Sarah Palin is that most exotic of American creatures: an Alaska original, raised and ripened in an environment remote, extreme, unfamiliar and free. A land of self-invention, where no one bats an eye at a mom-deckhand-governor-whatever-comes-next. Ever since John McCain introduced his running mate last year, Palin has been like a modern-day version of the captive specimens hauled back to Europe by explorers of old. Like Squanto in London, she speaks the language if not always the idiom of the audiences she fascinates. But she remains, on some level, unknowable.
This outsider quality is easy to ignore when you see her in full dazzle on a convention stage, but it comes into focus should you find her in her habitat. After announcing plans on July 3 to resign as governor after just 2½ years, Palin retired to her in-laws' place in Dillingham, a tiny fishing village in southwestern Alaska, reachable only by boat or plane. TIME caught up to her there. It was salmon season, and thick fillets, red from the smokehouse, were drying on a line strung from a nearby tree. Husband Todd Palin was chopping wood and feeding it into a homemade sauna, the kind that native fishermen like him sweat themselves clean in after a day on Bristol Bay. He likes it hot 190°F to 200°F (about 90°C to 95°C) but that's too much for Sarah. Daughter Piper hovered over her baby brother Trig, who shares a name with one of the volcanoes on the far side of the water. Flat land, flat water, distant mountains. You can see for miles but not far enough to spot the nearest town.
Could there be a less likely venue in which to ask a woman in a blue T-shirt "Go Slam a Salmon," it reads about her plans to run for President? And yet this was the place where her answer finally made sense. It included none of the strange ramblings of her televised resignation speech, which managed, in pure Palin style, to be both plainspoken and inscrutable. For example: "Take the words of General MacArthur. He said, 'We are not retreating. We are advancing in another direction.' " And "Do you want me to make a positive difference and fight for all our children's future from outside the governor's office?"
With salmon and wood smoke fragrant in the endless summer evening, amid wet socks and waders and red rubber fishing gloves, Palin tells TIME, "I cannot predict what's going to happen. I don't know what doors will be open or closed by then. I was telling Todd today, I was saying, 'Man, I wish we could predict the next fish run so that we know when to be out on the water.' We can't predict the next fish run, much less what's going to happen in 2012."
In Washington, where even a flat no can mean maybe, this answer will almost certainly be taken to mean "Yes, she's running," heedless of the widely spouted view that she blew her chance with the decision to quit her current job. Left, right and center, pundits opined on the lightness of Palin's résumé and her vanished chance to beef it up. How could she seek a promotion when she didn't finish the job she had? Even a fan like columnist Fred Barnes, writing in the pro-Palin Weekly Standard, declared glumly, "Forget about Sarah Palin as the Republican presidential candidate in 2012 and probably ever."
In Alaska, though, her answer could mean exactly what it says that she doesn't yet know what she'll be doing in 2012. Here, you make each day from the materials at hand. "My intention" in the coming months, she said in her resignation speech, "is to go out and to campaign for people who can effect change all across our nation." She added that "I can't do that from the governor's desk" because enemies stirred up by her sudden prominence and orchestrated, she believes, by the Obama White House would bury her in unfounded ethics complaints.
Whether that is true or not, Palin's unconventional step speaks to an ingrained frontier skepticism of authority even one's own. Given the plunging credibility of institutions and élites, that's a mood that fits the Palin brand. Résumés ain't what they used to be; they count only with people who trust credentials a dwindling breed. The mathematics Ph.D.s who dreamed up economy-killing derivatives have pretty impressive résumés. The leaders of congressional committees and executive agencies have decades of experience at wallowing in red ink, mismanaging economic bubbles and botching covert intelligence.
If ever there has been a time to gamble on a flimsy résumé, ever a time for the ultimate outsider, this might be it. "We have so little trust in the character of the people we elected that most of us wouldn't invite them into our homes for dinner, let alone leave our children alone in their care," writes talk-show host Glenn Beck in his book Glenn Beck's Common Sense, a pox-on-all-their-houses fusillade at Washington. Dashed off in a fever of disillusionment with those in power, Beck's book is selling like vampire lit, with more than 1 million copies in print.