WASILLA -- In November 1975, Joe McGinniss arrived in Alaska via ferry. Over the months that followed, he traveled extensively around the state interviewing political leaders and average folk.
The resultant book, "Going to Extremes," which came out in 1980, became a best seller. It presented a portrait of a juvenile society in transition, emerging from wilderness self-reliance into layered modern complexity, driven by the sudden rush of pipeline construction and oil money.
This summer, he resumed temporary residence in Alaska to research his next book -- this one about Sarah Palin -- and rented a house in Wasilla next to the former governor's place.
The rental is a medium-large two-story dwelling with a detached single car garage. The driveway is posted "no trespassing" and guarded by a yellow chain barrier. It passes by outbuildings and abandoned vehicles. Under sunny skies on Friday, the deck offered glorious views of Lake Lucille and the Chugach Mountains. The lawn in front of the deck, sloping to a dock on the lake, hadn't been mowed for a while.
McGinniss, who turns 68 in December, sat on the deck of the house casually dressed in a denim jacket, sneakers (but no socks) and a baseball cap from Homer's Salty Dog saloon. The bare living room showed signs of packing up. He said he planned to fly out on Sunday. And he talked about "Going to Extremes," which has become an enduring part of Alaska's written record.
The book struck a chord with a national audience. With John McPhee's "Coming into the Country," it remains one of the best known books from Alaska's pipeline era. Still studied and debated, the two volumes are perhaps the most-read literature to come from this part of the world in the century between "Call of the Wild" (1903) and "Going Rogue" (2009).
Many current residents admit to being fascinated by McGinniss' report even before they moved to Alaska. Millions of stateside readers found themselves drawn to his depiction not just of scenery and nature, but of the characters who lived there.
It struck a nerve with a lot of Alaskans too. Some felt that they'd been misrepresented or had their dirty secrets exposed.
"I guess it was the first time anyone wrote a book about Alaska that was anything less than glowing," McGinniss said.
Aside from a quick trip for a book release party in Fairbanks in 1980, McGinniss stayed out of Alaska for the next 28 years. He came back briefly the day before the 2008 election and returned in May to gather material for the upcoming book. He was hours away from signing a three-month lease for a house in Anchorage, on the Hillside, when the owner of the Lake Lucille house called him.
"I really wanted to be in Wasilla, because 80 percent of the people I needed to talk to live here," he said.
Todd Palin had recently remodeled the place for the home's owner in anticipation of using it themselves for a guest, but those plans fell through, McGinniss said.
The writer's move set off controversy when Palin suggested that he was spying on her family. The Palins had the fence between the houses extended to 8 feet high. The fuss became fodder for an episode in Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" comic strip, with cartoon reporter Roland Hedley moving next to McGinniss to spy on the alleged spy.
"A couple of days after the series was over, a couple of women from Texas drove up," McGinniss said. "I think they thought I was the groundskeeper. 'We know that's Palin's house, and that this house is where that writer lives,' they said. 'What we want to know is where's Roland Hedley's house?' "
The two seemed peeved when McGinniss responded to their insistently repeated questions, that he knew of no one by that name living in the neighborhood.
"If they were following the strip, they would have known that Hedley's house blew up from a gas leak," he noted.
McGinniss said his publisher, Random House, is now considering having Trudeau do the cover for the upcoming book.
That book, due out next year, and what it might say about the former governor were off limits for this interview. Taking photos of the Palin property or the fence was also not allowed. So the discussion turned to "Going to Extremes" and how the state had altered since the pipeline era.
Not a lot, in McGinniss' opinion. "There's still the same spontaneous warmth of the people," he said. "I haven't had a single unpleasant encounter since I got here."
One who was here in the '70s and revisits the book, recently reissued by Epicenter Press, will find it less alarming than it seemed 30 years ago. If anything, McGinniss may have sidestepped some of the nastier aspects of Alaska life, then and now.
"If I'd wanted to write a scandalous book, this wouldn't be it," he said, thumping the cover of the new edition of "Going to Extremes."
Individuals mentioned in a candid light remain on good terms with him, he added. "I probably have more friends in Alaska than in the rest of the country put together. Everybody I knew then who has stayed here has done real well. Of course, a lot of people left in the '80s."
He has, however, noticed an attitudinal shift. " 'Going to Extremes' is a non-political book," he said. "It would be hard today to write a non-political book about Alaska. Back then, people had their opinions, but they were willing to listen to the other side and even change their minds. Politics involved things like drilling and building roads. It didn't relate to what was happening outside.
"Now people here feel more engaged with national issues. And there's more rancor, more blue-red division. In 1976, no one knew what party the mayor of Wasilla belonged to. Now it's a big deal. I guess Sarah Palin was the first person to change that."
STILL AN INFANT STATE
"Going to Extremes" includes word pictures of Alaska towns from Southeast to Barrow -- which was "like another planet in 1975," according to McGinniss. He had not been back to spots off the road system, but had observations about those places he had revisited.
On Anchorage: "There are a lot of modern conveniences now, like first-class restaurants. You didn't have those in the '70s. And the whole midtown wasn't there. But Anchorage still looks very much like the same city when you stand at the Captain Cook hotel looking east on Fourth Avenue."
On the Mat-Su Borough: "There was no Wasilla. I think there was one stoplight and it wasn't even a real stoplight, just blinking. And a handful of stores. Palmer was the city. (Now) the Palmer-Wasilla Highway is a terrible strip, and there are named subdivisions where it never seemed like a place where people would give names to subdivisions. But Palmer is pretty much as it was."
On the Parks Highway: "They didn't have the cruises or the tour buses filling up the highway then. What do they call that Denali area now? Glitter Gulch? I hear Talkeetna gets a lot more tourist impact in the summer."
On Fairbanks: "It's a lot calmer now. The city was really ground zero for the pipeline craziness. It's gone back to being a quiet interior town."
On Juneau: "Juneau hasn't changed at all. Of course it can't. It's locked into being what it is by its geography."
On Homer: "Homer hasn't changed that much. It's the same laid-back place with friendly people. You still have people squatting on the Spit. The waterfront's pretty much the same."
McGinniss compared Alaska in 1975, 16 years into statehood, to a teenager. In 2010, it's more mature. Yet it's hardly old or complete compared with his home state of Massachusetts, which has functioned as a state since 1776.
"For all the development (in the past 30 years), it's still Alaska. And there's so much of it. And there's no one there.
"Alaska is still in its infancy. What it will eventually become, I have no idea. But it can't be bad."
Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM