UNALAKLEET, Alaska — She was greeted like a rock star in Unalakleet, a fishing village on the Bering Sea. She danced with Eskimos in Kotzebue. And she watched grizzlies at a wildlife sanctuary on the Kenai Peninsula.
In all, Sarah Palin has been on eight trips outside her Anchorage base since announcing her resignation two weeks ago. Is this a farewell tour, the start of a possible presidential campaign for 2012?
Palin insists it isn't, although she still won't say what plans she has after she steps down as Alaska governor on July 26, with 18 months left to her first term.
"I am Alaskan. I've grown up here and I'm going to remain in Alaska," she told The Associated Press in an interview. "It's not farewell, it's more like thanks for letting me be here and I'll see you soon."
Palin has largely avoided the media limelight in the past two weeks and dodged questions about her future plans. But she hints she has a bigger role in mind, and she plans to launch her new platform by speaking her mind on the social networking site Twitter.
Palin said she is eager to begin life as a private citizen.
"Once I am 'Sarah Palin, Alaskan,' I can really call it like I see it," she said.
Palin waves off any talk of running for president.
"I look forward to continuing to work for Alaska and for energy independence and for the contribution that Alaska could and should be making to allow our nation to be more secure and more prosperous," she said.
Some have speculated she plans to build on her near celebrity status as a conservative talk show host, perhaps for Fox News, or launch a lucrative speaking tour. If her reception Friday in Unalakleet is any indication, she has a strong base of support.
More than 100 people packed a community center and bingo hall to greet the outgoing governor as she signed a bill continuing state subsidies for rural electricity.
The town, known locally as the place where the East wind blows, was an unlikely stop during Palin's final days. A remote collection of unpaved streets on the Bering Sea, the town is so remote that is only reachable by plane and most residents get around by ATV or by foot. There are few cars.
But this is what Palin loves best: Reaching out to Alaskans, no matter how remote. She barely had time to eat lunch – king crab and salmon and a barrage of homemade desserts – as families surged toward her, trying to shake her hand and get an autograph. Pictures of the governor were not enough. Residents wanted to talk to her and pose with her, even as an aide tried in vain to shield the governor and then get her to leave quietly.
Palin smiled through it all, basking in the attention. She nodded sympathetically as a man told her of a relative in Iraq. She hugged a mother whose baby has Down syndrome, as does Palin's youngest child Trig. She signed every post card and datebook thrust in front of her.
Palin says Alaska voters have accepted her decision to resign, even as she continues to receive criticism from the national media and even some fellow Republicans who question her decision to leave with 18 months left in her four-year term.
"We don't give a damn how they do it outside," she said, quoting a popular state bumper sticker. "We do it a different way up here. The pioneer spirit runs strong."
Agnes Baptiste, who posed with Palin and other family members Friday, said she was grateful the governor took the time to come to Unalakleet, 400 miles northwest of Anchorage.
"It's remarkable we can have the opportunity to see her in this community," Baptiste said. Palin "has brought a lot to our state," Baptiste said. "Whatever endeavor she pursues, I know she'll have Alaska in mind."
Davida Hanson, co-owner of Peace on Earth Pizzeria, said she sees a little of herself in Palin: a working mother trying to do what's best for her job and family.
"She wants to be a mom and a family person. It's not a bad thing," Hanson said, recalling that Palin won her heart immediately after taking office, when Palin followed through on a campaign pledge to sell a state jet bought by former Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski. "I love her!" Hanson said.
Not everyone is so impressed. Karen Erickson, owner of the Kuupiaq coffee house, said she thinks Palin has "gone Hollywood" since her selection last year as John McCain's running mate.
"She likes her attention with the media," Erickson said, then adds: "She's done a lot for the state. You have to give her that."
The Rev. Pat McCoy, pastor of the Lighthouse Baptist Church, said he understands why Palin is stepping down.
"If I was her, I'd quit," he said. "Everybody just wants her all the time."
Palin said Alaskans appreciate her desire to help the state avoid a prolonged lame-duck status.
Paul Ivanoff III, community development coordinator for the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp., said there are two Palins – one before she was picked as McCain's running mate, and the current, rock-star version.
"Anybody thrust into the limelight like that will change for good, especially someone as photogenic and popular with the conservative base as Sarah," he said.
Ivanoff said he was saddened and angered by her sudden resignation because it would cost the state significant money and rob it of one of its most valuable resources – Palin.
"In the same breath you have to respect her position," he added. "No matter what elected position you are in, you have to do what's best for you and your family. I respect that."