SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


We're Off On The Road To Alaska's Capital!


August 31, 2009

Ketchikan, Alaska - No, not Juneau, but the capital in waiting, Willow.

jpg Dave Kiffer

Dave Kiffer

What it is waiting for? I'm so glad you asked.

It is waiting for that tipping point in the future when 51 percent of the people in Alaska have finally been "asleep at the wheel" enough (see penultimate paragraph below) to approve the $1 billion plus cost of building a capital that is truly in the middle of nowhere.

A brief history is in order. In 1976, when Alaska Pipeline construction peaked and Alaska's IQ (idiot quotient) topped 50 percent, voters approved moving the capital to Willow to make it more accessible to the "majority" of the residents of the state.

Willow was picked primarily because the folks in Los Anchorage - who really wanted the capital to themselves - felt that they needed to pay lip service to their friends in Squarebanks and pretend that a new capital - located between the two, but actually lot closer to Anchorage - should be built in a brand new city.

Voters (or at least all those folks from Oklahoma and Texas who were pretending to be permanent) agreed. But when it came to actually spending the money to carve Alaska's Brasilia out of the mosquito infested swamp in 1982, voters said "wait just a darned cotton picking minute."

Since then there remains lots of talk about moving the capital. But when it comes to talk about Willow, not so much.

Which leaves Willow where it has always been, at least since 1971, a wide spot in the Parks Highway between Wasilla and Fairbanks.

I'm not sure if it is even still officially the capital in waiting. I suspect that in the intervening three decades, Anchorage has pretty much decided that if the capital moves north it will be somewhere in the friendly confines of the Muldoon-O'Malley-Old Seward Highway Metroplex and Fairbanks can just lump it.

But since I had never set foot in Willow, I thought it might be a fun side trip from my week of meetings in the megalettuce-opolis of Palmer.

Once upon a time, my family drove the goat path that was the forerunner of the Parks Highway, as far as Wasilla. Wasilla itself was just a wide spot in the road in those days, back in the late 1960s, when Sarah Palin was still in diapers.

Later, I visited Wasilla on state business in the early 1980s. The Parks Highway had been built, but even Wasilla was still not much more than a speed bump between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The future governor was earning her "barracuda" nickname for the Warriors.

Then came the era of the big boxes. Needless to say, Wasilla is now known for more than being just the MatSu headquarters for the Mattress Ranch!

Even though I had heard about Wasilla's retailing boom, it was a surprise to round a corner on the Parks Highway and see a little bit of Phoenix rising from the perpetual wildfire ashes of the MatSu. Downtown Wasilla itself remains small-towny in a "truthiness" sort of way. But the rest of it is a strip mall of Southern California "auto mile" proportions.

Which naturally caused me to digress back to all the complaints that Wasilla - and the rest of the MatSu - had about the negative media portrayals last Fall during the campaign. Sure it was unfair to portray Wasilla as one big ugly strip mall. But was it inaccurate?

Back about the time when Alaska's moron majority decided that the capital should move to Willow, a writer named Joe McGinniss came to Alaska. His book about the state and the oil boom was called "Going to Extremes." Naturally it was a national bestseller.

It featured a one paragraph description of Ketchikan that caused a major uproar in these parts. He described Ketchikan as a dumpy little, half built place full of bars and drunken, toothless inebriates lying about on the streets.

Ketchikanites were pretty cheesed off, let me tell you. There was much "huffing and puffing" by the local organizations dedicated to huffery and puffery.

Yes, it was unfair. But was it inaccurate?

McGinniss had gotten off a state ferry on a Sunday morning and had walked into town. He was "on the ground" here for a little less than two hours.

In those days - another history lesson - downtown Ketchikan was not known for having more jewelry stores per capita than Beverly Hills. It was known for its remarkably large number of drinking establishments in the Downtown.

Those were also the days when the bars were legally allowed to operated nearly 24 hours a day. There was an hour or so each morning when they kicked everyone out and hosed down the bar stools.

Natch, McGinness arrived in Downtown when the bars were closed. I have no doubt that he saw everything exactly the way he portrayed. Fair, no. Accurate? Guilty as charged.

So was the portrayal of Wasilla in the national media fair? No. But was it accurate? If you bomb through on a quiet Saturday morning like I did, the answer is yes.

But, as usual, I digress.

Back on the Road to Willow!

Even the residents of the MatSu Borough have to concede that it is an "interesting" place. Little pockets of Alaskan Appalachia, more double-wides than you can shake a stick at, and probably more gravel pits per capita than anywhere short of the far side of the moon.

Once you get past the big box extravaganza of Wasilla, it kinda settles into a pleasant lope along the Parks past all manner of road side attractions. My personal favorite was a business that offered "Tanning (beds) and Taxidermy", which lent new meaning to the phrase "tan your hide."

Eventually, you reach Willow, which is like every other part of the Valley save one thing. There were very few "for sale" signs in sight. Apparently, folks are still holding tight to their dreams of future legislative riches.

The one thing that did seem more prominent in Willow was police presence. State Troopers apparently spend a lot of time there because it is a traffic accident magnet. The road to Denali hits a flat, straight stretch of Saskatchewanian proportions and drivers can't resist "blowing the carbon" out. Unfortunately, you also have large numbers of lumbering motor homes to contend with. It's a bad mix.

Oddly enough, I read in the Anchorage Daily News earlier this week - - after returning to Our Fair Salmon City - that it was a busier than normal Sunday afternoon along the Parks Highway in Willow. There were five traffic accidents.

Three were caused by driver impatienc.

Two were caused by drivers falling asleep.

Meanwhile, Willow is still waiting.



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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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