PALMER - Dusk on the slope of Lazy Mountain, and a glacier wind rattled the windows of the Buckingham cabin. Jerusalem Hale, her cheeks rosy from the wood stove, hung Christmas garlands and lights along a ceiling beam. Hosanna was in the kitchen area, frosting cookies with the Buckinghams and her little sisters: Psalms, Lamb and Bethlehem.
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Their first Bible study and their home-school lessons were done for the day. Someone started singing a hymn of praise, and the others joined in, adding harmonies.
Christmas with the Pilgrims will be different this year.
Papa is in jail. The children have left the name "Pilgrim" behind. They have also left, for now, the remote mining camp in the Wrangell Mountains where they once fought a high-profile access battle against the National Park Service.
Today, the 15 children of Robert Hale have found refuge outside Palmer with a Christian homesteading family who have nine children of their own.
Accompanied by their mother, Rose, the children have settled into the Buckinghams' cozy log home outside Palmer, where eight girls share a bedroom of neatly made bunks and hang their thrift store clothes outdoors on the porch. The boys bunk together, Buckinghams and Hales, in two cramped basement rooms down a stairway choked with overcoats and coveralls.
The two families have drawn names for a modest gift exchange on Christmas Day.
It was never that way in the Wrangells, where Papa Pilgrim banned toys and dolls as idolatry.
"People sometimes sent us presents," recalled another daughter, Elishaba. "We saw them when they arrived, only we never found out what happened to them."
There were no schoolbooks in the Wrangells, no books except the Bible. Only the three oldest children ever learned to read.
Robert Hale, who adopted the name Pilgrim on his journey to Alaska, raised his family in isolation, first in New Mexico and then outside McCarthy, in the heart of the country's biggest national park. Today they range in age from four to 30.
The children were gifted and energetic. They could hunt, and repair old trucks, and survive outdoors at 30 below. But when it came to understanding the outside world and the facts of life, all they had for guidance was the word of God - as interpreted by Papa Pilgrim himself.
He put his own twist on teachings familiar to many Christians. He told them how to be "in the world but not of the world." Their isolation was the source of their righteousness, he said. He taught them to mistrust anyone who came to disrupt their godly ways. And above all, the children say today, to dishonor your father was tantamount to disobeying the Lord.
The Pilgrim family's life in the place they called "Hillbilly Heaven" ended in September 2005, when a Palmer grand jury handed up 30 felony charges of rape, assault and incest against Robert Hale involving one of his daughters. Hale, 65, the son of a famous FBI agent, who grew up in a country club lifestyle in Texas before disappearing into a vagabond life of the 1960s, was arrested outside Eagle River after 12 days on the run.
Hale pleaded not guilty. He has spent more than a year in jail. Then last week, with the trial scheduled to begin Jan. 16 in Glennallen, Hale's public defender filed a motion agreeing to change his plea to no contest on most of the charges in exchange for a 14-year prison sentence.
Such a plea could be withdrawn before sentencing, so resolution of the case will not be final for several months. The Hale family's reaction was guarded and steely.
"The family has been prepared to go to trial for a year," said Jim Buckingham, the 48-year-old father of the household, speaking for the Hales on Friday. "We recognize this would be a good turn of events, to prevent the family from having to go through the hard trial. But nobody is breathing a sigh of relief that this is a done deal."
The trial would have covered allegations going back to 1998, the year the Pilgrim family crossed the border into Alaska.
"I think we were a good steppingstone for them," said Martha Buckingham, 47, the mother of the Buckingham family. "But a lot of it has been very, very difficult. They were very fearful when they left McCarthy. We have had to work through that every day."
According to the charging documents against Hale, a single violent incident with one of his daughters involving rape, kidnapping and assault occurred Jan. 10, 2005, soon after they returned to McCarthy.
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