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September 27, 2021


Mudflats Chats – Joe McGinniss (Part 1)

Sarah Palin’s famous neighbor is gone, and Alaska is a little emptier than before.  But before Joe McGinniss took off into the waning light of the late Alaskan summer and back to the East coast, I had the opportunity to sit down with him and talk about his book.  No, not that one – the new edition of his classic Alaskan adventure Going to Extremes which was originally published in 1980.

Like a nineteenth century flaneur (from the french to stroll, and meaning “a person who walks the city in order to experience it”) McGinniss traveled the state of Alaska experiencing places, and meeting  people, allowing the story of a state in transition to write itself through him.  McGinniss is as much street photographer as author, utilizing words as snapshots to tell a story that could have been told at no other time.  He was there when the oil flowed into the port of Valdez, and he wandered the Great Land during the rebellious rite of passage when Alaska transitioned from innocent childhood to wild adolescence, with the turn of a spigot.

He is back now, thirty years later, writing again. But this time he writes with a specific laser focus.  His book about Sarah Palin, with the working title Sarah Palin’s Year of Living Dangerously is quickly outgrowing its name.  McGinniss has conducted interviews across the state, while calling the house next door to his subject home for most of the summer.

From the advent of crude oil production, to the launching of Sarah Palin into the political stratosphere, McGinniss has chosen the two very different phenomena that, for good or ill, have most defined Alaska to Outsiders looking in.  Here is the first part of my conversation with Joe McGinniss.


Mudflats: The thing that struck me in looking at your book is that it was like a time-lapse flip-book, but with all the middle pages missing, where you see one tiny sliver in time in the past that was so unique…

McGinniss: Right

Mudflats: And I’ve lived here for twenty years, and I think that this sliver of time now is also unique – it’s also transitional.  I look at your visit now as if you went to a reunion, and you met an old lover or an old classmate, and the difference between what you expected them to be when they were in High School and what they’ve actually turned out to be.  Do you have any thoughts on that?

McGinniss: Well, that’s a good comparison because Alaska was 16 years old as a state when I was out here.  I came out here when it was 16, and now it’s 51 – so of course, it’s like going back to the reunion.  Actually, a couple people who were here then said it’s like going back through your high school yearbook, and saying “Oh, remember that guy?  Remember them? I remember that – that crazy time we did such and such.”

Except for politically, and that’s a huge exception, it’s somewhat more subtle now.  Oil and the money was just starting to pour in, and there hadn’t been any money before that.  It was a tough place to make a living.  And then, all of a sudden, whatever job you have, you can quit it tomorrow and get hired in some capacity by something connected to the pipeline, and be making three times your former salary – at least.  And who wouldn’t do that?

Now, the oil is so entrenched, and the oil – even more than the federal government – is the source of Alaska’s nourishment economically.  It’s just taken for granted now that this is a colony of Big Oil.  They extract, and they leave behind enough for people to live on here, and that’s been the way it’s been since the oil started to flow.  1977 was the start of the oil coming out of Valdez, so for thirty-three years it’s been like that, and everybody’s taking that for granted – and the Permanent Fund and all the other nice things.  But now the oil is starting to diminish.  The pipeline is at less than one third of what it was, and Prudhoe Bay in ten years will be defunct unless there’s a natural gas line starting from up there, which it doesn’t look like there’s going to be… at least not through AGIA.

And so now it’s another transition.  And now anyone who cares is going to have to start thinking about a post-oil economy, and what that’s going to be.  I don’t think anyone has really sat down and tried to sketch that out yet.

Mudflats: What do you think it’s going to be?

McGinniss: Well, the way things are going right now it’s going to no longer be a state.

Mudflats: (laughs)  The independent nation of Alaska?

McGinniss:  The Independent Republic of Alaska – and we can have Joe Miller as King and Sarah Palin as Queen… although she wouldn’t settle for being Queen of Alaska.  She didn’t even like being Governor.  She has higher ambitions, obviously.

But, I don’t know what it’s going to be.  It was fairly predictable, what it was going to be thirty years ago, because you could see that the essence of Alaska was going to be oil for the foreseeable future.  Well, now we’re almost at the end of the foreseeable future, and now there’s the unforeseeable future for the next thirty years, and I dont’ know that anybody has an idea.  And I don’t know that anybody in state government has really been addressing that, because the legislature worries about this year and next year, and getting re-elected and there’s not much long-term planning going on.

Mudflats: I agree.

McGinniss: And there will be a constant fight for “Can we exploit this? Can we develop that?”   Can we do Pebble Mine?  That’ll be a big one.  Can we do ANWR? That’ll be something.  Can we build a gas line?

But suppose the answer to all those things is no.  What replaces this huge cash flow, and especially if you have a Senator who’s going to act to block federal money from coming in to Alaska.  All of a sudden the spigots are going to be turned off, and there could be a shock one day where you wake up and say, “Hey, how do we make any money any more?”  Tourism isn’t going to be enough.

Mudflats: And I don’t think you can go back.  You can’t unring a bell, and say that Alaska will be just like it was before the oil came.

McGinniss: No, no, never.  Because the state of mind is different now, and the people who make up the population are very different from who they were then.  Most of them then, if they weren’t just coming in, like a lot of the people I wrote about who were coming in because of the oil – like the guy on the ferry who was going to get a pipeline job but he didn’t realize that the pipeline would be finished before he could qualify for work …  It was like the gold rush, only it was the oil rush.

And a lot of those people stayed.  And now they make up a large portion of the population of Wasilla, and the Valley and even Anchorage.  But there’s still that vast vast majority of it that is untouchable for various reasons, and will still be as beautiful as it ever was… but if you don’t have a job with an energy company, and you’re not working for the state or federal government, what are you going to do to earn a living ten years from now?  It’s not even thirty years from now, because if there’s no oil left in Prudhoe, what’s going to replace that?  Even the gas line wouldn’t replace that in terms of its long-term impact.

Mudflats: And you can hope for vibrant tourism and fishing…

McGinniss: Well, fishing is fishing until you start to destroy all the fish and fish habitat, but tourism with the overall national economy… tourism is going to continue to decline because people just can’t afford to come here.  I don’t know what the percentage is with cruise ships compared to two years ago, but it’s taken a big hit.

Driving back and forth to Fairbanks a couple times, I still see dozens, or hundreds of these cruise ship buses, taking people up to their pre-arranged places – Glitter Gulch, or a stop in Talkeetna, but there were obviously more of them two years ago than there are now.

But I don’t have to worry about that because my focus is more specific this time.  Thirty years ago, I would love to sit around and talk to people about what Alaska is going to be, because that’s what I was trying to figure out – what it was, and what it might become.

Now, I have a narrower focus.  In fact my focus is on somebody who has now decided that Alaska doesn’t really matter any more.  It certainly doesn’t matter to her.

Mudflats:  And yet now, this person has come to define Alaska to the Lower 48, which is ironic I guess…

McGinniss: Well, yeah.  It’s ironic in that she put Alaska on the national map, and then she took herself out of Alaska.  And she still uses all these Alaska metaphors in her talks, but she has really nothing to do with life in Alaska today and she spends as much time as possible out of the state because, you know, her goal is pretty clear.  It’s Washington, not Juneau.

Mudflats: She went to Juneau??

McGinniss: (laughs) I understand that she had a tanning bed installed in the Governor’s mansion, so maybe that was just for Bristol and Willow, I don’t know…

Mudflats: When you came back for the first time after so long, did you feel nostalgic? Did you feel that Alaska had done well for itself? Did you feel a little sad? What was your visceral first reaction?

McGinniss: Oh, I just felt happy getting back.  It was the first time since 1980.  It was 2008, I got here the day before election day, and just in time to see the Petumenos Report delivered, contradicting the Branchflower Report on election eve.

Mudflats: You know how to time your visits, don’t you.

McGinniss: I checked in to the Captain Cook Hotel.

Mudflats: It’s still mustard-colored. I laughed when I read that description in the book.

McGinniss: The color of bad mustard.  They haven’t re-painted it.  Now it’s become distinctive – sort of emblematic.  Then, it was just ugly.

But yeah, there we have, in the basement, this report exhonorating Sarah Palin on election eve.  And it didn’t make any difference at that point nobody in the country cared about Troopergate. Things had moved along, but …

I was just so happy to be back.  And I went up to Kotzebue, where I’d never even been before, and I got to Juneau and I saw places like that that could have certainly been that way 30 years ago.  There wasn’t a whole lot of change to Kotzebue.  And there wasn’t even a whole lot of change to Juneau.  I’m sure in the summer with the cruise ships, it’s a much more crowded place, but being there in November without the Legislature and without the tourists, it could have been 1976 all over again.  There’s been some growth out by the airport and  by the Mendenhall Glacier, but Juneau like Homer is very much the place it was, and those are the places that I love – not so much Wasilla which is really the most un-Alaskan part of Alaska.  That strip in Wasilla – those three or four miles – you could be in Orange County, California.

More to come.

Going to Extremes is available for purchase HERE.



No Responses to “Mudflats Chats – Joe McGinniss (Part 1)”
  1. LA Brian says:

    Thanks for the Mudchat, AKM. I do like the variety on your site.

  2. karen marie says:

    Oh, so great! Thanks, AKM! Thanks, Joe McGinnis!

  3. tallimat says:

    I remember when Wasilla was a pretty good place. Teelands was at the corner and a few warm hearted local Indians live up the hill. We were never allowed to enjoy Wasilla Lake cause dad said people in their weekend cabins drank and yelled at us once.

    Houston was just a lodge. Big Lake rd was barely noticable and yes, we were not allowed to boat around there. Rocky lake was where we hung out, usually with two or three native families.

    Sowah, in her book of lies, says she was happy to breath the fresh air of Wasilla. Gee if you look up the meaning of Wasilla, you’ll know where she shoplifter that thought from.

    Mr. Heath taught science, but was better at stupid jokes. Mrs. Heath sounded like some newie tryin to be cute in a frontier where nothing made her cute. But hey the bible cult kids liked her. They were just as new as she was.

    I didn’t like the protrayal or sterotypical writing about Alaska Natives, Joe M. did in his book. sigh… In all honesty, nothing new. Seems like every outside writer does it, if they stay less than a year, in a urdan area and only visit a hub community or village.

    Anyway, I am glad Joe returned.
    Alaska is beautiful… Everybody tries to come back.

    Quyana for the info with the chat.
    Joe is older, and so is Alaska.

  4. Laurainnocal says:

    Joe, thank you for spending time with Mudflats and our brilliant AKM. It is quite obvious that you care deeply for this lovely state.

  5. Blooper says:

    The thing strikes me about Mr. McGinniss is how he really seems to care about the State of Alaska. He isn’t just another johnny-come-lately who only became interested in Alaska after $P made it national. He was here long before ‘the phantom menace’, documenting a very interesting, beautiful and often strange state.

    I think a lot of the press here and nationally have glossed over that fact and have framed his presence here in a purely political fashion I think for for him it was and still is about this state and the things that most affected it, whether it was (and still is) oil or $P.

  6. Jen says:

    I have forgotten where the Palin Barbie videos are posted. Bummer.

  7. Zyxomma says:

    So glad to see this interview. Joe McG and AKM, what a combination of brains, beauty, and talent! Thanks.

  8. Irishgirl says:

    He threw her into a dumpster! Not to worry, there is always Barbie.

  9. Jen says:

    Irish Girl! Please don’t forget to post those pics! I am so looking forward to this!

  10. Jen says:

    Yes, Wasilla could be anywhere USA. I find it so curious Palin plays the Alaska card but she was forefront in turning the sleepy town of Wasilla into a strip mall in the ’90s. And she seems to have done it while in a 1970’s mindset. But, by the ’90s the Lower 48 was feeling the economic effects of such cookie cutter stamped Wal-Marts, malls with the same old stores, etc. A malaise was beginning to set in — lots of towns and cities were beginning to reinvent and revitalize their neglected core districts and streets. But, not in Wasilla! It is exasperatingly depressing.

  11. jwa says:

    typo alert – check the extra ‘s’ in the title….

  12. iowanah says:

    uh – Juneau doubled in the ten years after you were there last, Joe. That little bit of growth out by the glacier was 14,000 people. I am looking forward to what you have to say about the Queen of nowhere though.

    • Irishgirl says:

      Great interview. Looking forward to the next installment. I loved your description of Joe as a flaneur. It really is fitting. A very good friend of mine wrote his thesis on “the flaneur” and we had much merriment and fun in our final year of photography carting around and dressing up a mannequin and inserting her into street scenes. We got some looks as we pulled her out of the car…she came in bits!

      OMG…..just had a brainwave. If he still has the mannequin, I would pay good money to buy a wig and a bumpit. 🙂

  13. Aeroentropy says:

    We. That should say we!

  14. Aeroentropy says:

    Is this all ww get today? The anticipation will surely kill me!

  15. Maggie says:

    Not to nitpick, AKM, but there is an extra S at the end of Joe’s last name in the title.

    I’m looking forward to installment # 2.

  16. ks sunflower says:

    What a great opening segment. I join everyone else’s sentiment in looking forward to the next. There were some great takeaway points.

  17. G Katz says:

    I’m enjoying your interview thus far and so glad you got to interview McGinniss before he left Alaska.

  18. CO almost native says:

    Thank you, from an armchair traveler who hopes to get to Alaska some day.

  19. Molly says:

    Thanks AKM I enjoyed the interview so far.

    I like how he gets in digs at You-Know-Who. Guess he really doesn’t like her, hey?

  20. Older_Wiser says:

    Sometimes it takes an outsider to objectively see what’s in front of your face day after day.

  21. tewise says:

    Thank you AKM great article.

  22. twain12 says:

    great interview, can’t wait for the next installment

  23. Paula says:

    I’m so glad this guy keeps writing. Now I have 2 books to look forward to reading. Go Joe 🙂

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