Our car swings out of the downtown traffic and into the gas station. We are looking for directions out into the snow-capped mountains that surround this city, embellishing and embarrassing it with their elegance.

The young gas station attendant bends down to the window and apologizes. He doesn't know the way to the main highway. He has only been in Alaska four days.

Hours later, we arrive in Talkeetna, halfway between Anchorage and Denali State Park, where climbers assemble before they "assault" Mt. McKinley. We who are not into assaults ask where we might find a walk with a view.

The cook at the restaurant also apologizes. Although he is dressed in a Full Alaska-- beard, wool shirt, hiking boots--he has only been here three weeks.

Soon, our encounters with new Alaskans have become a running joke. We easily adopt the opening lines of conversation in this state: Where you from? How long you been here?

In eight days we meet Native Americans who have inhabited this territory since time immemorial. But we meet only one non- native fourth-generation Alaskan, and a handful who were born here.

We discover that to have lived in Alaska in the 1930s is to be a pioneer. To have lived here since the 1960s is to have memories of the old days. To have lived here a dozen years is to hold seniority. To have lived here six years carries with it the sound of solid citizenry.

This is undeniably a land of immigrants. The license plates proclaim it "The Last Frontier," with its unimaginably vast wilderness, one-sixth the size of all of the United States. But it is also equally the last frontier of American immigration.

The East Coast of America was the stew pot of Europe a century ago. Alaska is the stew pot of the Lower 48 today. To see it in process is to see the optimistic, boasting, apologetic, insular and intense self-consciousness of a new culture being created out of old ingredients.

This immigration has a peculiarly 20th- century shape. The first American immigrants came by steerage. Today's Alaskans usually come (and often leave) by DC10 and 737.

Centuries of technology and generations of frontier experience are compressed by this time warp. Log cabins and tract houses coexist. People get their salmon from the water and their Pop-Tarts from the supermarket. The bush and the city, the edge of survival and the center of civilization, are separated by impassable terrain and yet connected by tiny planes that buzz the state like mosquitoes.

It is possible, even ordinary, to stand in rugged country at lunchtime and eat dinner in Anchorage, a place author John McPhee unflatteringly described as "that part of any city where the city has burst its seams and extruded Colonel Sanders."

But these are not the only contradictions. In some ways, Alaska preselects its immigrants. If America was the land of opportunity for the world, Alaska is today's magnet.

It pulls on the minds of the desperate and the daring of what's called here "The Outside." In the Kenai peninsula, the "refuse" of Oregon's teeming unemployed "shore" camp out and hope for work in the canneries. In cities like Juneau and Anchorage and Fairbanks, young professionals arrive to become vice presidents and television reporters and community leaders before they are 30.

It attracts believers as well. The Lower 48 were settled by advocates of every religion and cause. Today Alaska harbors some of the most ardent of our own environmental believers: the protectors, the owners, the exploiters. There is, in modern Oklahoma style, a conflict between those who want to live in the frontier and those who want to "civilize" it, between those who want to keep it and those who want to "use" it.

Battles erupt between those who came to escape the rules of the outside and those who want to extend them, between those who create planning and those who resent it. In a single rafting trip you can see signs of many philosophies of daily life: campers who pack their refuse with them, and a cabin with rusting trucks in the yard and a sign: "Shoot on Sight."

At times, in arguments and appearances, it seems that these citizens share only one intense experience: winter.

Yet they are creating something. In the Lower 48, all the foreign elements in our stew eventually simmered into something complex but recognizably American.

Here the ingredients are still raw in places. The recipe is neither American nor foreign. There is something distinctly Alaskan in the making.