This story is a cross between Into the Wild and Helter Skelter. It is a riveting true story about a modern-day homesteading family in the deepest reaches of the Alaskan wilderness—and of the chilling secrets of its maniacal, spellbinding patriarch.
When Papa Pilgrim appeared in the Alaska frontier outpost of McCarthy with his wife and fifteen children, his new neighbors had little idea of the trouble they were in for.
The Pilgrim Family presented themselves as a shining example of the homespun Christian ideal, with their proud piety and beautiful old-timey musicianship. But their true story ran dark and deep.
Within weeks, Papa had bulldozed open a road through the mountains to the new family home at an abandoned copper mine, sparking a tense confrontation with the National Park Service and forcing his ghost town neighbors to take sides in an ever more volatile battle over where a citizen’s rights end and the government’s power begins.
In Pilgrim’s Wilderness, veteran Alaska journalist Tom Kizzia unfolds the remarkable, at times harrowing, story of a charismatic spinner of American myths who was not what he seemed, the townspeople caught in his thrall, and the family he led to the brink of ruin.
As Kizzia discovered, Papa Pilgrim was in fact the son of a rich Texas family with ties to Hoover’s FBI and strange, oblique connections to the Kennedy assassination and the movie stars of Easy Rider. And as Pilgrim’s fight with the government in Alaska grew more intense, the turmoil in his brood made it increasingly difficult to tell whether his sons and daughters were messianic followers or helpless hostages in desperate need of rescue.
In this powerful piece of Americana, written with uncommon grace and a zest for adventure, Kizzia uses his unparalleled access to capture the era-defining clash between environmentalists and pioneers ignited by a mesmerizing sociopath who held a town and a family captive.
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 reminiscent of Night of the Hunter and Robert Mitchum’s own creepy and deranged (if fictional) preacher.