After John McCain tapped Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate, the nation took a sudden interest in the quirky 49th state. How is Alaska different than the lower 48 states?

What’s Alaska like?
With 3 million lakes, more than 3,000 rivers, and 17 of the country’s 20 tallest mountains, Alaska is vast, beautiful, wild—and largely empty. Though the state covers 656,424 square miles—making it bigger than all but 18 of the world’s nations—its population of 683,000 is smaller than that of Columbus, Ohio. Only a third of Alaska can be reached by road, which explains why it has more private airplane pilots per capita than any other state. The capital, Juneau, is inaccessible by land and unconnected to the North American highway system. And because Alaska is so remote from the rest of America, it is not well understood. One out of eight Americans thinks it is a nation, territory, or commonwealth, according to a 2006 poll commissioned by the state.

What sort of people live there?
Befitting a state settled by hunters, gold miners, and oil drillers, Alaskans consider themselves rugged individualists. Just 39 percent of Alaskans belong to a religious congregation, compared with 70 percent for the nation at large. But Alaskans are devoted to the outdoors. It’s not unusual to see state lawmakers show up for votes decked out in camouflage outfits, fresh from a moose hunt. Some other quirks: More than 60 percent of Alaskans were born elsewhere, and the ratio of single men to single women is the nation’s highest: 114 to 100, as opposed to the national average of 86 to 100. Though the women don’t mind that imbalance, they often complain that many Alaskan men are transients who are not interested in commitment. “The odds are good,” the saying goes, “but the goods are odd.”

How do Alaskans regard the rest of us?

Many view the “Lower 48” with suspicion. Alaskans feel that their state gets no respect, and is treated as nothing more than a source of energy and mineral wealth. Indeed, during the debate over the 1980 Alaska Lands Act, which gave the federal government control over 225 million disputed acres, Alaskans voted to study “appropriate changes” in their relationship with Washington. That included the possibility of secession—the first time that notion was seriously floated by any state since the Civil War. The Alaskan Independence Party has about 13,700 members, which included, for a while, Sarah Palin’s husband, Todd (see below). But few think that secession is a viable option.

Why couldn’t Alaska secede?
Because without federal largesse, Alaska would be an economic basket case. The federal government now owns about 60 percent of Alaskan land, and the population is so sparsely settled—about one person per square mile—that besides oil drilling and tourism, the state has few self-sustaining industries. So for all its storied individualism, Alaska has long relied on Washington. For every dollar Alaska pays to the U.S. Treasury, it gets back $1.84, higher than all but two states; it receives federal pork at a rate 30 times the national per capita average.

How is that money used?
As in all states, the federal money helps sustain everything from health and welfare programs to parks and infrastructure. But the flood of federal dollars has also given rise to such infamous boondoggles as the $223 million “Bridge to Nowhere”—killed after a political outcry—that would have connected the southeastern city of Ketchikan to Gravina Island, population 50. It also has helped foster an “anything goes” political atmosphere, with elected leaders focusing on pork and favors for cronies. “You get this frontier image of individualism, stereotypical bluster, and self-reliance,” says Alaska author Steve Haycox, “and it plays right into corrupt politics.”

How widespread is the corruption?
More than that of any other state, Alaska’s economy is based on oil, gas, and other natural resources extracted from government-owned land. So to do business there, you need access to legislators; Alaska attracts hordes of lobbyists eager to grease the skids for lucrative contracts. “Lobbyists are replacing the prospector, the trapper, and the fisherman as symbols of the last frontier,” says Terry Gardiner, a former state representative. In recent years, there have been reports of lawmakers being bribed with as little as a few thousand dollars, and of lobbyists literally directing votes on the floor of the legislature. In 2006, federal authorities launched a sweeping investigation into illegal quid pro quos between government officials and VECO, a now-defunct oil-field-services giant. Three former state lawmakers have been convicted, and VECO’s CEO has pleaded guilty. U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator, now on trial on charges that he failed to report hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts from the company.

What does all this mean for Alaska?
The scandals have already been responsible for the rise of Sarah Palin, who was elected governor in 2006 on a clean-government platform. Down the road, though, it’s hard to assess what long-lasting political changes might be in store. Alaska, which only became a state in 1959, has always been a place where mavericks flourish. Former Gov. Walter Hickel used to say he got good advice from a “little man” inside his head; longtime congressman Don Young once put his hand in a leg-hold trap to prove it wasn’t painful to animals. Whenever Ted Stevens does battle on the Senate floor, he wears an Incredible Hulk tie. As former gubernatorial candidate Andrew Halcro put it, “We’re basically divorced from reality up here.”

One nation, divisible
The 35-year-old Alaskan Independence Party, the third largest party in the state, says on its website that it’s not “a bunch of radicals and kooks.” The fact that the party needs to set the record straight reflects its colorful origins—as well as its position that the option of Alaska leaving the Union should not be taken off the table. (The party also wants consideration of Alaska’s return to territorial status or, at the very least, extensive new state’s rights.) “The fires of hell are glaciers compared to my hate for the American government,” said party founder Joseph Vogler. Vogler was killed in 1993, reportedly by a disgruntled campaign volunteer in what was later described as “a plastics-explosives deal gone bad.” Vogler’s successor, Lynette Clark, recently declared: “In my heart and mind, I’m an Alaskan. I don’t identify myself as an American.” Most Alaskans may not go quite that far, but they do share the sentiment that they are a breed apart. That could explain why Sarah Palin has addressed the party’s convention twice, once as a gubernatorial candidate and once as governor.