Mon 23 Sep 2013
Pilgrim’s Wilderness, a True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier by journalist Tom Kizzia is easily one of the best books I’ve read in years. Extraordinarily well researched and very well written, the non-fiction story at times also bears an uncanny resemblance to recent events in West Marin.
Remember Marcus Wesson (in Fresno Police photo at right)? He lived halftime on a tugboat moored offshore at Marshall where he headed a cult-like family of 10 women and children, most of whom were kept below deck.
Although Wesson presented himself as a pious man, he was in periodic conflicts with the law and his neighbors. He also fathered two of his own grandchildren.
Things came to ahead in 2004 when Wesson shot to death nine family members — eight of them children — while in Fresno. A year later, he was found guilty of nine counts of first-degree murder and 14 counts of molestation and rape. He was sentenced to be executed but remains on death row.
I couldn’t help but think of Wesson when I read in Kizzia’s book about Papa Pilgrim, the head of a somewhat-similar family cult.
Pilgrim’s Wilderness is set in the small Alaskan town of McCarthy, which like West Marin is mostly surrounded by federal parkland. Where the Point Reyes National Seashore is trying to stop historic oyster growing within the park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is seen trying to stop inholders from reopening historic mining roads within the park to reach their property.
Of course, that’s only part of the story. Also having significance in the course of events are: the family of former Texas Governor John Connally; President Kennedy’s assassination; All-American offensive tackle I.B. Hale; the FBI; former Interior Secretary James Watt; the Pacific Legal Foundation; “the rural meth belt of the Palmer-Wasilla valley”; and Sarah Palin, the former mayor of Wasilla, governor of Alaska, and vice presidential candidate.
McCarthy in 1983 shortly after creation of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The largest in the country, the park is bigger than Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey combined. (Photo from Pilgrim’s Wilderness)
Papa Pilgrim, his wife, and offspring arrived in McCarthy in 2002, looking like an Amish family and speaking in Biblical phrases. The few residents of McCarthy assumed the family was eccentric but pious. When the Pilgrims bought the old Mother Lode copper mine site in the backcountry, however, other people realized that maintaining access to it would be difficult because of Alaskan weather and the mountainous terrain.
No one knew Papa’s real name was Bob Hale and that he had been briefly married to John Connally’s 16-year-old daughter, whom he either shot to death or drove to committing suicide. After he passed a lie-detector test, he was not prosecuted.
Bob Hale — later called Papa Pilgrim — in New Mexico during the 1990s. (Photo from Pilgrim’s Wilderness)
At 33, Hale found another 16-year-old bride and took her to a cabin in New Mexico’s wilderness where they began producing children, none of whom was taught to read or write.
Hale, who resumed drinking heavily, proved to be a brutal father. He regularly beat his wife and children, and they were often seen with welts and bruises. These would be explained away as accidents. When Hale’s oldest daughter, Elishaba, turned 18, he demanded she become his sexual partner. Only after he’d spent two decades in this family cult did one son come to wonder whether they’d all been “brainwashed” into accepting Papa’s cruelty.
Nor could Hale be trusted. In New Mexico, he often had family members cut neighbors’ fences in order to give his family’s sheep and goats more room to graze. When the neighbors complained, he could be threatening on some occasions and charming — but deceitful — on others. Eventually Hale and his wife Rose decided to start over in Alaska and began using the name Pilgrim.
Other McCarthy residents were also upset with rangers’ blocking another road into town, and thanks to widespread coverage in the press, the Pilgrims’ struggle for access to their home became a cause célèbre.
The struggle was joined by property-rights groups, who also provided the family with legal representation.
In the end, however, Papa Pilgrim’s dishonesty, brutality, and sexual abuse of Elishaba become the issue. These are grim matters, but the denouement is inspiring.
Nor is the book an attack on puritanical Christianity. In contrast to the evil hidden behind Papa Pilgrim’s histrionic piety, the author describes a truly pious family whose compassion helps save the day.
I should stress that all the above is merely a sketch of a few incidents in the book. Thanks to exhaustive research, the author is able to make sense out of the many unlikely events that accompanied an egomaniacal patriarch’s arriving in McCarthy with a cult-like family in tow — and then settling far from civilization in the mountains.
Pilgrim’s Wilderness is a captivating story, made all the more intriguing by being a factual account of life on Alaska’s still-surviving frontier. The book should have particular appeal to West Marin readers who will find in it echoes of their own recent history. (Crown Publishers, 310 pages, $25)