On Discovery, Tyranny, and Captivity, by Pilgrim’s Wilderness Author Tom Kizzia
Editor's Note: Tom Kizzia has traveled widely in rural Alaska for the Anchorage Daily News, and his work has appeared in the Washington Post and been featured on CNN. His first book, The Wake of the Unseen Object, was named one of the best all-time nonfiction books about Alaska by the state’s historical society. His most recent book, Pilgrim's Wilderness, uncovers the story of Papa Pilgrim and his seemingly ideal family, exposing the situation for what it really was -- as well as its ties to J. Edgar Hoover, Jack Nicholson, and more.
When I first heard from friends about some guy who drove his bulldozer through Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, I wasn’t thinking about a book. I sensed a good news story. As a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, I’d been writing about Alaska wilderness issues for years. This seemed an interesting variation on a familiar Alaska theme: the nineteenth-century renegade in conflict with modern conservation ethics.
I interviewed Papa Pilgrim over the phone and got the story, but something about his pious self-presentation intrigued me further. Was he an innocent and sincere pioneer throwback, maybe a bubble off level as my wife liked to say? Or was he trying to put something over on everyone? I knew I’d have to talk my way into his mountain hideaway to be able to write about him as a character.
My newspaper wasn’t interested in funding a trip to that remote part of the state, but the editors agreed to let me take a few work days when we visited our small family cabin in that same part of Alaska later in the summer. Papa Pilgrim’s oldest kids led me on horseback to the abandoned copper mine they called home. From that point, the story got deeper and stranger everywhere I looked.
Papa Pilgrim’s bulldozer trail was an old, washed-out wagon road from before the park’s creation, so maybe it was a legitimate part of the park’s human history. That was what his many supporters claimed. The government, outraged and on the verge of sending in an armed team, was playing the heavy hand. And the kids, growing up apart from the world, insisted they loved their unusual lives.
But the clammy isolation in which Papa was raising his fifteen children made the homestead feel like a creepy cult. And then, following clues he’d dropped, I found myself tumbling down a rabbit hole into a past that touched on Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, John Connally, J. Edgar Hoover, Seymour Hersh, Jack Nicholson, and on and on.
When I wrote about all this in the newspaper, friends asked me if I was planning a book. I said I was not -- not until I found out what the last chapter was going to be. Because something more was going to be revealed, I was sure.
When it came out, two years later, when we learned a bit of what had been going on at the family compound, I still didn’t think I would write a book. It was almost too dark. The story of a religious charlatan could be rather fun to write, I’ll admit. But a story of desperate captivity and depraved tyranny seemed awfully trying for the soul.
But then I finally got to know the Pilgrim Family kids, and I learned the story of how they found the personal strength to escape, and to begin new lives, and even to achieve a measure of forgiveness and grace. I realized I had found a surprise ending, and a book-length story worth telling.
When the song of the snowmachine had faded down the valley, the sisters got ready to go. Elishaba moved quickly through the morning cold and snow in heavy boots, insulated pants beneath her prairie skirt, ferrying provisions from the cabin - raisins, sleeping bags, two white sheets. Jerusalem and Hosanna tore through the tool shed looking for a spark plug. The plugs had been pulled from the old Ski-Doo Tundras that morning to prevent escape.
It was late in the third month and the days in Alaska were growing longer. The overcast was high, the temperature holding above zero. They knew they didn’t have much time.
Mountains squeezed the sky above the old mining cabin. Behind, a glacial cirque climbed to God’s white throne. For weeks, Elishaba had been looking up, praying at the summits and calculating the odds. But she knew there was only one way out. The only trail, the one that had brought their family the attention they used to shun, ran thirteen miles down the canyon, slicing through avalanche zones and criss-crossing the frozen creek until it reached a ghost town.
McCarthy was once a boom town of bootleggers and prostitutes. These days it was the only place in the Wrangell Mountains that could still be called a community, though a mere handful of settlers remained all winter. At first that isolation had been the attraction. The Pilgrim Family had traveled thousands of miles to reach the end of the road in Alaska. They had parked their trucks at the river and crossed a footbridge into town and continued on horseback and snowmachine and bulldozer and foot to their new home.
Now McCarthy burned in the girls’ imaginations not as the end of the road but as a beginning.
Psalms and Lamb and Abraham looked on in horror. Their big sisters weren’t even supposed to be speaking out loud. They had been put on silence. Yet here was Elishaba, calling out as she moved to and from the cabin, as if she no longer cared that they would report her.
Elishaba was the oldest of the fifteen brothers and sisters, a pretty, dark-eyed, dark-haired young woman, strong from a lifetime of homestead chores, from wrangling horses and hunting game - not a girl at all, at twenty-nine years, though she had never lived away from her family, never whispered secrets at a friend’s house or flirted with a boy. She had been raised in isolation, sheltered from the evil world - no television, no newspapers, no books, schooled only in survival and a dark exegesis of God’s portents. She was the special daughter, chosen according to the Bible’s solemn instruction. Her legal name was Butterfly Sunstar.
She gave the children a brave and reassuring smile. They could see now that she was weeping and frightened and that she did indeed still care. She cared about what would happen if she were caught. She was pretty sure she would not survive her punishment. But she also cared about how angry God might be if she succeeded and escaped into the world. all her life she had been taught that leaving would be the most forbidden sin. The punishment for that could turn out to be something infinitely worse.
Her sisters looked happy, though. Hosanna had found a spark plug. Perhaps their enterprise was favored after all. Jerusalem - short, blond and cherub-cheeked, at sixteen the second-oldest girl - had declared she would not let Elishaba go alone.
Elishaba and Jerusalem said swift goodbyes and climbed together on the little Tundra and lurched down the trail.
They made it no farther than the open snow in the first muskeg swamp. The snowmachine lurched to a stop. The fanbelt had snapped. Jerusalem used a wrench to pull the plug and started post-holing back up the frozen trail to the cabin. Elishaba tried to mend the belt with wire and pliers but gave up.
She looked about for an escape route. The snow was too deep to flounder through, the trees too far away. It felt like one of those dreams where she tried to run for her life and she couldn’t move. She sat listening for the sound of a snowmachine returning up the valley from town.
Instead she heard Jerusalem coming on the other Tundra.
They reloaded their gear and started off again. A pinhole in the fuel line was spewing gasoline but if this too was a sign it went unseen. They flew too fast around a curve and nearly hit a tree and slowed down.
Jerusalem, holding on in back, started crying now too. She was thinking about all they were leaving behind. In modern Alaska, with its four-lane highways and shopping malls, her family was famous, recognized wherever they went. People cheered when the Pilgrim Family Minstrels performed on stage. They always made a beautiful picture.
The sisters prayed out loud. Where the snow-packed trail turned uphill, they stopped and listened. The world was heavy with silence. They started again and worked hard climbing. At the top they discovered the family’s other new snowmachine, hidden in trees too far from the cabin for anyone on foot to find it. The sisters hesitated. They talked about switching but the old Tundra was running well so they decided to continue but right there the engine died and that’s when they discovered the fuel leak. Maybe the Lord was indeed helping them, they said. They felt a surge of hope as they transferred their gear and continued on the third snowmachine.
There was so much about the world the sisters did not know. Only lately had they realized how difficult the future would be because of this. But there were things they knew about the world as it once was and these were skills they needed now. Where the trail climbed over the riverbank, Elishaba veered away behind the snowy berm, so that someone coming the other way might not notice their track. She drove into the spruce trees and shut down. They could see the trail through the boughs. The telltale smell of two-cycle exhaust lingered in the still cold air. They pulled the two white sheets over themselves in the snow.
The faint whine of a snowmachine, growing louder, was coming up the valley.