ANCHORAGE, Alaska – A town in Alaska's frozen interior that offered free land to anyone willing to put down roots had it all spoken for within hours Monday.
People dropped everything to fly or drive north, camping out in weather as cold as 25 below and dreaming of homes they would build amid the spruce and cottonwoods of the town of Anderson, population 300.
By Monday morning, 44 parties were waiting in line for a shot at the 26 large lots offered to the first people who applied and submitted $500 refundable deposits.
There were very few locals among them but plenty of people from other areas, including Oregon, Idaho, Florida, Wisconsin and Washington state.
"People are jacked," said Mayor Mike Pearson. "They're jubilant. It's like a mini festival."
And those are just the ones who hustled to show up after news broke about the giveaway, which requires that winning applicants build a house measuring at least 1,000 square feet within two years.
Jeremie Dufault, an attorney in Boise, Idaho, who claimed one of the 1.3-acre lots for a summer home, talked a friend into claiming an adjacent lot so they could vacation together.
"This is a brilliant and innovative way to create a neighborhood because now we all know each other and we've been through this together," he said about waiting in line.
No. 26 was Ross Shoger of Portland Ore., who was on a 6 a.m. flight Saturday just hours after he heard about the offer. The 23-year-old flew to Fairbanks, then hitchhiked to Anderson, where he plans to do odd jobs to make a living in a town where most employment opportunities require some driving.
Those who failed to make the initial cut for the lots, including piles of applications expected this week in the mail, still have a chance because city officials gave the first 26 people in line a week to change their minds about making the commitment.
City phones were ringing nonstop all weekend and were still going strong Monday. Thousands of people called from all 50 states and other places, including Canada, Taiwan, India and South America, according to locals including Anderson high-school teacher Daryl Frisbie, whose social studies class developed the homesteading idea to boost the town's dwindling population.
Frisbie said his own residential phone has been ringing round the clock. Interest was high despite the brutal winters of the interior, where temperatures can plunge to 60 below. Never mind that there's no grocery store or gas station in Anderson, 75 miles from the regional hub of Fairbanks.
Callers from around the world were all focused on two words: free land.
"This is insane," Frisbie said. "It's more than I ever imagined."
Shoger, the 23-year-old who claimed the 26th lot, said he has a back-up plan.
"If this doesn't work out, I'll go to Europe," he said.