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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Anyone who doubts Sarah Palin's celebrity need only talk to Lyn Carden.

As head of the Chamber of Commerce in Wasilla, Alaska, Carden tends to be the front line for tourists wanting to see Palin, perhaps even grab a cup of coffee at her house. And she has heard it all.

When Palin makes news, or carries a snazzy purse women want to buy, Carden invariably gets a call, or a flurry of calls. Some callers have left credit card information, hoping to get that purse. Others send fan mail or money for Palin's political action committee.

There are those too who just stop in, hoping for directions to her house, which they do not get, or eager to learn as much as they can about Wasilla's most famous resident. Many snap photos of themselves with Palin's cardboard cutout.

"Of course, every single question is about her and where she is and where she gets her hair done and what she eats and what she's doing," Carden said.

A year after Palin's abrupt resignation as Alaska's governor, interest in her and the small Alaska town that she put on the map has not gone away. Though it is not at the fever pitch it reached during her run for the vice presidency on the GOP ticket in 2008, there remains a steady stream of pilgrims. At least one tour company builds old Palin haunts into a trip that includes a visit to a musk ox farm.

Some in Wasilla don't see what the big deal is. To them, Palin's just a local girl who made good, a former mayor and current resident who hits her favorite running trails when she's in town and runs her own errands, seen at the Fred Meyer supermarket, gas station or library, dressed down and without immaculate hair and makeup.

She also is among the most well-known but polarizing political figures in America, revered by supporters as a God-fearing Everywoman who fights for what she believes in, and derided by critics as a political lightweight and quitter.

"There's no gray area," Carden said.

There also is no denying the fascination with her.

John Coale, who is no stranger to celebrity — he is married to Fox News' Greta Van Susteren and considers the Clintons friends — recalls a scene in Boston this year when he took Palin and her husband, Todd, to a pastry shop.

Within seconds, he said, people started asking for photos, and seemingly out of nowhere, almost 100 people massed outside. It took about 45 minutes to get through, he said, with Palin stopping for autographs and photos, never complaining or acting a diva.

"It was like being with a Beatle," said Coale, who established Palin's political action committee.

In Juneau, the state capital where Palin spent as little time as possible while governor, preferring to stay nearer home and work out of Anchorage, the occasional tourist still asks about her on tours of the Capitol or visits to the governor's mansion.

Just knowing that she once occupied the mansion was sufficient for Julie Pitre and Lucille Godin to hike Juneau's hamstring-stretching hills for a look at the stately home's grounds.

"It looks more like a family [home] than a big government mansion," said Godin, of New Brunswick, Canada. "She had a beautiful yard," Pitre said, camera around her neck.

In Wasilla, there are not many typical tourist-type places. But many die-hards, well-versed in all-things-Palin, already have an idea of where they want to go, Carden said.

For those who do not, there are guides like Barbara Adams.

She generally drives 12 to 24 tourists a week around town, stopping at places including City Hall, Palin's high school and the house she grew up in. Palin's current home is pointed out from a respectful distance, she said, across Lake Lucille. (Continues here at LA Times)

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