Though this article was originally published July 16, 2013, we’re taking the paperback publication of Tom Kizzia’s Pilgrim’s Wilderness as an opportunity to revisit one of our favorite books of last year.
When the "Pilgrim" family rolled into the old mining outpost of McCarthy, Alaska, they were a sight to behold: Robert "Papa Pilgrim" Hale, his wife Country Rose, and their 15 children–an old-fashioned, piously Christian family from another time, packed into two ramshackle campers. Looking for the space and freedom to live out their lives as they pleased, they were welcomed as kindred souls by the ghost town’s few residents. A tad eccentric, they quickly ingratiated themselves into the tiny frontier community through Papa’s charisma, their apparent dedication to self-reliance, and occasional family performances of their unique blend of gospel and bluegrass, music that seemed to soar on the conviction of their beliefs. And when they purchased an old mining claim in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park with plans to permanently settle there (dubbing it “Hillbilly Heaven”), it seemed the Pilgrim family had come home to the last existing place in America that suited them.
But Hale chafed against the regulations that came with being a National Park inholder, and he quickly adopted an adversarial stance with the NPS, refusing to communicate with or even acknowledge its rangers. Everything went sideways when he bulldozed a road to town across national park lands, stopping just short of McCarthy in an attempt to avoid scrutiny. It didn’t work. When the road was discovered by backpackers, NPS agents were fast on the scene and all over the Pilgrims’ activities, and suddenly the humble hermit became a lightning rod for property-rights activists in McCarthy, Alaska, and far beyond.
That’s where Tom Kizzia entered the story. As a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, he wrote a series of lengthy articles on the family’s struggle with the federal government, and he soon discovered that Papa’s past belied the tales he told about himself and his clan. This simple man of faith carried a long, strange, and troubled history: the violent death of his first wife, whom he married when she was 16, and who also happened to be the daughter of Texas governor John Connally; his hippie phase (when he went by the name "Sunstar"), filled with drug-fueled epiphanies and raging outbursts; a contentious relationship with his neighbors in the New Mexico wilderness, who accused Hale of casual disregard for laws that didn’t suit his interests (especially the ones related to "Thou shalt not steal"); and worst of all, a dominion over his children that hinted at the most vile forms of abuse. As the situation with the NPS degraded and grew more tense, Hale’s behavior became more erratic, driving himself and the entire town toward a denouement worthy of the creepiest Robert Mitchum movies.
With Pilgrim’s Wilderness, Kizzia has expanded on his original reporting and written a spellbinding tale of narcissism and religious mania’s concussive effects on Hale’s family and adopted town, a book that’s likely to end up on many year-end Best Of lists. Kizzia answered our questions about Hale, McCarthy, and the town’s relationship with the National Park Service.
How did you first come to the story of Robert Hale and his family?
This started with a renegade bulldozer in a national park. As a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, it seemed like a good news story. I’d heard from friends out in McCarthy that this guy, Papa Pilgrim, was stirring up the ghost town. I wanted to go out to his wilderness homestead to meet him and his family of 15 kids. When he heard I had a cabin nearby, he said yes, and suddenly I was tumbling down the rabbit hole.
“Papa Pilgrim” was a mess of contradictions: he idolized his FBI father and took advantage of benefits such as food stamps and Alaska Permanent Fund dividends, and yet he vigorously agitated and undermined the federal government, particularly the National Park Service. Were his anti-government convictions honest (if confused), or self-serving and opportunistic?
Mostly the latter. He needed enemies to hold his family together. But he was reflexively anti-establishment. Which makes the FBI dad a rich twist. As for being anti-government while accepting government handouts, Alaskans by and large don’t spend too much time worrying about that contradiction.
He used religion similarly. He manipulated verses from the Bible to justify abuse, theft, and other monstrous acts, calling them the will of God. That seems disingenuous, but he proclaimed his piety to the end, and he was nothing if not relentless in broadcasting his faith. What do you think was the source of this paradox?
Narcissistic personality disorder. But such a diagnosis could have been applied to a lot of people channeling God back in Old Testament days. Some of those prophets ended up in the Bible and some of them got lost in the wilderness.
When he purchased property inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and immediately began his antagonistic relationship with the NPS, he became a lightning rod for property rights activists in Alaska and beyond. Do you think they consciously overlooked his often bizarre behavior (again out of opportunism), or did he fool them all? Was Hale seeking confrontation with the government?
I think people were fooled, though the tendency to romanticize what the Pilgrims were doing was stronger in those who also romanticized America’s pioneering past and hated to see those days ended by modern environmentalism. In the end, he turned on most of his allies, along with everyone else. They had distanced themselves even before the horrible truth came out.
Of all government agencies, how do people begin to ascribe totalitarian ambition to the National Parks Service?
I don’t think it’s surprising at all. I love the national parks in Alaska, and I’m glad Congress established them before the land was grabbed and developed. But the NPS controls a vast fiefdom, and every agency wielding such power must deal with its own authoritarian streak. Maybe it’s the revolution of rising expectations: Congress said the parks in Alaska would be different, that the frontier lifestyle would be preserved, that rural residents could continue to hunt and fish and cut firewood on federal land. The ongoing argument over how to manage this novel approach to conservation set the stage for Papa Pilgrim’s arrival in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
How has local opinion about Hale changed since the events described in your book? How have his then-supporters reacted to his rise and fall, as well as their participation in it?
The whole town was fed up with the Pilgrims even before Papa’s downfall. The townsfolk marched behind a bulldozer to the Pilgrims’ camp in McCarthy and told them to move. It was like frontier justice in mining camp days, before municipal authority—and the Pilgrims responded by singing spirituals and playing the mandolin! Oh, to have been a participant at the small writer’s conference going on in McCarthy that week. After Pilgrim went to jail, everyone felt chastened, and the factions have gotten along better. Though there’s still a natural tension between townspeople and park, with the federal bureaucracy slowly gaining in power.
Hale joins a long line of rebels and believers who met ignominious ends—people such as David Koresh and Randy Weaver, who married aspects of extreme ideology and personal liberty. Is there something particularly American about this kind of character?
I think we see all sorts of American types in the life of Robert Hale. Americans have a history of religious charlatans, going well back before Elmer Gantry, and our susceptibility to smooth-talking con men was understood by Tocqueville and Mark Twain. There was something about the unpopulated landscape of the Wrangell Mountains in Alaska—a national park the size of Switzerland, with only a single half-resettled ghost town at its center—that allowed Papa Pilgrim to recreate himself as he chose. The American Adam may be the character he represents most of all.
How have his wife and children managed since—especially Elishaba/Elizabeth, who was the victim of his most destructive abuse? Have they escaped his shadow, or do you think that’s even possible?
They continue to do pretty well—amazingly well, when you consider where they came from. But it’s hard, especially for a few of them. Some are not that keen about a book that revives their past, and they’ve drawn back from me a bit, which is probably good for their own protection. Elishaba, especially, continues to amaze me. She hopes her story will help other victims of abuse, because if you’re feeling trapped on a street in suburbia it might help to imagine her captivity in the wilderness, with the trail to town blocked by the wrath of God. She turns out to be quite a good writer and storyteller, though she’ll tell you her spelling needs work. I hope she’ll find a way to write her own story someday.
As part two begins, you become personally involved in the story when you begin a series of newspaper stories about the Pilgrim family, and Hale disparages you for what he perceives as a dishonest, unflattering portrait. As a reporter, how did you manage personal affront against the objectivity necessary to your job?
Getting disparaged by a creep is part of the fun of working for a newspaper. But I wanted to retain some access to Papa Pilgrim so I could continue digging into his story. I didn’t give up trying to ingratiate myself. When the story gets to the first-person part, I talk a little about the Joe McGinniss/Janet Malcolm dance between journalist and subject. He felt like he needed me, too.
What made you decide to expand the story from a series of articles to a book-length work? Is there a “moral to the story” or a message that you wanted to convey?
The first big newspaper stories about this eccentric and slightly weird family’s fight against the national park didn’t go very deep, it turned out. The true story started to emerge in court a few years later. The way the whole thing unfolded, with so many twists and turns, starting with its “stranger comes to town” opening, merited a front-to-back telling. And I had always wanted to write about the lost-world qualities of McCarthy/Kennicott, the back-to-nature lifestyles that have so much appeal, and have something to teach modern society, though they seem doomed by our need to preserve the continent’s last wilderness.