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Book Review — ‘Pilgrim’s Wilderness’

Author Tom Kizzia (Don Ptcher Photo)
Author Tom Kizzia (Don Ptcher Photo)

Some days, you just want to chuck it all.

If you could, you’d throw your alarm clock out the window and let birds be your wake-up call. You’d perform morning ablutions creekside, with the sun to dry your back. No more rat race, commute or crowds.

Some days, you’d be perfectly happy in the mountains, living off the land. And in “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” by Tom Kizzia, you’ll read about a man who took his family to do just that — and ran afoul of the law.

Nestled in the Wrangell Mountains, tiny McCarthy, Alaska, is little more than a “ghost town.” Yes, a few stalwart folks call it home year-round, but a stranger is an unusual sight in the middle of January — so in 2002, when a man with a long, unkempt beard showed up in town with his 15-member family, he created quite a stir.

Calling himself Papa Pilgrim, he said that God had sent them to Alaska to set up a homestead. There, they’d live like frontiersman of old, with no electricity, no plumbing and with whatever food they could grow or hunt. Like McCarthy, Pilgrim’s camp was inside a National Park, which, in Alaska, was legal.

The road he bulldozed through the park, though, was not. Within months, Pilgrim butted heads with Park Service rangers, resulting in a war of words and a flurry of lawyers — something of which Pilgrim had a long history.

His real name was Bobby Hale, and he hailed from Texas where his first teenage wife died under suspicious circumstances. He married again and moved to New Mexico, and children came along about every other year. They were raised by stealing and poaching. None of them went to school.

But though many supported Pilgrim and his anti-government stance, and though he could be eloquent, there was darkness behind the charming façade he displayed.

The light-fingered ways Pilgrim employed in New Mexico followed him to Alaska, says Kizzia, as did the poaching. Despite several warnings from the NPS, Pilgrim resolutely did whatever he wanted to do on federal land.

That bothered a lot of people. But what was worse, some said, was the eerie way that Pilgrim’s children behaved…

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that started out with a more exciting prologue and ended with a bigger slam-bang-dunk than this one. Yep, “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” is that good.

With a reporter’s eye for detail, author Tom Kizzia gives readers a sense of horror mixed with rugged beauty and nature’s harshness found in the mountains in which this story occurred. There’s Hollywood and JFK here, a definite feel of The Wild West, plenty of individualism and a pioneering spirit that really starts to break apart about mid-tale. That’s when we get a genuine whiff of something sinister.

That’s when you’ll be glued to this book.

This is a true-crime fan’s delight, an outdoorsman’s treat, a book you just can’t miss. When you see “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” on the shelf, you won’t be sorry if you chuck it in your cart.

• • •

“Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier” by Tom Kizzia

c.2013, Crown $25.00 / $28.00 Canada 313 pages

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