fat bowl, drive into town, see all my friends, go to the bar, see my parents, hop on their boat, go fishing. I do whatever I want, dude. Total freedom. This is the last frontier, the last place you can go and have a chance to be someone and do something with yourself."
"You can smoke in this bar," says Sasha.
"You can have pot plants in your house and it's a misdemeanor," says Tony. "They won't even send you to jail. You can have four ounces in your house and they can't even take it from you. We got mining and logging, oil—there are so many gold mines and oil companies you can work for. Wasilla's the last land of opportunity."
"Like a Rolling Stone" is playing now. Tony admits that less than five hours of sunlight in the wintertime is a downside, but tanning, exercise and snowboarding can help with cabin fever. "I can't find anything wrong with Wasilla," he decides. "Rent's a little expensive, but it's nothing like New York."
There is only one thing about Wasilla Tony won't say anything nice about: "Dude, I have no faith in Sarah anymore, just because she quit. Forget all the ignorance, all the dumb shit—she's not smart. She doesn't know world history." Aside from Bear, Tony is the only hard-core Palin detractor I've met after four days and nights at the Mug-Shot. "She's a total idiot. Dude, she's over; she's done with."
"Tony, you're cut off now," says Dana, the bartender. So am I. The cabbie—my new friend Roger—is here just as he'd promised, at midnight. "All the good people in America are going to hear this shit, read this magazine and come up here," Tony says. "And we're just going to have more people, dude, for the melting pot. There's plenty of room. I have yet to find a better place in this world that I want to be."
So this is definitely not a shithole?
"Anchorage is a shithole, dude. Wasilla is where it's at.
Text by George Gurley
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