Originally published on Dec. 24, 2006.
Dusk on the slope of Lazy Mountain, and a glacier wind rattled the windows of the Buckingham cabin. Jerusalem Hale, her cheeks rosy from the wood stove, hung Christmas garlands and lights along a ceiling beam. Hosanna was in the kitchen area, frosting cookies with the Buckinghams and her little sisters, Psalms and Lamb and Bethlehem.
Their first Bible study and their home-school lessons were done for the day. Someone started singing a hymn of praise, and the others joined in, adding harmonies.
Christmas with the Pilgrims will be different this year.
Papa is in jail. The children have left the name "Pilgrim" behind. They have also left, for now, the remote mining camp in the Wrangell Mountains where they once fought a high-profile access battle against the National Park Service.
Today, the 15 children of Robert Hale have found refuge outside Palmer with a Christian homesteading family who have nine children of their own.
Accompanied by their mother, Rose, the children have settled into the Buckinghams' cozy log home outside Palmer, where eight girls share a bedroom of neatly made bunks and hang their thrift store clothes outdoors on the porch. The boys bunk together, Buckinghams and Hales, in two cramped basement rooms down a stairway choked with overcoats and coveralls.
The two families have drawn names for a modest gift exchange on Christmas Day.
It was never that way in the Wrangells, where Papa Pilgrim banned toys and dolls as idolatry.
"People sometimes sent us presents,"
recalled another daughter, Elishaba. "We saw them when they arrived, only we never found out what happened to them."
There were no schoolbooks in the Wrangells, no books at all except the Bible. Only the three oldest children ever learned to read.
RISE, FALL OF HILLBILLY HEAVEN
Robert Hale, who adopted the name Pilgrim on his journey to Alaska, raised his family in isolation, first in New Mexico and then outside McCarthy, in the heart of the country's biggest national park. Today they range in age from four to 30.
The children were gifted and energetic. They could hunt, and repair old trucks, and survive outdoors at 30 below. But when it came to understanding the outside world and the facts of life, all they had for guidance was the word of God -- as interpreted by Papa Pilgrim himself.
He put his own twist on teachings familiar to many Christians. He told them how to be "in the world but not of the world." Their isolation was the source of their righteousness, he said. He taught them to mistrust anyone who came to disrupt their godly ways. And above all, the children say today, to dishonor your father was tantamount to disobeying the Lord.
The Pilgrim family's life in the place they called "Hillbilly Heaven" ended in September 2005, when a Palmer grand jury handed up 30 felony charges of rape, assault and incest against Robert Hale involving one of his daughters. Hale, 65, the son of a famous FBI agent, who grew up in a country club lifestyle in Texas before disappearing into a vagabond life of the 1960s, was arrested outside Eagle River after 12 days on the run.
Hale pleaded not guilty. He has spent more than a year in jail. Then last week, with the trial scheduled to begin Jan. 16 in Glennallen, Hale's public defender filed a motion agreeing to change his plea to no contest on most of the charges in exchange for a 14-year prison sentence.
Such a plea could be withdrawn before sentencing, so resolution of the case will not be final for several months. The Hale family's reaction was guarded and steely.
"The family has been prepared to go to trial for a year," said Jim Buckingham, the 48-year-old father of the household, speaking for the Hales on Friday. "We recognize this would be a good turn of events, to prevent the family from having to go through the hard trial. But nobody is breathing a sigh of relief that this is a done deal."
The trial would have covered allegations going back to 1998, the year the Pilgrim family crossed the border into Alaska.
But even without the trial, a larger drama continues -- the story of the Pilgrims and the Buckinghams, two families so improbably similar in many ways and yet so different, and the struggle of the children of Robert Hale to cling to the word as it was given them and to distinguish what is false prophecy and what is true.
A CHANCE MEETING
'I think we were a good stepping-stone for them," says Martha Buckingham, 47, the mother of the Buckingham family. "But a lot of it has been very, very difficult. They were very fearful when they left McCarthy. We have had to work through that every day."
Jim Buckingham retired last summer as a lieutenant colonel after 26 years in the Army. Three years ago, he was teaching at West Point. He has an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a master's from Stanford and a doctorate from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
It was during an earlier deployment to Fairbanks, living in a cabin out on Chena Hot Springs Road, that Buckingham began turning his family to a simpler, more pious life somewhere outside the mainstream culture.
In 2003, closing in on retirement, he drove his family back to Alaska in a 15-passenger van and found the land outside Palmer, on a dirt road inaptly named Goa Way. They climbed out of the van and prayed.
"We just purposed that we were going to build a cabin," he said.
And they did, as Buckingham finished out his career commuting to Fort Richardson. The gambrel-roofed home of local three-sided logs was only 24 feet by 34 feet, small for a family of 11 and soon to seem much smaller.
In the fall of 2003, as they finished building, a friend pointed out a photo of the Pilgrims in the newspaper and commented that they looked like the Buckinghams. Something about the homespun air, and how the females in both families dressed modestly, in long skirts.
The Buckinghams were intrigued to meet a few of the older Pilgrim sons and Rose at a home church meeting in Willow that winter. The next summer, they spotted Rose and several children at a Tesoro station in Palmer, waiting for Papa, and invited them up to the cabin for the night.
Freeze-up that year was prolonged and difficult in the Wrangells, making access to their homestead hard. In late October, the entire Pilgrim family came to Lazy Mountain for what would become a prolonged stay. It proved to be the beginning of the end of Papa Pilgrim's hold on his family.
It was an exciting time for the children of both families. The Buckingham children, still new to Alaska, were drawn to the romantic horseback stories of their visitors from the wilderness. And the Hale children felt jealousy, they say today, seeing the openness around them -- in personal choice, in worship and in family relations.
Martha Buckingham recalls shock and anxiety from the Pilgrim kids when she went for private walks with her husband. They saw it as a sign of huge crisis.
"They could not comprehend that we like to spend time together," she said.
The Hales said their father could make a great show of kindness at times. Yet to seek his kindness or praise was to invite punishment for being prideful. Papa could also make a show of anger, they knew well, and any child who violated a rule -- or failed to report a violation -- might find himself cast out, suffering the silent treatment for days.
They liked what they saw at the Buckingham household. That became a new source of anxiety.
This had all happened before. The needy Pilgrim family with their darling kids would be taken in by a generous home. Everything would be rosy, and then things would go wrong and the Pilgrims would be cast out. In Papa's sermons to his family, they were always the victims.
Now, after a few weeks together, Papa Pilgrim declared that 6:45 p.m. was not a good time to begin dinner. He remained in the basement when food was served, and the Pilgrim children sat without plates, waiting for Papa to ascend.
"The young men said to us, 'Don't be surprised if we leave in the middle of the night,'" Jim Buckingham recalled.
The Buckinghams were worried about the "oppressive" influence Papa Pilgrim was beginning to exert over their own young children. Yet they wanted to keep the door open to the Pilgrim children.
In the end, after coming and going several times, Pilgrim angrily pulled his family away to McCarthy just after New Year's, forbidding them ever to come back.
"He didn't want to get too close, obviously, because he had some things to hide," Martha Buckingham said.
Robert Hale turned down a recent request for a jailhouse interview on the advice of his attorney. Pre-trial defense motions, filed this month before the change-of-plea agreement was reached, indicate Hale had hoped to turn the story inside-out by suggesting it was Buckingham, not Hale, who mesmerized the family and turned them against truth and God. The defense motions also served warning that allegations of past misdeeds by other family members would be dragged out in the courtroom.
For Hale, however, things unraveled quickly after his family's departure from the Buckinghams.
According to the charging documents against Hale, a single violent incident with one of his daughters involving rape, kidnapping and assault occurred Jan. 10, 2005, soon after they returned to McCarthy. The incident occurred in a small shack on family property near the Kennicott River, far from the family homestead, investigators said last year.
Several months after that incident, the three oldest Hale daughters left the Wrangells and moved in with the Buckinghams. The older boys traveled back and forth to Palmer in the summer, but the Buckinghams -- still unaware, they say, of just what had occurred -- were reluctant at first to take in any more. It was a serious matter, spiritually as well as legally, to come between a father and his family, Buckingham worried.
"That's against everything we believe," he said. "But the stronger dynamic was whether they should follow God or follow Papa. ...
"The children had grown up in this gypsy mentality, taking and taking until they were unwelcome and then moving on. Now they were in the worst sense sheep without a shepherd. They really didn't have any guidance."
By September 2005, the Buckinghams had agreed to take in all the older children, who were now talking to Alaska State Troopers' investigators. Robert Hale was arrested Oct. 5 and has been in jail since. Some weeks later, with their mountain homestead already locked in subzero temperatures, Rose and the seven smallest children left McCarthy and joined the others in Palmer.
The Buckinghams, who testified before the grand jury, declined during a recent visit to discuss the events that followed Pilgrim's departure from their home. They said those accounts should wait for trial. But they did say their suspicions had been aroused early about the possibility of abusive sexual relations involving the family patriarch.
"Jim had confronted Pilgrim about it his first week here. All the boys denied it," Martha said. "Later we found out the boys didn't hardly understand what we were talking about. But it jelled in their mind after that. And later, they could come back to Jim and know he wouldn't say, 'No, that's impossible.' "
A Hale family statement, issued around the time of their father's arrest, said the "sin and deceit" had been hidden from them. With Buckingham's help, the elder sons found a passage of Scripture, Matthew 10:37, to add to their statement:
"He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me."
WORK IN PROGRESS
For the Buckinghams and the Hales, finding each other was no improbable plot twist. Both families believe in a God that takes a direct hand in ordering people's lives, so their coming together is taken as an act of providence. They give the same explanation for the further unexpected twists that were to come.
Not that merging two households and 27 people in one log cabin was friction-free.
The family has had to stretch Jim Buckingham's Army retirement pay, supplementing it with construction income earned by several older boys, along with hunting, fishing, gardening and visiting thrift shops. The Hales arrived with very little and have shared not only the Buckingham children's parents but also their clothing -- with the occasional sulk and hurt feelings.
Jim and Martha Buckingham take scheduled time to walk and visit alone with each child of each family. Jim Buckingham has come to be called "Papa" by the Hales, a name that may strike visitors as strange but that he said he gave up resisting.
Each day is now tightly scheduled, with meals, chores and Bible study all designated for blocks of time. A log addition, started last summer, was finally livable in December, providing a second common room. Comfortable old couches were moved into the addition and tables set up in the original house. For the first time in more than a year, people can eat dinner without holding plates in their laps.
The parents say it has worked, with the support of Rose, as the Hale children learned to be more gracious and the Buckingham children to be more thoughtful.
"In the beginning I was thinking that we were doing good for them," said Martha Buckingham. "In the end, I see it's been good for us."
There is no long-range plan for this family arrangement, which Jim Buckingham refers to as "a work in progress." But in the meantime, their lives were being knitted more tightly together.
The two oldest Buckingham children, sisters Sharia and Lolly, gave up a lot when they decided to remain with their parents in a life "not of the world." During their late teenage years back at West Point, they had imagined college and professional futures. Instead they chose to stay by the hearth, preparing in the woods outside Palmer to someday manage Christian homes of their own.
On a stormy night in October 2004, the two oldest Pilgrim boys, Joseph and Joshua, drove up to the Palmer cabin for the first time. They had been instructed to drop off a gift of moose meat and drive on to Kenai after dinner, despite the snowstorm. But a mile away their old truck's lights flickered off. They limped back to the Buckinghams to spend the night -- guiltily, they now concede, because their thoughts had strayed during dinner.
Joseph was 27, Joshua was 24, and neither had ever touched or spoken intimately to a girl. It was forbidden, sinful -- and yet ...
"We walked back in the door," recalled Joshua Hale, "and I know there were other people standing there but Sharia was the only thing I saw. She was just beaming."
Concern for his daughters was on Jim Buckingham's mind when he first told the older boys they couldn't remain in Palmer. Later, he instructed them to keep their distance. By all accounts they complied. Courtship proceeded without touching and even without direct one-to-one conversation.
On Christmas Day last year, Joseph proposed to Lolly, then 21, and Joshua to Sharia, 23, with the families looking on. The young men had asked Jim Buckingham first. He had come around.
"We always thought, wouldn't God provide husbands from good families who knew how to set up homes?" Buckingham said. "As often happens, God sort of rewrote the story. It truly brings me to tears to talk about it."
Joshua Hale and Sharia Buckingham were married at the cabin in March. In July, on a nearby meadow overlooking the Matanuska River, Joseph and Lolly kissed for the first time as they were wed. Jim Buckingham, starting a new post-military beard, officiated. Guests included several Mennonite families from the Valley and Rose's mother from Los Angeles, who had been cut off from her daughter and grandchildren for years.
The newlywed couples now live in houses of their own, not many miles from the Buckinghams. Both newlywed women are pregnant.
On the evening after the cabin was decorated for Christmas, the families settled in a circle on the couches for Bible study.
Joining them was Martha's mother, Mary Sweatte. Martha's mother and father, former missionaries in New Guinea, now live in an apartment above the addition and help school the Hale children in basic reading phonics, fourth-grade math and the lessons of Jesus.
Over the soft click-click of knitting needles, Jim Buckingham talked about trusting the Lord. Family members held their personal Bibles, heavily underlined and circled. The newlyweds, who had dropped by for the evening, spoke of the agony they felt during their courtships.
Several Hales spoke of their family's dark night.
There was time as well for singing hymns and Christmas carols before bed. The old Hale family acoustic instruments, featured once in a Pilgrim Family Minstrels CD, remained on the walls, seldom played these days.
The seven oldest girls, Hales and Buckinghams, sang "Peaceful Harbor" at the boys' request:
Well the winds of despair were blowing in my face
Til the day I felt the gentle breeze of 'Amazing Grace.'
Then I charted a brand new course,
Let the Savior be my guiding force.
Then I put my anchor down in peaceful harbor.
Rose was knitting on a couch near the woodstove. Her daughter, Psalms, climbed in her lap and tried on a still-thumbless mitten.
"Oh, mama, it's beautiful," she squealed, and her mother smiled.
"I really believe from the time we left New Mexico to now, God directed our path to reach this point," Rose said to a visitor as the evening was breaking up. "I think he uses pain to make us stronger."
Rose, 48, was 16 when she met Robert Hale. But in the end she stood with her children against the man who had dominated her life, according to her family and the Buckinghams.
"Your time with your children is worth so much. I feel now that my time was stolen from me before," she said, with a trace of sadness. "I definitely feel free from a lot of bondage."
And the future?
"I am not a prophet. It's in God's hands," she said, smiling again. "I don't need things to change. I'm content."
• • •
Pilgrim/Hale family arrives in Alaska from New Mexico. Try settling in Homer, Soldotna, Fairbanks.
Pilgrims move to remote land inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park near McCarthy.
Papa Pilgrim clears grown-over mining road with bulldozer, inciting legal clash over access with National Park Service. Their fight is carried to federal court by conservative Pacific Legal Foundation.
Pilgrim Family records musical CD. Pilgrims and Buckinghams meet.
Felony sexual assault charges filed against Robert Hale (Papa Pilgrim) in October. Remainder of family leaves McCarthy to join the Buckinghams outside Palmer.
Three-judge panel on 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals rules against Pilgrims, says government can regulate access in national park. Later, in unusual move, judges say they may decide to take a second look with a larger panel. Decision pending.
Robert Hale trial scheduled to begin Jan. 16 in Glennallen