Sarah Palin's Wasilla, Alaska

At the Republican Convention, Sarah Palin talked about her hometown as if it were a place painted by Norman Rockwell. She spoke about the factory workers and the farmers. She quoted the mid-20th-century columnist Westbrook Pegler: "We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity." She talked about conservative values and fiscal discipline. "I grew up with those people," she said. So you might imagine that Wasilla, Alaska, is a tight-knit community with a general store, cozy cabins and a quaint bar where everyone knows your name, all centered around a town square with a steepled church and a frozen pond.

But barely anything like that exists in Wasilla. You certainly can have a great time swigging beer in two bars that are allowed to stay open until 5 a.m. It was Mayor Palin who rejected attempts to make them close earlier. (If Palin had completely had her way, in fact, you could have sidled up to the bar with a gun.) At the Mug-Shot Saloon, you can memorize the expletives on the collection of bumper stickers next to the well of bottles. But once you leave, you might want to watch your back: in a state that is consistently in the top 10 of the nation's most violent per capita, Wasilla has among the highest per capita violent- and property-crime rates in Alaska.

For all that, Wasilla is not a bad place. Families go to church services on Sundays; they gather for picnics, barbecues and town meetings; parents root for their kids at ballgames. It's just not the gauzy, idyllic place of long-neglected "values" that Palin evokes. Rather, it's an unexceptional, gritty town, bisected by a four-lane highway. Along the road, used-car lots sit next to car-repair shops next to fast-food joints next to pawn shops.

Wasilla began as a way station for miners in 1917, a place with one store, a road and proximity to gold mines and the railroad. After the gold was gone, most of the residents cleared out. It began to repopulate after the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay—and the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, as well as a highway through town. It was incorporated in 1973. "It's a very confusing place," concedes Wasilla city planner Jim Holycross, who moved here from Oregon two years ago. Holycross had worked as a planner in different parts of Oregon, but he believes Wasilla presents a particular challenge. "There's no center here," he says, standing in his office in city hall. "There's no sense of identity. There's nothing to ground the town. In fact, when I first came here, I got lost looking for the town until I realized I was in the town."

Alaska doesn't generally attract people with plans, and moving to Wasilla as a planner, you might say, was brave. In the mid-1980s, a bureaucrat working for the Greater Matanuska-Susitna Borough wanted to tweak a comprehensive plan to, in part, set some more rules about what could and couldn't be built where. He was fired for his efforts, and his effigy was burned in the parking lot of the borough offices.

Palin likes to invoke the lovely lines of Pegler, a political columnist who built his reputation on investigating people in power. But in quoting his paean to small-town values, Palin leaves out that Pegler was an anti-Semite who, according to his 1969 obituary in The New York Times, wrote that he regretted that a bullet aimed at Franklin Roosevelt "hit the wrong man." There are other inconvenient facts: Palin's nostalgia for small farms and factories can't be tied to Wasilla. Until recently, the only thing that resembled a factory in the area was a cooperative called Mat-Maid dairy. After 40 years of churning milk, cream and yogurt, the place was shuttered in 2007—by Governor Palin's handpicked board in charge of running the dairy. It's now a self-storage unit. There's still a little vegetable and hay farming done in Wasilla, but much of the agricultural land has given way to strip malls, subdivisions and gravel pits.

Palin knows this is the heart of her town. In 1999, when Wal-Mart was the place to shop in Wasilla, a couple who worked there decided to get married in the aisles of the store. Shoppers convened, and tour-bus passengers stopped and gawked. Palin, who was then mayor of the 5,000 or so residents of the town, officiated. Later, she told a reporter that she had to hold back tears. "It was so sweet," she said. "It was so Wasilla."

That kind of Everywoman attitude made Palin popular here. In 1996 she beat incumbent Mayor John Stein, with 651 votes to his 440. Stein challenged her three years later, and she clobbered him, 826 to 292. Wasilla was enjoying an economic boom in those years, and residents had no reason to change course. Even Colleen Cottle, who consistently voted against Mayor Palin as a member of the city council, says she was an effective mayor. "She got things done," says Cottle.

Leroi Heaven is one resident who doesn't like all the things that got done. His family moved from Anchorage to the area in 1953, when his father decided to try his hand at farming after he retired from the railroad. Heaven was 14 years old, and, with only about 50 other residents nearby, the area was his wide-open paradise. Now Heaven is nostalgic for that frontier town on the edge of the wilderness, so full of promise and adventure.

One recent evening, squinting while sitting next to Heaven as he drove through the truck-choked streets—passing houses next to engine-repair shops, next to oil-spotted empty lots—I could easily imagine what Heaven saw in that former place. The rolling Talkeetna Mountains in the wild, cold distance to the north were just beginning to catch the glow of the setting sun; toward the south, the peaks of the looming saw-toothed Chugach Mountains were showing a first dusting of snow. (In Alaska we call that snow "termination dust," the mark of a coldhearted executioner putting an end to summer.) You can see what drew people like his father here and why he stays. You can see the vast open area where a person can carve his or her own dream; you can see the pioneer under a huge sky swirling with Northern Lights. You can hear the wolves howling in the distance and smell the cold and the burning spruce. You can feel freedom. But as you drive around Wasilla, you can also feel alienation—lost and alone in a land without boundaries.

Heaven, a Republican and a retired mailman, understands the thin line between freedom and chaos. He thinks the solution is in planning—in trying to limit and control change. As president of Wasilla's historical society, he has spent countless hours over the years trying to save what little there is of the old Wasilla. He fought for, and helped save, Wasilla's first store, which is now a coffeehouse. When Palin and others wanted to move the town's few original log cabins to an area outside town, he fought to keep them put. He's spent many hours trying to work with city hall to impose some sort of strategic vision. And now he's pretty much given up. He sticks to helping the museum and the library.

In a place where everyone seems to have an opinion about everything, Heaven speaks softly and he does so only after much prodding. So it was surprising when he used the word "embarrassing" to describe his town. He doesn't lay the blame squarely at Palin's feet for what has happened. (He understands that many of the town's decisions predated her.) However, he thinks she could have tried harder—when serving as a city-council member for four years, then as mayor for six—to keep some heart in the area that he calls home. He wishes that she would have spent less energy on business development and more on building a sense of community.

For him, it was a shame that the sports complex got built, even though he knows that his was a minority opinion. (Palin pushed to raise the city sales tax from 2 percent to 2.5 percent to pay for the complex; according to the local paper, residents voted 306 to 286 in favor of the measure.) He thought the money raised from the sales tax should have gone toward a new library that would have been bigger than the old one, housed more books and brought more people together. "We don't have many places like that anymore."

Palin comes from a family of big sports fans. She told a reporter in 1996, after winning her race for mayor, that the "turning point in my life" was winning a high-school basketball game. "We were supposed to be the underdogs, big time," she said. "You see firsthand anything is possible and learn it takes tenacity, hard work and guts."

Now she has something akin to sports-hero status in Wasilla. People in the bars and in the stores believe that someone like them should—and could—go to the White House and even, perhaps, lead the country. People in Wasilla have stories about Palin saying "Hi" to them in the grocery store, on the soccer field, touching their shoulder, asking how they are. They are proud of their town, and proud of her. Over and over again, people say: "She's one of us. She understands us."