Living in isolation offers perhaps the best opportunity for mind control. Of course, it also takes a strong personality to wield such control over those around you. Robert “Bobby” Hale had such a strong personality, and he found the seclusion he needed to control and manipulate his growing family in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska.
Hale, who evolved into “Papa Pilgrim,” thought that the National Park Service would be the perfect foil for him to continue manipulating not just his family but also the residents of small-town McCarthy, Alaska, the gateway to the park. In the end, though, his family, friends, and neighbors saw through the façade that he built around strict Christian ideals and backwoods isolation.
The story of Papa Pilgrim arrives in bookstores next month in a fascinating, and disturbing, book by Tom Kizzia. What makes Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story Of Faith And Madness On The Alaska Frontier both fascinating and disturbing is the decades-long story of a man who seemingly is forced inward by his personal demons, who takes his family to the wilds of Alaska for seclusion, and who releases his demons on his family through abuse, both verbal and physical, and torment.
Both Ruby Ridge in 1992 and the siege at Waco in 1993, instances in which state and federal authorities clashed, fatally, with anti-government families and religious groups, cast undercurrents in the story. But while there are definite tensions between Papa Pilgrim and the Park Service, they never manifest to the degree of those at Ruby Ridge or Waco. In the end, many of those who initially sided with Papa Pilgrim in his rage against the Park Service realized how he had deceived them.
Through numerous interviews and research going back to Mr. Hale’s boyhood days as the son of a rich Texas family, one whose first marriage ended quickly when his 16-year-old wife of 44 days purportedly was accidentally killed with a blast from a 20-gauge shotgun the two were struggling over, Mr. Kizzia lays bare an alarming story of how one man can brainwash his family under the guise of religion.
And it’s no small family, as Mr. Hale fathered 15 children and kept them in line by twisting the words of the Bible and with beatings administered via a leather thong.
We learn that Mr. Hale and his growing family first found seclusion in the mountains above Taos, New Mexico, where they lived as caretakers of sorts on land owned by actor Jack Nicholson, who fell in love with the area while filming Easy Rider. But when the locals became suspicious of their ways, the family set out in 1998 for Alaska, where Papa Pilgrim eventually figured they could blend further into the wilderness on a 403-acre inholding within Wrangell-St. Elias.
But that hoped-for seclusion slowly begin to vanish as the National Park Service began to investigate concerns that the family was illegally encroaching on park lands and had even bulldozed a road through the park. And they did, for 13 miles.
In a long screed in the local paper designed and intended no doubt to unite McCarthy residents against the Park Service, Papa Pilgrim railed against the state and federal governments over the issue of access to McCarthy and the park.
They will make their secret plans to clean house in a big sweep, through harassment, fraud, and deceit, as they strive for power and control. Once they get rid of us, then the roads will open up and become paved, bridges will be built, and fancy parking lots and motor home parks, where you’ll get arrested if you leave the designated walkway or park at the wrong angle with your car.
As much as Pilgrim's Wilderness is about one man and his flight from society, it also offers a glimpse into the ways some view the National Park Service, and the federal government in general.