Psalms sat on Papa Pilgrim's right knee and Lamb perched on his left. Thirteen more of his children -- all of them with names from the Bible, several of them packing pistols -- crowded around. So did his exhausted-looking wife, Country Rose.
It was a late summer's evening in Hillbilly Heaven, a 410-acre ranch in the high country of eastern Alaska. Outside, the temperature dipped below freezing and the encircling mountains had a fresh dusting of snow. Inside the family cabin, potato soup was steaming on the stove and apple pies bubbled in a wood-burning oven. Supper, though, was on hold.
Papa was talking about the abuses heaped upon his family by the National Park Service. His children and wife listened in worshipful silence. No one dared eat.
Pilgrim, 62, whose legal name is Robert Allan Hale and whose past in the U.S. Southwest is as fairy-tale strange as his present in the Alaskan outback, explained how it came to pass last winter that he drove a bulldozer 14 miles across the national park that encircles his land. The Lord, Pilgrim said, told him that clearing a derelict mining road through the park was a loving thing to do.
"In order for me to love my children, I have to be a provider," Pilgrim said. "With great reluctance, I took the bulldozer and used the road. I had no idea what was in store."
Pilgrim's passage on the Caterpillar D4 has resulted in an edgy standoff between his well-armed family and the federal government. The National Park Service has shut down the bulldozed road to his property, dispatched armed rangers to assess park damage and is pursuing criminal and civil cases against him and members of his family.
The brouhaha over the bulldozer -- a drama still unfolding inside the largest U.S. park -- has made the Pilgrims actors in a national dispute over private access to federal land. National environmental groups are demanding that the Park Service prosecute the Pilgrims to the fullest extent of the law, while land-rights activists have embraced them as heroic victims of overzealous federal bureaucrats.
Papa Pilgrim seems to relish the mismatch between the National Park Service, with its helicopters and bulletproof vests, and his "simple family that never knew anything but how to live in the wilderness."
"If the government doesn't let us use that road with a bulldozer, then all they are trying to do is starve us out," Pilgrim said. "It is like the Alamo."
Park Service officials say the last thing they want is violence and that they are worried about another Ruby Ridge standoff or another Waco. They are determined, they say, not to use force in a way that would lead to bloodshed or embarrassing media coverage.
"Our challenge is to avoid confrontation," said Gary Candelaria, superintendent of Wrangell-St. Elias, which is six times larger than Yellowstone National Park. Still, Park Service rangers admit that they are fed up with the Pilgrims, especially with the boys who carry revolvers and rifles.
"What they tend to do is surround you," said Hunter Sharp, chief ranger in the park. "When they do that, cops get nervous. We have had it. We are not going to back off. We represent the people of the United States."
Bulldozing a Right of Way
In a sense, Pilgrim drove the bulldozer through a bureaucratic gap opened by the Bush administration. Over objections from environmentalists, the Interior Department published a rule in January that opened federal land to motorized access in places where roads once existed.
The rule -- a reassertion of an obscure 1866 mining law known as RS-2477 -- has since inspired right-of-way claims on old roads across federal land in the red rock country of southern Utah and across the Mojave National Preserve in California.
Alaska, though, is where the big claims are.
The old mining road that Pilgrim cleared with the bulldozer appears on a list of routes that the state of Alaska could claim as a right of way.
Pilgrim, though, fired up his bulldozer before the state made a claim to that road or any road in a national park in Alaska. Neither the Bush administration nor Gov. Frank H. Murkowski (R), who is a champion of opening rights of way to create jobs, has since said anything supportive of Pilgrim's vigilante romp.
Land-rights activists, however, see the Pilgrim case as a public relations windfall.
"We are going to make the Pilgrims poster children for abuse of federal power," said Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association, a group based in Washington state that supports claims of private landowners in disputes with federal agencies.
"This is a good family that simply does not know how to deal with bureaucracy," said Cushman, whose group is helping Pilgrim pay for a lawyer and is publicizing his legal problems on its Web site. "They did not knowingly break the law. You have to look into people's hearts."
Environmental groups have been watching the Pilgrims in pained disbelief.
"You just can't take the law into your hands with a bulldozer," said Jim Stratton, Alaska regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit advocacy group that monitors the parks. "What I am most afraid of is other people who share the Pilgrims' outlook on federal and state law and who are watching this case."
For most of the past year, the Park Service has been playing a careful game of cat-and-mouse with the Pilgrims.
Both sides seem media savvy. When they encounter each other, park rangers and the Pilgrims monitor each other with video cameras.
After months of negotiations, Candelaria, the park superintendent, said he has become convinced that "the Pilgrims are not what they appear." The family wears homemade clothes, tans its own leather, never watches TV and reads only the Bible. "They will give you this simple, homespun, Christian, living-off-the-land act," he said. "But it doesn't ring true."
A Checkered Past
Robert Hale grew up in affluent circumstances in Fort Worth, Tex.
His father was I.B. Hale, an All-American tackle at Texas Christian who in 1939 was the first-round draft pick of the Washington Redskins. I.B. became an FBI agent and later worked for General Dynamics, the defense contractor in Fort Worth.
When he was still in high school, Bobby Hale, as everyone called him then, eloped to Florida with Kathleen Connally. She was 16 and the daughter of John B. Connally, later to become the Texas governor wounded in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Shortly after the elopement in 1958, Kathleen died of a gunshot wound. A Florida deputy sheriff told Connally, as he wrote in his autobiography, "there may have been a suicide pact, and Bobby backed out."
Asked about Connally's book, Pilgrim denied any suicide pact and said Kathleen's death was an accident. He said he was in the hotel room when she died, but declined to give details about how she supposedly fired a shotgun into her face.
Five years after Kathleen's death, Bobby turned up in Southern California and insinuated himself into the life of another well-known figure from the Kennedy era, according to Seymour M. Hersh's book "The Dark Side of Camelot."
Citing unreleased FBI documents, Hersh writes that Bobby joined his twin brother, Billy, in breaking into the Los Angeles apartment of Judith Exner, a woman who later acknowledged having an affair with Kennedy. An FBI agent observed the break-in on Aug. 7, 1962, but made no attempt to arrest the Hale brothers, according to Hersh.
In the book, Hersh speculates that the break-in was part of a successful attempt by the Hales' father, I.B., then chief of security at General Dynamics, to blackmail Kennedy into giving the company a major defense contract.
"That is ridiculous," said Pilgrim, when asked about the Hersh book. "I wasn't there, and neither was my brother. Mr. Hersh is a liar."
Through the 1960s and into the '70s, Bobby Hale called himself "Sunstar." He lived in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, worked on a commune in Oregon and says that he "rode a horse across South America on my quest to find the answer."
While camping out in the Southern California desert, he met Kurina Rose Bresler, a 16-year-old from suburban Los Angeles. She would become the mother of the 15 children now living with him in Alaska. (Pilgrim has three other children from two previous marriages.) "My daughter was running around with friends, and they were into drugs at the time -- that's when she met Bobby," said Kurina's mother, Betty Freeman, an actress and singer who lives in Sherman Oaks, Calif. She is married to producer Joel Freeman, whose movies include "Shaft."
Reborn and Renamed
After Bobby and Kurina had had their first two children together, whom they named Butterfly and Nava Sunstar, they became born-again Christians. They renamed themselves Papa Pilgrim and Country Rose, renamed their eldest children Elizabeth and Joseph, and began naming newborn children after characters, places and other designations in the Bible.
They moved to the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northern New Mexico, setting up a subsistence farm on land owned by Jack Nicholson, the actor. Permission to live there was granted after Country Rose's mother made a personal appeal to Nicholson's business manager, Bob Colbert.
For more than 20 years on Nicholson's land, the family tanned leather, raised sheep and bred dogs. They made some money playing bluegrass music at state fairs and festivals. But they also got into frequent scraps with neighbors, according to Mike Francis, retired deputy chief of the New Mexico state police.
"We would get calls in regards to him and his family that they were stealing chickens and eggs, and that hay was disappearing," Francis said, adding that criminal charges were never filed. "Neighbors were afraid of Bob, and they didn't want to prosecute."
Pilgrim says he and his family never took anything from anyone. Friction with neighbors, he said, was over religion.
"They called me Preacher Bob, and they didn't want to hear the gospel from me," he said. "People for no reason created stupid rumors about us."
While the family lived in New Mexico, Country Rose cut off all contact with her mother in Los Angeles, as did her children. "He won't let me talk to my daughter directly," said Freeman, referring to her son-in-law. "If I want to talk to her, I have to talk to him. The children have been taught that the devil is in me."
Pilgrim objects to questions about his past, and he especially resents criticism from his mother-in-law.
"My past is gone and that is not who I am," he said. "My mother-in-law has been trying to break our family up since the very beginning.
"If you start talking about Jack Nicholson and Seymour Hersh, John Connally and cults, then people are going to forget about the real Pilgrim family and the life we live now in Alaska. My family represents something that is not a problem."
As Pilgrim explains it, the reason his family moved north is because "Alaska provides."
He was referring to good fishing and hunting, but also to the permanent fund dividend, an annual payment to all state residents. It comes from taxes on North Slope oil and last year was worth $1,541 to each state resident. For a big family, the money adds up. Since they moved to Alaska in 1998, the dividend has provided the Pilgrims with nearly $30,000 a year in tax-free income.
"That is more money than we ever had in our entire life," Pilgrim said. "And we went around looking for a place to spend it."
Two years ago, they bought the ranch they now call Hillbilly Heaven, which is about 14 miles north of the small town of McCarthy. They bought it from a retired miner for $450,000 and first visited it by snowmobile.
Pilgrim said he was only vaguely aware, then, that his property was surrounded by a national park. This summer, after a land survey paid for by the Park Service, he learned that two-thirds of his cabin rests on federal property. "When we saw this land and decided it would be our home, I didn't know what the National Park Service was," Pilgrim said.
By act of Congress, national parks in Alaska are supposed to be different from those in the Lower 48. The 1980 law that created 104 million acres of parks and refuges in the state guaranteed that in-holders, meaning people who own property in the parks, could pursue traditional livelihoods while having "reasonable and feasible" access to their land.
For most of the past 23 years, however, a group of highly vocal Alaskan in-holders has complained that the Park Service has been flouting the will of Congress and trying to squeeze them off their land. They see a conspiracy of city people from the Lower 48, environmental zealots and narrow-minded federal bureaucrats who are trying to strip Alaska of its rural culture and replace it with a depopulated wilderness.
Without quite realizing what they were doing, the Pilgrims bulldozed their way into this ideological land war, and, in recent months, they have become its featured attraction.
Rick Kenyon, publisher of a virulently anti-Park Service newspaper called the Wrangell St. Elias News, has published a series of hagiographic stories that describe the Pilgrims as simple folk bedeviled by heavily armed federal agents.
"I think if George Bush found out about this, he would be very unhappy," Kenyon said. "There is no question but that the Park Service has tunnel vision. They are trying to break the Pilgrims and destroy them financially."
Park officials say that is nonsense.
"None of this had to happen," said Candelaria, the park superintendent. "If Pilgrim had come to us before he got on the bulldozer, we probably could have given him some access. Some people may not like it, but this is a national park. Before you get on a bulldozer, you need to get a permit."
Later this year, the Park Service will ask the U.S. attorney in Alaska to start civil proceedings against the Pilgrims. Candelaria said they would probably be sued to pay for bulldozer damage along the road and around their land. Criminal charges have also been filed against the family for operating a horse-tour business in the park without a license and for damaging public property.
After refusing for months to speak with Candelaria or local rangers, Pilgrim says he has now decided to try to cooperate with the park. He made a written request on Sept. 14 for a permit that would allow him vehicular access to the disputed road. He wants to use a bulldozer, with its blade up, to haul in food, fuel and other supplies for winter.
The request, though, was hardly conciliatory. It said that if the Park Service doesn't take advantage of this "wonderful opportunity" to work with his family, then its inaction would be proof of its "selfish, greedy and hateful attitude."
"This is progress, I guess," said Candelaria, who said he is considering the request. But he said the Park Service must make an environmental assessment before allowing passage. The road the Pilgrims want to use with a bulldozer crosses a creek 13 times, and there are trout in the creek that the Park Service believes could be harmed.
Out at Hillbilly Heaven, Pilgrim says winter is closing in fast and the family's supply of diesel fuel is running low. When snowfall covers the fields that surround his house, horses that now transport the family to and from town will have no feed.
"We are already cold up here, and we don't have enough blankets," Pilgrim said.