Book excerpt: Trapped in Pilgrim's wilderness

By TOM KIZZIAJuly 20, 2013 

  • Meet the author

    "Pilgrim's Wilderness" book events with Tom Kizzia:

    Tuesday, July 23: "Talk of Alaska," radio call-in show, Alaska Public Radio Network, 10 am
    Tuesday, July 23: Reading, talk and signing at Anchorage Museum auditorium, 7 p.m.
    Wednesday, July 24: Book signing at Fireside Books,720 South Alaska St., Palmer, 4-6 p.m.
    Wednesday, July 25: Appearing on Mike Porcaro radio talk show, 650 KENI AM, 4-6 p.m.
    Tuesday, July 30: Reading, talk and signing at Homer Public Library, Homer.
    Tuesday, Aug 13: Book event at Anchorage Loussac Library, Wilda Marston auditorium, 7 p.m.
    Thursday, Aug. 15: Book talk at Kennecott Recreation Hall, Kennicott/McCarthy, 7 p.m.

Editor's note -- The story of the Pilgrim Family, which unfolded in the pages of the Daily News between 2003 and 2008, started as a story about a bulldozer in a national park.

A renegade pioneer had carved an overgrown wagon road to his remote abandoned copper mine inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. That began a war with the park service that divided the town of McCarthy and made Papa Pilgrim a hero to those who viewed the federal government as an oppressive landowner.

But beneath the politics of wilderness preservation and frontier mythology lurked another story. The true story of the family of 17 had remained hidden until it was almost too late.

Tom Kizzia, who covered the Pilgrims as a reporter for the Daily News, has told the twined story of family and community in a new book, "Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier," published by Crown last week.

"Pilgrim's Wilderness" is the story of Robert Hale, a man of tortured obsessions and smooth country charms. He called himself a hillbilly but was actually a child of privilege, who left that world for the mountains of New Mexico and then Alaska, and in the process transformed himself into Papa Pilgrim. He used the fear of God to mold his family into a personal cult, subjecting wife and children to physical, mental and sexual abuse while showing a face of Christian piety and frontier self-sufficiency to the outside world.

The story of the Pilgrims seemed destined to end in disaster -- if not for the bravery of the children, who found the strength to rebel against their father's tyranny. In the end, Papa Pilgrim was indicted for his crimes, hunted down and arrested. He died in jail.

The following excerpt from the book begins with the approach of winter in late 2004, when the town of McCarthy had finally turned against Papa Pilgrim and the family had withdrawn, resources dwindling, to its remote mountain homestead. As the family hurtles toward its heart of darkness, an unlikely meeting with another family provides a ray of hope.

The wipers struggled fitfully as the flatbed truck climbed through dusk and an early season snowstorm. The heater cut on and off. Joshua drove because he had the big-truck commercial license, thanks to Mama reading the exam questions out loud. Joseph sat at his brother's side. The two had been talking with excitement and frustration for hours, most of the way from McCarthy, trying to sort out what was going on with their father.

It was the tenth month of 2004 -- not many weeks after the showdown in the streets of McCarthy. Things remained troublingly unsettled for the Pilgrim Family. Papa's behavior was increasingly erratic. They no longer had any friends in McCarthy. They had moved the wanigan, but there was no more money for plane flights and too little feed for the horses. Freeze-up was late, and McCarthy Creek was still open and flowing -- no longer summer-gray with silt from melting glaciers but clear, low, drinkable, and impassable on a snowmachine. When Joseph and Joshua came out from the homestead, they had to ride horses, packing two hindquarters of a moose shot by Elishaba and Israel. Papa's instructions were to stop on their way to Kenai and deliver the meat to a large Christian family in a log cabin on the mountain outside Palmer, the last town on the highway before Anchorage. Apparently this new family, the Buckinghams, were not experienced hunters and had failed to get a moose that fall. The brothers recognized the gift of meat as the kind of extravagant gesture Papa favored when making a first impression. To the Pilgrim sons, the effort seemed so predictable and futile.

The brothers were very different. Joseph, now twenty-seven, was reflective and stubborn; Joshua, two years younger, was more hotheaded, more like their father. Joseph had always been the family outcast, though in the last few years, since the time he'd gently pressed Papa's chest to steer him away from hitting the younger children, his father had stopped thrashing him. Another time he had pulled a two-by-four from Papa's hands before he could strike Israel. The eldest son would come back from hunting camp and Elishaba would have a new swelling on her face and everyone, even Papa, would tiptoe around. They were all surprised when Papa gave Joseph that bloody lip in late summer for apologizing to the McCarthy preacher.

Immediately after that incident Joseph had left to join Joshua at hunting camp. With no younger siblings to listen in and report them, the brothers started talking as if for the first time. The conversation really hadn't stopped since. For the first time they felt like close friends.

Joshua predicted that this new friendship with the Buckinghams would blow up even more quickly than earlier alliances had. The dispute over the wanigan in town had run off the last of their McCarthy neighbors, and Papa, with his angry spirit, no longer even cared. He was fixing once again to be like Noah in the Bible, a man who had no use for neighbors.

Joseph and Joshua had been the first to meet the Buckinghams. Earlier in the fall, they had stopped by a small worship service in Willow with their mother and heard Mr. Buckingham give a fine talk. Papa had not wanted to hear about it. He told Joseph the Bible said not to consort with someone in the military and hung up.

Joseph explained now to his brother that the centurion praised by Jesus was a Roman soldier. Papa had read them the story in Luke, but never said what a centurion was. A Christian friend in McCarthy had to explain. So didn't that make it unfair of Papa to hang up on Joseph when he called to say that Mr. Buckingham was in the army?

Once Papa met the Buckinghams everything changed. Suddenly here was the true Christian family they'd always dreamed of meeting. It was all so inconsistent and confusing, and the boys, unable to demand an explanation from their father, could talk in circles for hours about a puzzle like this.

For all their new intimacy, though, there was one subject the brothers dared not bring up. That was the Buckinghams' pretty eldest daughters, Tischaria and Tilaundia. The boys had tried not to stare during that worship service in Willow. Neither of them had ever had a girlfriend. They would be punished severely if they so much as talked to a girl. Regarding marriage, they understood it would be wrong in the sight of God to make a covenant outside the family. But the young men's imaginations usually skipped past such theological obstacles to more practical ones: How were they ever going to meet someone, anyway?

Sometimes Joseph daydreamed improbable stories in which he found a way to marry. The elaborate scenario might involve some girl spoken to only once in passing, years earlier, a girl remembered more as a tremor than a face. Joshua, on the other hand, was given to mad fantasies of running away and meeting someone out in the world, just to make Papa feel bad and shock him into realizing how wrong he treated his family. Joshua burned but did what Papa expected. Papa said if anything ever happened, the family was to follow him or Elishaba. Not Joseph, and not Mama, whose jealous heart Papa worked so hard to correct.

Joshua aimed the flatbed down a snowy drive through the woods. The Buckinghams lived in a gambrel-roof cabin built from logs milled on site. It was not a big home for a family with nine children, but to Joseph and Joshua it seemed luxurious. The Pilgrim boys were greeted warmly and invited to stay for dinner. The big kitchen sparkled.

Jim Buckingham was a forty-six-year-old lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. Currently he was inspector general for the Alaskan Command. A former instructor at West Point, he had a mechanical engineering degree from MIT, a master's degree from Stanford, and a PhD from the University of Alaska. Yet he and his wife, Martha, studied Scripture every night with their family and believed, like the Pilgrims, in the literal truth of the Bible. It was during an earlier deployment to Alaska, living in a cabin outside Fairbanks, that Buckingham began feeling prompts to turn his family toward a simpler, more pious life, apart from a culture that seemed to have forgotten God. In 2003, nearing retirement, he had returned north for the posting at Fort Richardson and moved his family to Lazy Mountain, above the spreading Anchorage exurbs of Palmer and Wasilla. As they were closing in the cabin that first fall, the family saw a photograph of the Pilgrims in the Anchorage Daily News and were struck by certain similarities with their own family, including the modest long skirts and homespun air. But the Pilgrims' unkempt wildness elicited amused commentary from the two eldest Buckingham daughters, who had recently chosen to forgo college and remain by the family hearth, preparing to manage Christian homes of their own.

"Don't laugh," their father had joked. "You might marry one of them someday."

"Over my dead body," said their mother.

Months later at the Willow chapel, a chance appearance by the Pilgrim sons, with their leather pouches and buck knives, inspired fascinated whispers from the young Buckingham boys and suppressed giggles from the older girls. Because Alaska is so isolated and the number of suitable conservative Christian possibilities is small, the business of finding a mate is never far from a young person's mind when a new family shows up. But these big hairy fellows were clearly out of the running.

Now, however, everyone seemed genuinely pleased to welcome the same two Pilgrim boys, bearing the gift of winter meat, and to hear their romantic tales of life in the Alaska wilderness. It was snowing hard by the time dinner was done, but Papa had been explicit about not spending the night. Joseph and Joshua were to continue to Kenai for supplies. The brothers drove off sadly into the storm.

They had gone less than a mile down the mountain when the headlights of the hay truck flickered and died. They pulled over and struggled with the wiring, the snow, and with their softly accumulating guilt over wanting to turn back. Then they noticed one of the bald tires was nearly flat. Guilt turned to joy at being able to acknowledge some design at work more irresistible than their Papa's will. They followed their own snowy tracks back up the mountain through the dark. When they opened the door, the cabin was bright and the children came running from their bedrooms. Everyone was smiling. But the only smile Joshua saw was beaming from the face of the eldest daughter, Sharia, and Joseph was already constructing elaborate daydream scenarios around her taller sister, Lolly.

Within a few weeks of the moose meat delivery, the entire Pilgrim Family had been moved by Papa into the cabin on Lazy Mountain. Jim and Martha Buckingham sensed the desperation of the situation in the Wrangells. They offered to take the family in for Christmas and corral the Pilgrims' horses for the winter in Palmer, where hay could be purchased locally. The grown sons of both families nailed together fencing and bunk beds and figured out ways to make a cabin that was small for eleven work for twenty-eight. The children got along well. The young hosts were drawn to the horseback adventure stories and amused by their visitors' simple unworldliness. Some of the Pilgrim children didn't even know about ironing clothes -- they had spent their lives pulling garments out of a pile. For the Pilgrims, the intimacy of the following few weeks came as a shock. They learned so many new things --for instance, how to pronounce the bulldozer name, "Caterpillar." The children thought the word was "Callapitter," because that was how their papa said it. Elishaba, accustomed to eating on her feet as she fed the family, fidgeted sitting with a plate before her, certain everyone was watching to see how she chewed her food.

They were also surprised and scared, even a little jealous, seeing the openness in their hosts -- in personal choice, in worship, in family relations. The Buckingham children did not seem to be performing under stress. They actually talked together as a family about parenting choices, about whether the older Buckingham children had been raised too strictly or the younger ones spoiled. The Pilgrims sat wide-eyed and offered no opinions. At dinner, Papa interpreted God's word with such authority. Mr. Buckingham threw everyone off balance by asking questions directly of the children. One night, Sharia challenged Papa over whether a child can go to heaven if the name of Jesus Christ is not uttered during baptism. The Pilgrim children held their breath.

This was not going to end well.

"Don't be surprised if we just disappear in the middle of the night," Moses later whispered to Jim Buckingham.

It had always been that way. The darling Pilgrims, the generous hosts, the rosy intimacy in the Lord Jesus. Papa speaking in his calm, soft, wooing voice. His children peering into any unnatural silences to check on the simmer of his anger. And then the explosion. It was only a matter of time. The Pilgrim children could only hope Papa would be slow to react this time, reflecting perhaps that the alternative was cold poverty in the mountains. They understood the burden of the righteous life they were privileged to lead. But was a solid Christian family such as the Buckinghams truly doomed along with the rest of the world?

Elishaba bunked at first with the other girls. She felt a lighthearted joy those first nights, sleeping away from her father. But one night Papa summoned her into the basement. She lied to her friends, saying she needed to massage his feet. When he was done with her he sent her back. But she felt so angry and ashamed and exhausted that she put on her winter coat and went out in the dark to hide. Curled under a tree, Elishaba awoke to the sound of voices calling her name. Your father is looking for you, the Buckingham girls said. They hugged her and asked what was wrong, but she tore away and went inside. She slept every night in the basement after that.

Papa began to take over the Buckingham home. He ignored the army-strict timetable for going to bed and rising and eating meals. He sat up until two talking about God's purpose, and his children stayed up with him. The short haircuts of the Buckingham sons showed they were not walking right with the Lord, he said. He hung a towel over the bathroom mirror to guard against vanity. In the presence of such virtue and humility, the Buckingham daughters began to doubt themselves -- had their own parents indeed let them grow away from God, in pride and egotism? The Buckinghams were reckless with graven images. One afternoon Papa plunked a table grape in his mouth and, finding it made of rubber, scooped up the entire decorative arrangement and threw it in the trash. A heaviness descended. Papa remained in the basement when dinner was served. Country Rose and the children waited before empty places. Finally one night, Pilgrim laid out a string of theological challenges to Jim Buckingham. The host said he did not want to be in confrontation, as he put it.

Early the next morning, though, Buckingham took his wife and nine children with him to work at Fort Richardson in Anchorage.

The Pilgrims, waking to an empty log cabin, departed for Kenai.

Families whose hearts are not right will try to lead them astray. The Buckinghams were like those travelers in The Pilgrim's Progress who wander off the trail while the hero, Christian, follows on to the Celestial City. John Bunyan's allegory had remained the children's guidebook in the wilderness of the Wrangells. The seductive shortcut seekers, Formalist and Hypocrisy, coming to the Hill of Difficulty, take easy-looking detours that lead to Danger and Destruction. These were metaphors to live by, and also practical lessons for the commute through God's bear-infested creation.

Meanwhile, the line drawings in the book on Papa's lap -- the Delectable Mountains, the Valley of the Shadow, the Slough of Despond -- had given dramatic portent to Alaska itself. They had learned their own valley intimately. They knew where birds nested along McCarthy Creek in summer. But when the valley fell silent at freeze-up, they could not say where the birds had gone. Their minds remained like the early topographical maps of the Wrangells, sharply delineated around settlement zones but elsewhere showing vague contour lines every thousand feet, or vast blank icy spaces.

The children had hoped this new land would change their father's heart. The mountains were so white and pristine it was easy to picture Christ's descent. Instead they feared Papa all the time now -- the way he would kick or swat at them as he passed by. One time at their Copper River fish-wheel camp, Israel grabbed a phone from Elishaba and gave her a bloody lip. Papa struck him and then, after pausing to consider, kneed him and kicked him and shoved him in the river, then pulled him out and beat on him in a corner of the shed for twenty minutes. They had seen Papa drag Mama out the cabin door headfirst, then return and nail a handful of her graying hair to the cabin wall as a warning. Sometimes the younger ones heard Papa hitting at Elishaba in the bed she shared with him and Mama in the middle of the cabin, the mattress surrounded by a curtain. When he was ten, Noah woke up on the couch one night as Elishaba rolled out from behind the curtain. He watched Papa stand and beat her on the floor with his braided leather thong. Papa was wearing just a robe, and the robe fell open and Papa was naked within. The family was never supposed to see that -- it was the first Noah, in fact, who laid a curse on Ham and Canaan for seeing him naked in his drunkenness. Papa turned the thong that night on Noah as well.

Papa was no longer drinking, at least. For a while in Alaska, he had been drinking whole boxes of wine in a day. Once he rolled a truck off the McCarthy Road by the historic Kuskulana River bridge, and it was only by God's grace that the trees caught them before they tumbled into the 300-foot canyon. If you dared use the word "drunk" around him, you were disciplined severely. He drove their old Suburban to Fairbanks, and when Elishaba tried to make him surrender the wheel he ordered her to climb on the roof with Joshua and listen for a troubling noise he'd suddenly detected. Brother and sister squeezed a thin aluminum strip to hold on as he raced around corners on a quiet dirt road. When Joshua looked over and saw Elishaba was going to let go, he commanded her to hold on. The happy surprise that her brother loved her saved her life, she said later.

The very next day at a for-pay shower, Papa started throwing up blood. The doctors told him his damaged pancreas was going to kill him. He had drunk no alcohol now for several years. He said with pride this proved the source of his anger was not alcohol but rather a righteousness like that of the Lord Jesus when he turned the moneychangers out of the temple.

From this righteousness none were exempt, not even baby Jonathan, the gift of Jehovah whose birth at the Mother Lode he had heralded two years earlier. Thoughts pierced my heart as I saw this child, Papa had written in his community letter, my fingers caressing its head, so small, so new, so holy, such promise, such love. In fact, he'd been staggeringly drunk when he got home for the birth. The boys had to roll him out of the tracked vehicle. The florid letter was his way of rearranging the past into a new official story. Now if baby Jonathan started crying and wouldn't stop, Papa asked to hold him and pinched his mouth and nose until Jonathan fell silent and his feet kicked and his cheeks turned blue. Papa would sit in the rocker in the cabin's kitchen holding Jonathan until he started to pass out. It scared the young boys to see their baby brother smothercated that way. It scared baby Jonathan, too, and he cried and tried to run whenever his father picked him up. This was handy because if Mama or anyone else was being contentious Papa would take Jonathan onto his lap and hold him until everyone in the family had fallen silent.

The Buckinghams fasted and prayed and then drove down to Kenai and invited the Pilgrims to return. Papa agreed, and they came back on Christmas Day. The reunion was joyous. Joseph and Joshua resumed daydreaming about the Buckingham daughters.

But a great shock awaited. Jim Buckingham said he had business with Papa. He drew Papa aside in the basement, with the two eldest Pilgrim sons as witnesses. Mr. Buckingham said it appeared to him that Pilgrim had an unhealthy relationship with his oldest daughter, possibly even one with physical and sexual overtones.

Papa was appalled. He challenged Buckingham to ask his sons if anything was going on. Joseph and Joshua insisted there was no sinful relation between their father and their sister. They knew well, from the whippings in New Mexico, how strongly their father felt about the sin of lust. In truth, the possibility of such a relation did not even have a name by which they could conceive it. But hearing Mr. Buckingham's words, a notion did begin to take shape.

As this conversation unfolded, the girls were all out walking together along the wooded road, talking like sisters about the future and marriage. When they got back, Martha Buckingham said there was business under way in the basement. Elishaba followed the Buckingham girls up to their room, suddenly petrified. Her father would be upset and take it out on her for being gone so long. She got an idea that if she put her time to use in a way her father approved, he would feel merciful. She sat down with the other girls and started preaching to them the lesson her father had taught, from 1 Corinthians, about how only a virgin can attend to holy things. Therefore, despite what they'd been discussing, none of them should ever get married.

The Buckingham girls seemed surprised. Well versed themselves, they explained the Scripture differently, saying it was one of those rare places in the Bible where the writer, Paul, declares he is giving his own opinion, not the word of God. He wasn't saying they should never marry, only that the Christians of Corinth might want to hold off during the "present distress" of Roman persecution. Sharia added that later, in Timothy, the Bible even warns against false prophets who would forbid marriage.

A lesson that had always seemed harsh to Elishaba and difficult to reconcile suddenly uncoiled. She saw that she was in big trouble.

That night, as the Buckinghams said grace before dinner, Elishaba burst into tears and ran to the basement. She buried her face in the bed, and looked up when she heard sniffling. The three oldest Buckingham daughters stood outside the door, concerned over their friend's inexplicable strife. For a moment they were a tangle of arms and hugs, and then Elishaba pulled free and ran up the stairs, hoping Papa would be pleased to see that she had come back to the meal on her own. He was not. He took her by the arm and led her back down.

"I told you not to show them you were upset," he said as he closed the bedroom door.

Excerpted from "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 Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.

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