Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier

Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier

by Tom Kizzia


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307587831
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 07/15/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 251,262
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

TOM KIZZIA has traveled widely in rural Alaska for the Anchorage Daily News, and his work has appeared in the Washington Post and been featured on CNN.  His first book, The Wake of the Unseen Object, was named one of the best all-time nonfiction books about Alaska by the state’s historical society.  He lives in Homer, Alaska.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue:  Third Month

When the song of the snowmachine had faded down the valley, the sisters got ready to go.  Elishaba moved quickly through the morning cold and snow in heavy boots, insulated pants beneath her prairie skirt, ferrying provisions from the cabin - raisins, sleeping bags, two white sheets.   Jerusalem and Hosanna tore through the tool shed looking for a spark plug.  The plugs had been pulled from the old Ski-Doo Tundras that morning to prevent escape.

It was late in the third month and the days in Alaska were growing longer.  The overcast was high, the temperature holding above zero.  They knew they didn’t have much time. 

Mountains squeezed the sky above the old mining cabin.  Behind, a glacial cirque climbed to God’s white throne.  For weeks, Elishaba had been looking up, praying at the summits and calculating the odds.  But she knew there was only one way out.  The only trail, the one that had brought their family the attention they used to shun, ran thirteen miles down the canyon, slicing through avalanche zones and criss-crossing the frozen creek until it reached a ghost town. 

McCarthy was once a boom town of bootleggers and prostitutes.   These days it was the only place in the Wrangell Mountains that could still be called a community, though a mere handful of settlers remained all winter.  At first that isolation had been the attraction.  The Pilgrim Family had traveled thousands of miles to reach the end of the road in Alaska.  They had parked their trucks at the river and crossed a footbridge into town and continued on horseback and snowmachine and bulldozer and foot to their new home. 

Now McCarthy burned in the girls’ imaginations not as the end of the road but as a beginning.

Psalms and Lamb and Abraham looked on in horror.  Their big sisters weren’t even supposed to be speaking out loud.  They had been put on silence.  Yet here was Elishaba, calling out as she moved to and from the cabin, as if she no longer cared that they would report her.

Elishaba was the oldest of the fifteen brothers and sisters, a pretty, dark-eyed, dark-haired young woman, strong from a lifetime of homestead chores, from wrangling horses and hunting game - not a girl at all, at twenty-nine years, though she had never lived away from her family, never whispered secrets at a friend’s house or flirted with a boy.  She had been raised in isolation, sheltered from the evil world - no television, no newspapers, no books, schooled only in survival and a dark exegesis of God’s portents.  She was the special daughter, chosen according to the Bible’s solemn instruction.  Her legal name was Butterfly Sunstar. 

She gave the children a brave and reassuring smile.  They could see now that she was weeping and frightened and that she did indeed still care.  She cared about what would happen if she were caught.  She was pretty sure she would not survive her punishment.  But she also cared about how angry God might be if she succeeded and escaped into the world.   all her life she had been taught that leaving would be the most forbidden sin.  The punishment for that could turn out to be something infinitely worse.

Her sisters looked happy, though.  Hosanna had found a spark plug.  Perhaps their enterprise was favored after all.  Jerusalem - short, blond and cherub-cheeked, at sixteen the second-oldest girl - had declared she would not let Elishaba go alone. 
Elishaba and Jerusalem said swift goodbyes and climbed together on the little Tundra and lurched down the trail. 

They made it no farther than the open snow in the first muskeg swamp.  The snowmachine lurched to a stop.  The fanbelt had snapped.  Jerusalem used a wrench to pull the plug and started post-holing back up the frozen trail to the cabin.  Elishaba tried to mend the belt with wire and pliers but gave up. 

She looked about for an escape route.  The snow was too deep to flounder through, the trees too far away.  It felt like one of those dreams where she tried to run for her life and she couldn’t move.  She sat listening for the sound of a snowmachine returning up the valley from town.

Instead she heard Jerusalem coming on the other Tundra. 

They reloaded their gear and started off again.  A pinhole in the fuel line was spewing gasoline but if this too was a sign it went unseen.  They flew too fast around a curve and nearly hit a tree and slowed down. 

Jerusalem, holding on in back, started crying now too.  She was thinking about all they were leaving behind.  In modern Alaska, with its four-lane highways and shopping malls, her family was famous, recognized wherever they went.  People cheered when the Pilgrim Family Minstrels performed on stage.  They always made a beautiful picture.

The sisters prayed out loud.  Where the snow-packed trail turned uphill, they stopped and listened.  The world was heavy with silence.  They started again and worked hard climbing.  At the top they discovered the family’s other new snowmachine, hidden in trees too far from the cabin for anyone on foot to find it.  The sisters hesitated.  They talked about switching but the old Tundra was running well so they decided to continue but right there the engine died and that’s when they discovered the fuel leak.   Maybe the Lord was indeed helping them, they said.  They felt a surge of hope as they transferred their gear and continued on the third snowmachine.

There was so much about the world the sisters did not know.  Only lately had they realized how difficult the future would be because of this.  But there were things they knew about the world as it once was and these were skills they needed now.  Where the trail climbed over the riverbank, Elishaba veered away behind the snowy berm, so that someone coming the other way might not notice their track.  She drove into the spruce trees and shut down.  They could see the trail through the boughs.  The telltale smell of two-cycle exhaust lingered in the still cold air.  They pulled the two white sheets over themselves in the snow. 

The faint whine of a snowmachine, growing louder, was coming up the valley.


Table of Contents

Author's Note xi

Map xiv

Prologue: Third Month xvii

Part 1 Pilgrim's Trail 1

1 The Road to McCarthy 3

2 History's Shadow 27

3 The Bollard Wars 33

4 Sunlight and Firefly 58

5 Motorheads 67

6 The Rainbow Cross 80

7 Hostile Territory 94

8 Holy Bob and the Wild West 109

9 God vs. the Park Service 116

10 The Pilgrim's Progress 136

Part 2 The Farthest-Out Place 153

11 Hillbilly Heaven 155

12 Flight of the Angels 177

13 The Pilgrim Family Minstrels 194

Part 3 Out of the Wilderness 215

14 A Quiet Year 217

15 The Wanigan 220

16 Exodus 242

17 Pilgrim's Last Stand 251

18 The Man in the Iron Cage 271

Epilogue: Peaceful Harbor 283

Sources 293

Acknowledgments 307

Photography Credits 311

Reading Group Guide

1. Residents of McCarthy express nostalgia for life before the national park, before government rangers and extensive rules about bulldozers and cabin living. Do you think those old freedoms are worth preserving? What is the appropriate balance to strike between allowing pioneers the opportunity to follow their dreams and preserving nature in a pristine state, and between the rights of the individual and the interests of future generations?

2. McCarthy residents—even more than other Alaskans—tend to think of themselves as idealists pursuing off-the-grid lifestyles. Evil, when it comes, invades from the outside world. But the remote end-of-the-road community seemed to attract troubled, unstable individuals. Do you think the appearance of people like the mail-day murderer and the Pilgrim Family reveals something essential about McCarthy?

3. Do you think the abuse present in this book could have taken place anywhere, in a city apartment or on a quiet suburban street?

4. Once he left Texas, Robert Hale chose to raise his family on horseback in a rural setting amid the trappings of the Old West. How did it benefit Papa Pilgrim to deploy the mythology of the frontier as he did?

5. Robert Hale’s sons don’t believe he killed Kathleen Connally because, they say, he would have confessed to such a sin during his early devout days as a Christian. The Alaska prosecutor noted that such a confession could send a man to prison. Given the available evidence, do you think the death of his teenage bride was an accident?

6. The narrative doesn’t progress chronologically, from Bob Hale’s boyhood in Texas through New Mexico to Alaska. Instead, two story lines proceed in parallel for the first half of the book. Why do you think the author structured the story as he did?

7. What role did music play in the lives of the Pilgrim Family?

8. The Pilgrim children were denied access to movies and books. Why did Papa Pilgrim allow a single book, the seventeenth-century allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, in their home? Do you think there is an innate need for stories in our lives? How have the children used the Bible’s stoies to explain their imprisonment and recovery?

9. How do you feel about the descriptions of abuse in the family? The author remains fairly dispassionate in tone and borrows some of the family’s biblical euphemisms to depict the horrors unfolding. Is understatement an effective way to describe trauma, or does it leave you wanting to know more detail?

10. At one point, the children’s mother, Country Rose, was forced to hold her sons’ hands as they were strapped to the whipping barrel and lashed. Is Country Rose another victim of Papa’s, or should she have done more to protect her children? What about the older sons? Were they wrong not to report whatever abuse they witnessed?

11. What about Elishaba? Should she have spoken up to her siblings, or to state authorities, rather than try to handle everything herself? Why would anyone remain in such an abusive situation?

12. Why do you think Papa Pilgrim precipitated a war with the National Park Service so quickly? How did he benefit from external conflict?

13. At one point, the Park Service planned to send forty-three personnel to investigate the Pilgrim Family’s actions in the park, including an armed SWAT team to guard forensic biologists. Even after backing off, the government spent at least a half-million dollars on its response. Was this an effective way to deal with the situation? The family’s defenders felt the government wanted to make an example of these “last pioneers” to establish their primacy in the mountains. Do you agree?

14. The author switches to first person to tell part of the story. Does this weaken the omniscient voice used elsewhere, or strengthen it? What does the author’s personal story say about the pioneering legacy that motivates so many characters in the book?

15. In many ways, the views of the Buckinghams were as rigidly fundamentalist and patriarchal as those professed by Papa Pilgrim. What was the difference between the two families? Could a non-Christian family have intervened and played the same role as rescuers?

16.  If the Buckinghams hadn’t entered the story, was there another way out for the Pilgrim children? What do you think might have happened?

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Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 36 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am writing this comment regarding Tom Kizzia’s book, “ Pilgrim’s Wilderness” from the perspective of a direct family member. I believe this story of my Dad’s life should have died with him and not been encouraged to go on. My fear would be that his life encourages people to do the wrong thing. I lived this life with him and I believe it should never have been portrayed to the public like it has been done in this book. Though he was my father and I respect him for that role he did a lot of hurt to a lot of people, mainly his family. Is there a reason why the hurt has to be relived? The book is not what it appears to be on the front cover, one big happy family. I would be careful to not have your children read it. It’s content is to be equaled with X – rated material.  
horsegallin More than 1 year ago
I remember reading some of the newspaper accounts back when the Pilgrim Family first came to McCarthy. Since I personally know some of the Hales, I always wondered how they found the courage to finally speak out against their father, and set their family free from his tyranny and abuse. This book does a great job of answering a lot of those questions. Good read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Papa Pilgrim kept his family under close control by the use of his version of Christianity and violence, even incest. It is fascinating and frightening but it is hard to stop reading it. Alas, it is all true. If you like books like true crime novels; if you like reading outdoor adventure stories; then this book is for you. There is not a boring page to be found.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A Harrowing Frontier Tale of the Perverse Pilgrim Clan Kizzia, in this beautifully written piece of nonfiction, captures the essence of the perverse Pilgrim clan that has indelibly marked Alaska and it no doubt will be remembered in tales of mythic proportion. Papa Pilgrim along with his wife and fifteen children sold themselves as a moralistic pack of holy-rollers when they first moved to Alaska; however, that façade soon vanished. The family Patriarch, calling himself Papa Pilgrim, whose previous pregnant wife was found mysteriously shot in the head, had a less than upright past. After settling in McCarthy, Alaska, Papa Pilgrim decided to bulldoze a road into a state park and setup a meager one-room homestead there much to the government’s and neighbors’ dismay. In harmony with outward unrest that the Pilgrim homestead created, much was amiss within it. Pilgrim’s children were illiterate and sexually abused—many argue whether they were hostages or proud followers of their patriarch. In a land of seemingly endless frontier and self-invention, Papa Pilgrim pushed to the limits and ignited endless conflicts. Kizzia’s true account is one that captures the harrowing results of perverted libertarianism. A sense of place and landscape plays an integral role in this page-turner, as Alaska is in many ways a final frontier. If you enjoy true crime or tales of the more remote reaches of civilization, I recommend this book. Another engrossing account of life in the cold corners of the earth is Peter Freuchen’s Arctic Adventure, in which Freuchen details his assimilation into Inuit life and culture.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was so impressed with this book and the research Tom Kizzia did for it that I sent the author a note via FaceBook. He was meticulous and so familiar with this part of Alaska and all the folks involved that even though it read almost like a page-turning novel, I knew it was a true story. This should be read by anyone interested in the psychology of families, and how a person could be so controlling and cruel to his own relatives. And how they accepted that as a way of life. It was amazing.
Twink More than 1 year ago
Truth is many times, much stranger than fiction. Very true in the case of Pilgrim's Wilderness by Tom Kizzia. I've always thought that I was born too late - when I was younger, I often daydreamed of a cabin in the middle of the woods and self sufficiency. (Instead I got a job as a living history museum interpreter and played Little House in the Big Woods for many years.) When Papa Pilgrim showed up in the remote town of McCarthy, Alaska with his wife and fifteen children in tow, the residents, although initially wary of newcomers, welcomed them to their community. Pilgrim seemed to want nothing more than to live in peace and practice his Christian values on his newly purchased plot of land within the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Initially everyone enjoys the 'old-timey' nature of the family, their music and Christian values. But that original welcome soon starts to show cracks and eventually divides the town. Pilgrim decides to bulldoze a road through the park, the spark that ignites his 'war' with the National Park Service. The actions of the family don't always match the preaching done by Papa. Papa is a master manipulator, able to twist the scriptures to suit his purpose. And Papa? Well, he's twisted as well. The outward appearance of the family belies the terror he inflicts on his wife and children. (The children range from late twenties to a newborn.) Things escalate, not just with the NPS, but within the cabin housing the Pilgrims. The older children begin to question their lives, their faith and their Papa...... Kizzia is an Alaskan journalist and covered the story as it unfolded. In Pilgrim's Wilderness, he has expanded on those articles with interviews from townsfolk, detractors and supporters, with Pilgrim himself and later with some other family members. He investigates, digs further and uncovers and exposes the man who was born Robert Hale. Again, truth is stranger that fiction - some of it just had me shaking my head in disbelief. Kizzia has a family cabin in McCarthy as well. His familiarity with the area and the issues truly enhanced his account. Although there are some disturbing (okay a lot disturbing) parts of the story, Kizzia handles it all in a fair and true manner, without delving into lurid or tabloid like descriptions. I was riveted from first page - Kizzia opens the book with a gut wrenching, white knuckle prologue -to last, caught up in the story of the madness that was Papa Pilgrim and the fate of his family. (And after the last page was turned - I headed to the computer to follow up) Pilgrim's Wilderness also explores the politics of land use, from many points of view. Pilgrim's Wilderness has been labeled true crime, not a genre I really like. However this book is an exception. Five stars for this reader.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was living in Alaska when much of this story occurred and remember the emotions and opinions that were frequently expressed when Alaskans gathered. What a tragic life these children and their mother endured. How they survived is amazing and shows just how strong the human spirit is. The author did a good job of describing the Alaskan wilderness and the subsistence lifestyle that is embraced by many of the citizens there. The start was a little slow, and I had to plow through the back story, but the rest of the read was well worth the time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well-written story of an extremely disturbing man who wields his religion against his family and neighbors as it serves his purpose. It also serves to give the reader insight into the Alaska frontier mentality that served his evil purposes. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wow. Very interesting. I couldn't put it down. Within 24 hrs I read it from the first page to the last. Very realistic description of how life could be like if everything went to h..l. the characters were well flushed out. The descriptions of the surroundings were so vivid I had a movie playing in my head the whole time. A great first novel for this author. I look forward to more.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a well balanced look at environmental issues. The author gives both sides of the expanding role of govenment interference of land management. He allows the reader to decide. This well written book does focus on one very evil man who abused his family. Another excellent book is the histrical novel, "The Partisan," written by William Jarvis. It is currently only 99cents on the Nook right now. It ls based on true facts during World War II; it has strong male and female characters as well as a truly evil, abusive viiian. Both books are excellent and deserve A++++++
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Factual, fair account of a family's development from blind submission to their father's hypocritical authority to freedom to choose their own values. In their pursuit of a primitive lifestyle the Pilgrim family became the eye of a rising storm between the National Park Service and Alaskan landholders. This book will engage the reader on a psychological, religious, and a political level, affording much food for thought. It caused me to examine my personal growth from a wilderness hippie in the 70's to an assimilated teacher in mainstream society.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I felt the book took a little while to get to the main plot of the story,yet it remained interesting throughout, and the ending was fitting for the story. Good book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A terrific read, I could hardly put it down. I would highly recommend it
TCTG More than 1 year ago
I love non fiction and this is a real page turner! I couldn't put it down! TCTG
runnergirlLK More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I have read in a long time.  I like true stories, and I found this one to be amazing, interesting, and horrifying simultaneously.  The author "had me" from Page 1.  The religious fanaticism reminds me of Krakauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven" (another great book); however,  the two books are different but still tell compelling stories.  I have never been to Alaska, and the descriptions were great, so I felt Alaska itself was almost like another character in the book.  I did not buy the Nook book; instead, I borrowed the ePub version from my library and read it on my Nook.  I finished the book in 2 days. Afterwards, I did more research on the Internet and read Tom Kizzia's "Alaska Dispatch News" 06/12/13 article about Robert Hale and his death, Mark Kirby's "Outside Magazine" article, and a wikipedia entry.  HIGHLY recommend this book!  
DebSimon More than 1 year ago
A story that needed to be told. It is estimated that 4% of the population is a psychopath or sociopath, which equates to 1 out of 25 people you run into each day is without conscious and believes life is nothing but a game of chess and the rest of us are simply their pawns. This book is an classic illustration of an extreme case, it demonstrates the incredible importance of the ability to recognize people who have no regrets or feelings yet are most charismatic of actors able to manipulate with ease and shed crocodile tears. We all must be on the look out ready to lend a hand to those who have fallen victim and need rescued from cunning, calculated, demented, demonic soulless monsters such as Mr. Robert Allen Hale. I hope that this true life tale of wickedness is made into a movie. My prayers go out to his countless victims.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Subject matter makes this book suitable for adults. A great book which demonstrates the crazed lunancy of Robert Hale. Too bad he died. He deserved prison for the rest of his life. May his family continue to find peace and healing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting story of a man who was able to get his family and neighbors to believe in his religious beliefs, until it became violent for his wife and children.
Anonymous 7 months ago
This book was my first exposure to the Wilderness Family saga All the threads that make Bob Hale the man he became, from his schoolmate Lee Harvey Oswald, and his connection with the burglary of Judith Campbell Exxner's apartment, plus his connection to John Connally make this an interesting page Turner highly recommend
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