The 1970s and 1980s marked a population explosion in my hometown of Wasilla, Alaska. In fact from 1970 to 1990 the population grew by over 1300 percent, and that was just within the city limits.
Even with Wasilla’s population growth, it wasn’t until 2008 that our “small town” became internationally known when Sarah Palin accepted the republican vice presidential nomination. Prior to that notoriety, when asked, I would tell people I grew up in “a small town 40 miles north of Anchorage”. If they pushed further and I told them the small town was Wasilla, I’d get blank stares. Now I get a lot more than blank stares when I mention Wasilla.
The first question has been “Do you know Sarah Palin?” When my answer was “Yes, I know the Heaths and Palins” they were shocked. Growing up in Wasilla, we knew a majority of its residents. I’ve felt a sense of pride when I’ve spoken about Sarah’s accomplishments, since there are not a lot of celebrities that hail from Wasilla. But in most cases, I’ve steered clear of the litany of political questions. There is so much more to Wasilla than Sarah Palin.
Wasilla and the surrounding area has been a recreation lover’s playground. We lived on five acres, but it felt like more because we couldn’t see a single neighbor from our house. We could camp in our backyard; we could go four-wheeling or snow machining from our front door; we could skate on a frozen patch of ice in the small gully across the road. We hunted, fished, berry picked, and even grew our own vegetables. We lived a simple, but action packed life.
It wasn’t until 1984, when we returned from a road trip to the “lower 48”, that Wasilla got a mall. As teenage girls, my sister and I were excited. We could finally go shopping without the hour long drive to Anchorage.
The next “big thing” to hit Wasilla was Wal-Mart in the 1990s. It didn’t take long before the shopping-starved community catapulted this particular store to the status of “highest grossing store in the chain”. A few years later, the original store was closed and a larger one was opened across the street. Later Wal-Mart was joined by Target, Fred Meyer, and other large box stores.
Some people thought the addition of large box stores would lead to the demise of Wasilla’s “small town” feel, but I disagreed. Wasilla was in desperate need of shopping options. It wasn’t always convenient to make the drive to Anchorage and there were even times, during winter, when it wasn’t safe due to icy roads. Most retail locations were built in a central area; therefore, the surrendering areas remained rural.
In 42 years (my lifetime) Wasilla grew from a city with only 300 residents to the sixth-largest city in Alaska. I wonder what’s in store over the next 40 years. My hope is, while Wasilla continues to grow, it will remain the recreational playground that it has always been.