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I should have known the visit to Santa Claus wasn't meant to be when I left my home in Houston (population 1.8-million) and couldn't find the Santa Claus House in North Pole, Alaska (population: 1,500).

The day before Thanksgiving, my 6-year-old son, Sam, and I piled out of my sister's cabin in the snowy woods outside Fairbanks and into her ancient four-wheel drive Subaru. It was 10:30 a.m., still before the sun had actually hoisted itself up over the wintry eastern horizon and reported for a few hours' duty. I navigated down Chena Ridge (no four-wheel drive needed) and through a downtown Fairbanks heavily encrusted with ice (four-wheel drive engaged). We wheeled out onto Richardson Highway S, jubilantly headed for what the U.S. Post Office has determined to be the official home of Santa Claus.

En route, my young son informed me that Santa Claus does not live in North Pole, Alaska. He lives, Sam said, at the North Pole, which is somewhere out in the Arctic, but definitely not in America. Undaunted, I replied that the post office must know, since it sends all the kids' letters to North Pole, Alaska, and Santa delivers all the toys just like he's supposed to, right?

Sam rolled his eyes in that annoying way he has developed to show he disagrees with me but doesn't actually want to say so.

Rolling south the 13 miles to North Pole, we passed Fort Wainwright, local military outpost and supply point, and occasional homes and small farms tucked into snowy lots. Copses and small forests of conifers lined the roadside. I exited the highway at the first sign for North Pole, figuring there would probably only be one exit for a town that size, famous though it might be. I began to read off the street and store signs for my son's delight _ Santa Claus Lane, St. Nicholas Drive, Polar (Bear) Automotive, Lone Wolf Car Rental, Santa's Kitchen, Badger Road.

We drove up and down the streets, enjoying the wintry sights and looking for the Santa Claus House. All 15 or so streets.

No sign of the Santa Claus House.

We saw the famous Post Office; Sam didn't even blink. We saw the Moose Creek General Store and Liquor Store. We saw North Pole Video, with its Santa-and-reindeer logo, and Sourdough Fuel. We drove past North Pole Independent Publishing, apparently coexisting with North Pole Auto Repair on Fifth Avenue. (Front-page headline of the North Pole Independent that day: "Murder Victim Enjoyed Small-Town Life." Honest.)

No Santa Claus House.

We drove along the railroad tracks a couple of frozen blocks, but it was clear that nobody but us and the hauling vehicles had any business there. We circled back through town, determinedly admiring every Christmas light on every single cottage and cabin, including a couple of newer, two-story apartment quadrants down a ways from Moose Lodge No. 306. Still no Santa Claus House.

How could I have missed it? This wasn't exactly downtown Tokyo. (North Pole Independent "Community Calendar" items: Santa's Senior Citizens Center Association's birthday luncheon and blood pressure check, third Wednesday of each month; "Farthest North Girl Scout Council has a wide variety of volunteer positions available." I'll bet they do.)

In the woods on the edge of town, my hale heartiness was wearing thin, together with the signs of civilization. I retraced our snow-tire tracks back to Richardson Highway, one exit down from where I came off. Aha! Off to the right on the feeder road was a snowed-in log cabin, the tourist information bureau. I crunched to a stop in front of the Just Be Claus gift shop, jumped out and ran to read the sign on the front door. "North Pole Tourist Information Closed for the Winter. See You Next Summer!"

Not likely. Next to the door was a thermometer. I looked: It was registering 20 below zero.

Not to be thwarted, I trundled a bundled Sam out of the car and followed a couple of elderly local inhabitants into the only place around showing incipient signs of life, the Elf's Den Restaurant and Lounge.

"Oh, are you here for the seniors' luncheon, dear?" sweetly asked a small, white-haired woman for whom I now regretted having held the door. I bared my teeth, which she took for a smile and, denying AARP status, I politely asked about the Santa Claus House.

She looked at me a little oddly, then pointed out the window. A block back down the highway in the direction of Fairbanks stood a giant, two-story replica of Kris Kringle, smiling beatifically down at every passing truck.

"Look, Mom, it's right there in front of you!" contributed my son. I murmured our thanks and tugged Sam out the door behind me.

Ice flakes scattered in the wake of the Subaru as I swept with a flourish into the parking lot in front of the long-sought Santa Claus House. It turned out the giant Santa was actually standing out in front of the Santaland RV Park next door, so we went over to investigate. Little reindeer-shaped street signs with names like "Donner Lane" and "Rudolf Street" marked the lines of hookups. An outhouse in the woods had a sign, "Santa's Elves," implying they might be at work within. Sam merely sniffed at my suggestion _ or maybe he was sniffing the outhouse. Two reindeer sans antlers laid quietly, almost sadly, in a pen labeled "Santa's Reindeer."

"Do you think that's Prancer?" I asked Sam. "No, Mom," he said, giving me the eyeball-roll again.

We went back over to the Santa Claus House. Gaily painted murals adorned the outside walls: Santa and his elves, Santa driving his sleigh, Santa with his North Pole mailbox. The inside was stocked with stuffed toys and every imaginable item of Christmas/Alaska kitsch.

A display wall held letters to Santa from children around the world. A miniature mailbox stood next to it, with a sign giving particulars for gift-package mail deals, North Pole postmarks, etc. In front of us stood a raised platform sporting a padded red chair, cordoned off by velvet ropes. Santa's daily visit schedule was posted. "Santa takes a break on Tuesdays and Wednesdays," it said.

I looked down at Sam, dreading his disappointment. "I told you he didn't live here," he said with a grin.

"Maybe he supervises the elves on Tuesdays and Wednesdays," I said. He rolled his eyes.

And we got back in the Subaru.

Nancy and Sam Kremers spend their non-Santa-hunting time in Houston.