In the opening pages of Pilgrim’s Wilderness, author Tom Kizzia makes an ominous observation: “In an empty country, every individual looms large.”
Kizzia would know. For almost 40 years he’s covered the state of Alaska and the individuals who live there, but none as closely as the man who arrived in McCarthy, Alaska in 2002 calling himself “Papa Pilgrim.” Even in a town full of misfits, the Pilgrim family stood out, due to their numbers (two parents, 14 children) and their style (long haired and dressed in traditional frontier garb, with fiddles and mandolins in hand). Pilgrim claimed that his pious family had come to Alaska to escape the sinful corruption of the modern world. With a deep Texas drawl, he reassured McCarthy’s curious residents, “All we want is a place to live our old-time way and be left in peace.”
The family could not have chosen a more remote spot. The town of McCarthy, located inside the massive Wrangell-St. Elias National Park (the nation’s largest, six times the size of Yellowstone) boasts only a few dozen permanent residents and had no paved access road. This isolation appealed to the Pilgrim family, who bought a home up the mountain and struck up a homesteading operation.
In short order, simple homesteading gave way to unlawful destruction. Pilgrim cleared a 13-mile road for personal use straight through federal land, igniting the ire of park rangers who saw the move as a gross violation of government property and the admiration of land-rights groups who saw Pilgrim as a modern pioneer trying to live his life without bureaucratic interference. As legal arguments mounted and tensions in McCarthy grew, the case made its way up the channels toward the U.S. Supreme Court and onto the front page of the Washington Post.
The story of Papa Pilgrim and his bulldozer also made its way to Kizzia, who was then a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. With a personal connection to McCarthy (he owns a cabin there) and a professional interest in Alaska’s land disputes, the story interested the veteran reporter. “When I was in college on the East Coast, I read a lot of 19th century works about manifest destiny,” Kizzia says. “I became fascinated by America’s engagement with the land as it moved west, for better or worse.”
By the time Kizzia moved to Alaska in 1975, most states had already made decisions about land use, but in Alaska, the battle was still raging. “As a writer,” says Kizzia, “I was captivated.” He arrived just in time. In 1980 Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the biggest act of wilderness preservation in the world, protecting more than 100 million acres and doubling the size of the national park system. (You can bet it was plenty controversial too, demanding plenty of newspaper ink from a young reporter.)
When Papa Pilgrim granted “Neighbor Tom” a sought-after interview to discuss the Pilgrim’s manifest destiny in the Wrangell Mountains, Kizzia dutifully made the trek on horseback to meet the patriarch. That evening, as Pilgrim wildly sermonized about the Lord’s coming and the evils of government, his children sat motionless and silent. Kizzia, a father himself, detected a darkness beneath the family’s hard-working, clean-living facade.
“I got the red flags,” remembers Kizzia, “the way the kids trained their blue eyes on you, they way they stayed right by his side. [Pilgrim] was a very smooth talker and he was good at saying what people want to hear.”
Kizzia started digging and soon unearthed a disturbing history of Pilgrim, tracing a life that touched on the wealthy enclaves of Texas, the corridors of Hoover’s FBI, the drug-fueled communes of the California and the lonely mountains of New Mexico. But it was in Alaska—in the emptiest space—where the deranged sociopath loomed largest and most devastatingly.
Meticulously researched, Pilgrim’s Wilderness is an absorbing and substantive education on America’s Last Frontier encased in a blood-pumping, nightmarish family drama as brutal as the wilderness itself. Kizzia writes of Alaska with the affection and steadiness of a weathered travel guide—the kind who knows the best route in. And the best route out.
Kirk Reed Forrester is a freelance writer based in Houston.