The tiny town of Anderson in the frozen interior of Alaska has its charms, including full-on views of Mount McKinley, North America's highest summit, and a front-row seat for the nocturnal frenzy of the Northern Lights. But only a special kind of person would want to live there.
A yen for solitude would help. With a population of fewer than 300, no grocery shop and not even a petrol station, Anderson, nestled amid endless forests of spruce, is hardly a bustling metropolis. But here is one other thing it has going for it - pristine plots for house -building going for free.
Or at least, that was the case until last Monday, the deadline for applications for an unlikely land giveaway, recalling - though admittedly on an entirely more modest scale - the Homestead Act of the 19th century that lured pioneering souls to the new frontier of the Great American West. It started when local teachers, alarmed at the rate at which the town's residents were moving away, tasked their students with hatching a scheme to save Anderson from extinction. The students, in turn, identified the one resource never in short supply - space. Soon they pitched their idea to local government: give them land and they will come!
And so they have - from all across the United States, even from as far away as Florida. They drove, they flew and they hitch-hiked, determined to win their place near the front of the queue that formed during the weekend outside the city council offices. Never mind that it was 20 degrees below. They camped on beds made of spruce twigs, bundled up in double sleeping bags and warmed their hands on fiery braziers.
By nine o'clock on Monday morning, 40 parties were waiting patiently for the unlikely land bonanza. They had the jump on the hundreds of others who had made inquiries by mail, email and telephone, but had not made the journey. Word had reached India, South Africa and even Taiwan.
But it was only the first 26 who got lucky. The deal: in return for a refundable deposit of $500 - cashier's cheque required - they each received a 1.3-acre plot in an area at the edge of town to be called Northern Lights Subdivision. …