When the man working for Frommer's, America's best-selling travel guide, alighted on the small town of Wasilla in south-central Alaska, he concluded glumly that the place should be condemned as "the worst kind of suburban sprawl". To the European eye it would barely be a town at all. Rather, it is a four-lane highway that clatters across the magnificent, mountain-fringed Matanuska-Susitna valley, dumping seven miles of strip-malls, petrol stations and supermarkets in its wake.
Wasilla is home to 9,780 people, hundreds of small businesses, a dozen evangelical Christian churches, and a handful of gun stores. The churches are places where many of the faithful see signs that judgment day cannot be far away and where the infallibility of the Bible is rarely, if ever, questioned. The gun stores are places where you can pick up the new Ruger 10/22 carbine, the one that comes in bright pink with a 10-round magazine - "perfect for your wife or daughter".
Famously, Wasilla is also the home town and launch pad for Sarah Palin, John McCain's vice-presidential running mate. Palin is a woman for whom many Republicans have high hopes, despite performances in early television interviews that were so wobbly they have become YouTube classics. She remains a politician who many in the party would like to believe could be a future president.
Her selection six weeks ago saw a slew of stories about the former beauty queen with the brilliant smile and the carefully styled mom-in-a-hurry hairdo, who could drop a caribou at a thousand paces before skinning it, butchering it, and hauling it home for the freezer. In a country that regards the wilderness surrounding Wasilla as a last bastion of rugged, can-do libertarianism, her story seemed to be a potent, 21st-century update on America's central myth.
But Wasilla is no frontier town. A third of the town's workforce commute to office jobs in Anchorage, 45 miles to the south. Many others work in the endless strip malls. Palin may shoot, fish and ride a snowmobile, but her neighbours are more accustomed to seeing her leap into the 4x4 to drive to the local Starbucks. Palin's home town represents, at most, the call of the semi-wild.
So if the image of McCain's running mate as a tough outdoorswoman is part truth and partly a confection of her party's machine, what are we to make of the rest of the package?
What will be revealed about her later today with the conclusion of the investigation into the so-called Troopergate affair, in which she is alleged to have abused her power as state governor by sacking the head of the Alaskan state police after he refused to become involved in a family feud?
Is Palin truly a warrior of the religious right, a woman who advocates the teaching of creationism and who is opposed to abortion, even for victims of rape and incest? Would she, as opponents claim, seek to ban books from library shelves?
Who, in short, is Sarah Palin? And what on earth does she want?
Palin was born in February 1964 in another small town, Sandpoint, Idaho, the third of four children of Chuck and Sally Heath. Genealogists have traced her father's family tree as a far as John Lothropp, a nonconformist minister from Beverley in Yorkshire, who settled in Massachusetts in 1634 to escape persecution. If so, this would make Palin a distant relation of George Bush.
The family moved to Alaska when Sarah was two months old after Chuck, a primary school teacher, took up a post there. Accounts of her time at Wasilla high school suggest a headstrong, slightly pushy, but popular pupil: a girl who was determined to succeed on the sports field, and who wanted to be noticed, who liked to be liked.
Her university days appear to have been considerably less happy. In five years she flitted between as many different colleges, in Hawaii, Idaho and Alaska, sometimes quitting after one term. It is unclear why she was so unsettled. It is clear, however, that she was far from the centre of attention at this time: after McCain named Palin as his running mate, the Idaho...