Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Pilgrims in Alaska

I spent the summer of 2002 living in McCarthy, Alaska, a small community in the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest park (and among the least-visited) in the U.S. system. A few months earlier, a pair of guys from the class above me at Bowdoin College had given a presentation on this great summer program out there, which convinced me to sign up. So I bought a tent, a good pack, and industrial strength hiking boots, and in late June I deplaned at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and walked between a giant stuffed polar bear and a giant stuffed Kodiak bear into a city conspicuously lacking pigeons (they were replaced by magpies on the telephone wires), found my hostel, wandered out for a reindeer sausage from a street vendor, browsed some kitschy shops, and tried to sleep, although I would not see a dark sky for another six weeks. In the morning a van collected me and other adventurers and took us five hours east on the highway, then another 60 miles in three hours on “the worst road in the world,” a dusty dirt construction with some washed out bits and sketchy looking bridges. Lastly, we crossed a well-built footbridge across a glacier-fed river into town and walked another mile to the Old Hardware Store, one of the main buildings in a community with a population of 28 in the most recent census, and the home of the WrangellMountain Center, in its own words “a private nonprofit institute which fosters understanding, appreciation, and stewardship of wildlands and mountain culture in Alaska through scientific and artistic inquiry in the Wrangell Mountains.” 

About 15 college kids showed up every summer for an eight-week program at the Center, which involved hiking over glaciers, forests, and serious hills (the tall mountains in the area being in the neighborhood of 16,000 feet), the study of biology and geology, and reflections on nature in a place where nature is unusually dynamic. (I got 2.25 credits in Environmental Studies and Biology for Bowdoin via San Francisco State University’s School of Extended Learning, but that was the least rewarding part of the experience). The local history also plays its part. The copper mining company town of Kennicott was five miles further beyond the bridge, next to the richest copper veins ever discovered. The rail bridge connecting the place to civilization would be destroyed every year by an unusual phenomenon known as a j√∂kulhlaup, in which a glacier gets in the way of a river and dams it to form a lake until it doesn’t, forming a flood. But the copper made rebuilding the bridge annually well worth the effort. McCarthy the support town was where the miners could get vittles and visit brothels for trysts with girls with names like “the Beef Trust.” Eventually the copper was all extracted, though, and Kennicott became a picturesque ruin of decaying red-painted wooden buildings. McCarthy also became a ghost town that drew but a few dozen strong personalities to live there in the summer, and fewer in the winter.

The summer of 2002, however, was the first since a family with 15 children came to town. The Pilgrims were fundamentalist Christians who had bought a mining claim and associated private property in the next valley, around Bonanza Ridge and up McCarthy Creek. My fellow youngsters from Outside and I never saw the Pilgrims in two months; we were kept apart. The family patriarch, who styled himself as Papa Pilgrim, had “heard the college students sometimes camped in the nude. His own children had never been exposed to the naked human body, he said. In fact, they remained fully dressed even when they bathed, a practice that kept them from temptation and sin.” So relates longtime Anchorage Daily News reporter Tom Kizzia in his 2013 book about the Pilgrims, Pilgrim’sWilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness in the Alaska Frontier. Therefore, the students “were no longer welcome to make their annual backpacking trek up McCarthy Creek.” We did set out on the two-week circuit hike, but only after unsuccessful negotiations by our director about crossing Pilgrim land, and thus with restrictions forcing us to try to cross a (relatively) high pass. The weather ended up making this impossible, as we experienced snow in July and were camped above the Mile High Cliffs in driving rain for several days but could not be resupplied by bush plane. So we had to turn around and head back down the creek rather than make go over the ridge. At one point we were descending fairly steep terrain and found ourselves looking down on the Pilgrim compound hundreds of yards away. We heard them fire up their chainsaws. In fairness to Papa Pilgrim, I do recall several of our group running around naked on grassy hills in thick mist after a rainstorm at one point on that hike.

While the Pilgrims avoided the collegiate crowd, they had overall tried to balance homesteading in the wild with building ties in the tiny town. We’d heard that in their more social moments in McCarthy, the Pilgrims had revealed themselves to be amazing musicians, playing a joyful and authentic mountain music. This positive image came across in The Road to McCarthy, a memoir in which Pete McCarthy, a humorist from the British Isles, traces his ancestry around the globe from Morocco to Alaska (after an earlier volume tracing his ancestry through all the McCarthy’s Bars in Ireland was a big hit). Studying in London in spring 2003, I was shocked to see a photo of the tiny Alaska town where I’d spent the previous summer on the cover of a paperback, which I naturally bought and devoured.

A decade on from that fantastic summer, I still haven’t made it back to Alaska. But in the interval Papa Pilgrim continued to attract my attention with occasional appearances in the national news. He had bulldozed open a long-abandoned and completely overgrown road (I remembered walking along the road, and it was wild and hard to find in many places) through the public parkland in order to supply the family with food in the Alaskan winter. This opened up a hornet’s nest with the National Park Service, but Pilgrim had plenty of libertarian supporters on his side. They even launched an airlift to supply the family. Kizzia’s reporting at the time also revealed that Pilgrim’s real name was Robert Hale, that his father had been a college football star who went on to be the chief of the FBI’s Dallas office and a good buddy of J. Edgar Hoover, and that back in 1959, Bobby Hale had taken the daughter of John Connelly, future Texas governor and Kennedy assassination bystander/victim, as his teenage bride and run off to Florida, where she died within two months of a potentially self-inflicted gunshot wound. Later on, more of the story came out. In truth, Pilgrim was far from a good Christian. He had not only been asserting his authority as infallible law in his household, keeping his children from the world, preventing them from learning to read, and beating them frequently, but he had also been raping his eldest daughter. Finally, they rebelled and Papa Pilgrim ended up in jail. When he died not long after in 2008, member after member of his religious family stood at his open grave (in Wasilla, which “in just a few weeks… would give the world an indelible new image of post-frontier Alaska”) and “consign[ed] the newly departed to hell.”

I’ve had a barebones sketch of the true Pilgrim story for some years, but Kizzia tells the long tale skillfully and comprehensively in his book, while at a very readable length. I’m glad to know the story as fully as it can be known, a dozen years after Papa Pilgrim and sons showed up in McCarthy having driven trucks through a blizzard to find their promised land. The author visited the Pilgrims when their story was about a Christian family confronting the federal government over the highly charged Alaskan issues of land use and the taming of the frontier, dug up Papa Pilgrim’s dark past after the man himself gave the reporter some hints, and returned to the story to reveal what happened after the family lost their support in town and Hale lost control of the children he treated as his property. Pilgrim’s Wilderness is scrupulously fair to the different family members and their faith, the townspeople, and others involved in the story. Kizzia has tracked down helpful sources along the Pilgrims’ road from Texas through New Mexico to Alaska. He does a good job explaining and exploring the background issues that originally attracted attention to the Pilgrims without losing the narrative thread of his yarn. Ultimately, Tom Kizzia has contributed a strange, gripping story to the literature of true crime and the American West.

I’d also like to thank Kizzia for transporting me back to McCarthy and an Alaska more authentic than Sarah Palin and more chilling than Northern Exposure, as I read the book over the course of a week or two. I still hope to take that road to McCarthy again and return to the Wrangells in person someday. 

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