Exclusive Exerpt: Pilgrim’s Wilderness
Into the Wild meets Helter Skelter in this true story of a modern-day homesteading family in the deepest reaches of the Alaskan wilderness–and the chilling secrets of a maniacal, spellbinding patriarch who called himself Papa Pilgrim.
Tom Kizzia was the perfect writer to tackle this fascinating, horrifying, and very human story that could have happened only in Alaska. His former work as a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News led him to travel extensively throughout Alaska, and to report on a family that would leave a lasting impression on his psyche. The result was his new book, Pilgrim’s Wilderness.
Like many Alaskans, the Pilgrim family came to Alaska seeking something- a refuge, an escape, another chance, and the ability to create a life separated physically from the rest of the world. Papa Pilgrim, his wife Country Rose, and their fifteen children drove from New Mexico to settle in McCarthy in 2002. They portrayed themselves as a happy Christian family, seeking a new and beautiful life in God’s Country, but their true story was anything but happy. What emerged was a story both heroic, desperately sad, and shockingly dark. Kizzia brings to light the madness that plunged the isolated family into a nightmare of physical and sexual abuse, and the heroism of the children who ultimately brought themselves back to the light, and out of the only world they had ever known.
Pilgrim’s Wilderness also has a political twist. We’d like to thank Mr. Kizzia for sharing this portion of his book with readers of The Mudflats.
Pilgrim’s Wilderness was published July 16. On Friday, Aug. 2, it was #17 on the New York Times hardback non-fiction Best Seller list and #9 on the non-fiction list for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.
Tom Kizzia will be speaking about the book at 7 pm Tuesday, Aug. 13, in the Wilda Marston Auditorium at the Loussac Library in Anchorage, and at 7 pm Thursday, Aug. 15, at the Kennecott Recreation Hall in McCarthy/Kennecott.
Intro: In 2004, Joseph Hale, the oldest son in the Pilgrim Family, attended a political meeting in Delta Junction and was chosen as a district delegate to the state Republican convention. Though relations with their neighbors in McCarthy were deteriorating, their wider fame was spreading, through their fight against the National Park Service, and a musical tour in Portland, Oregon. In a way, the moment represented the family’s high-water mark….
By late May, the Pilgrims were back in Alaska, arriving in force at the sports arena in Soldotna for Joseph’s debut in state politics. It was the Republican Party’s 2004 state convention, and the Pilgrim Family were the featured entertainment.
They showed up in a van they’d been given in Washington State—one with windows and actual seats. On the side they’d painted pilgrim family minstrels tour van 2004, and on the back, honk if you love jesus—we do! Papa Pilgrim spoke approvingly to a reporter about the Republican platform, saying it appeared to take a “godly approach.” The family’s homespun manner offered a welcome distraction from the internal warfare tearing at the Alaska Republicans that election year, over ethics charges leveled against the party’s paid chairman by its rising young star, a former mayor of Wasilla.
Coming off their recent successes [performing and recording in Portland, Oregon], it should have been the performance that established the Pilgrims as darlings of the state’s political conservatives. The family’s down-home values, their religiosity, and their battle against federal landlords all seemed elements of a powerful brand for Alaska Republicanism. But when the big moment came and the Pilgrim Family Minstrels played their gospel tunes, the response from delegates was surprisingly muted. Crevasses were opening in Alaska’s dominant political party at the start of Sarah Palin’s era. Despite the growing influence of Christian churches in the state’s majority party, libertarian Alaska actually ranks low among states in measures of religious piety and church attendance. Some conservatives, especially in the more secular, oil-and-construction business sphere of the party, found the Pilgrims distasteful—probable welfare cheats, creepy in their isolation, newcomers exploiting the state’s beloved Permanent Fund Dividend program.
One attendee who was especially uncomfortable about the performance was Dallas Massie. In his day job, Massie was an investigator for the Alaska State Troopers. Several months earlier, he had been called to Providence Hospital to examine the welts on Abraham Hale’s back. It didn’t appear to Massie that the boy had fallen down some stairs. But the family’s story had been consistent, and the state couldn’t hold them when they took off for Portland. In Soldotna, he found the music entertaining, but every time his eyes fell on Papa Pilgrim his heart sank. He watched the way the father kept his kids lined up, awaiting his commands, huddled apart from everyone else at the convention. Massie knew something was not right.
The Pilgrims had come to Soldotna hoping for a timely boost from the Republicans. Governor Frank Murkowski seemed a natural for their cause, steeped in the old antagonisms of Alaska conservation politics. For eighteen years as a U.S. senator, he had fulminated that the 1980 conservation act was like “waking up one morning to find that the federal government has declared your yard a national park and refused you access across your driveway.” The governor had been coaxed by Ray Kreig to fire off a letter in April to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, calling attention to complaints in the Wrangells about red tape, access fees, and arbitrary field decisions by park rangers.
But Murkowski was slow to follow up on the specifics of the Pilgrim Family’s plight and their federal legal appeal. Key aides inside his administration warned the situation could backfire. The state’s main coordinator of federal lands and conservation issues knew the McCarthy scene particularly well: In a former life, she had hosted Labor Day contra dances at the Hardware Store. Sally Gibert was one of a handful of Santa Cruz graduates who migrated to McCarthy in the 1970s. She later put her perspective on Alaska issues to professional use, serving both Republican and Democratic governors as state federal lands adviser. Gibert and others cautioned Murkowski that the legal arguments in the Pilgrim case were shaky, community support was less solid than activists alleged, and the Pilgrim Family’s belligerence could undermine the state’s long-term interests.
The Pilgrims’ court battle was turning out to be no one’s idea of a good time. Environmentalists were nervous about a precedent-setting legal challenge over national park access rights involving what was clearly, at one time, a real road. But the state’s resource-development-minded Republicans were equally nervous about how the Pilgrim Family facts might suggest to any judge the need for prudent federal oversight of what goes on inside a national park.
Reprinted from the book Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier by Tom Kizzia. Copyright © 2013 by Tom Kizzia. Published by Crown, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.
Tom Kizzia’s stories about the Pilgrim Family won a President’s Award from McClatchy Newspapers. His work has appeared in The Washington Post and been featured on CNN. Tom is a former Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and a graduate of Hampshire College. His first book, The Wake of the Unseen Object, was named one of the best all-time non-fiction books about Alaska by the state historical society. He lives in Homer, Alaska.