A new book by longtime Alaska journalist Tom Kizzia hits bookstores Tuesday. “Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier” details the story of Robert Allen Hale – better known to Alaskans as “Papa Pilgrim” – who for years terrorized his family in the remote mountains of Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park.
Kizzia knows the story perhaps better than anyone, having reported on the Pilgrim family for the Anchorage Daily News going back to 2002, when Robert Allen Hale – or Papa Pilgrim – was engaged in a very public fight against the National Parks Service over access to his remote land in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
"It started out with the story of a bulldozer running through the national park ... the 19th century renegade running into modern environmental ethics" said Kizzia. "Once I rode a horse out to their homestead and visited them, it turned into a much bigger story than the bulldozer itself."
While Papa Pilgrim waged his war against the Park Service – and became a sort of folk hero to some because of it – Kizzia was able to gain access to the family.
It helped that Kizzia’s own family owned a cabin near McCarthy, not far from the Pilgrim homestead. And Kizzia says that as much as he may have been using Robert Hale to get to the fascinating story of this isolated family, he thinks Hale was also using him – to drum up public support in his fight over land-use rights.
After many visits to the Pilgim’s homestead over a period of many months, Kizzia says it became apparent that something wasn’t quite right.
"When Papa was describing how he kept the kids insulated from any outside influnece ... and just other weird things," he said. "He said they had never bathed without being in their clothes and ... I would sort of look over to my photograpoher, who was there with me."
Kizzia had no idea at the time, of course, that Robert Hale was terrorizing his family, including beating and sexually assaulting his wife and at least one of his daughters. Those horrific details would not become public until Hale’s trial in 2007.
Hale pled no contest to 30 charges, including sexual abuse, incest, kidnapping and coercion. He received a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison but died in prison less than a year later.
“Pilgrim’s Wilderness” has many twists and sub-plots, including a hard look at the relationship between journalists and their sources – and some careful research of Robert Hale’s past.
Hale grew up in Texas, where his father was a football hero and later, an FBI agent. Hale has connections to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, including an arrest for breaking in to the apartment of Kennedy’s alleged mistress and later eloping with the daughter of Texas Governor John Connally, who was in the car with Kennedy in Dallas and was wounded during the assassination.
The plot thickens even more when Hale’s young wife, Kathleen Connally, is shot to death in their Florida home under mysterious circumstances – a crime that was never solved.
Kizzia says that Hale’s journey took him from Texas through a tour of 1960’s counterculture in San Francisco, to South America, where he rode on horseback while using LSD, to the remote mountains of New Mexico.
"And it was only quite a bit later, when he had gotten together with the woman who would become his wife, Country Rose, that he had a kind of conversion experience and cut his hair, threw away all of his marijuana and peyote and became a fervent Bible reader," said Kizzia.
Kizzia’s story is ultimately one of salvation, about how the 15 members of the Hale family were eventually able to escape the wilderness and their violent, tyrannical patriarch. He says the family owes much to another family – the Buckinghams – who took them into their Palmer home when the Hales were at their lowest point.
It wasn’t until after the trial and the death of Robert hale that Kizzia was sure that he wanted to write “Pilgrim’s Wilderness.” The process took three years.
Kizzia’s publisher, Crown Publishing Group, is billing the book as “Helter Skelter meets Into the Wild,” and Kizzia says that description is not far off the mark. “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” officially hits bookstore shelves Tuesday.