I returned from a weekend of camping in the high desert of eastern Oregon, a respite from the twilight and winter rains on the west side of the Cascade Mountains where I live, to find a letter with a straightforward message, that Odey Cassell was dead.
It had been a year for deaths. My mother had died of cancer in Lennox Hill Hospital in New York. An uncle I was close to died of a heart attack among strangers in the Atlanta airport. I had lost with their fading sense of family, as though the legs had gone out suddenly from under the veranda of their southern home and revealed it abandoned. I was brooding over that sense of emptiness when the letter about Odey came, written in Nettie’s fine, neat hand.
He had gone unremarkably one morning, wrote his wife, in his own bed in a house he had lived in since he was born in its living room in 1885. I was weary of deaths, but this passing stunned me. I spent the evening trying to answer Nettie’s letter, trying half the night to say how grateful I was to have known him.
I first met Odey in the spring of 1964. A friend, Peter, and I drove down from Notre Dame to spend a week with the Cassells. Their farm lay northeast of Cass, W.Va., beneath Black Allegheny Mountain on the Greenbrier River. Its cleared fields were cut out square against the hills, in a dense second growth of oak, maple and white pine. Peter had first met them in 1961, when he saw a card on a bulletin board in Cass—“Home cooked meals and overnight, $1 per meal, $1 for bed”—and found his way out to them, to a two-story clapboard house, white paint faded to light gray, a large unpainted barn, a woodshed, split-rail and wire fences, Nettie’s garden, and overhead a 125-Kv power line that passed through their lives, over chickens, a few cows, 25 or 30 sheep, some pigs and their border collie, Topsy.
What Nettie put on her table for a single meal was more than most people saw in three. Farm meals, plain food meant for working people. Tomatoes and green beans, yellow squash, potatoes, carrots and sweet corn. Mutton and ham. Fresh milk, churned butter and honey, fresh bread and biscuits. All of it, save the grains, from the farm.
The guest beds upstairs were hard to match in our minds for comfort: feather mattresses on box springs with layers of quilts and sun-stiffened sheets. Their home was wood-heated; the water system gravity-fed from a stream on a hill behind the house. Hot water ran out of a circulating pipe in a wood stove in the kitchen. A loaded .30/30 leaned against the pale yellow wall by the front door, for bears and feral dogs, for the sake of the sheep.
We went to Odey’s farm because it was so different from what we knew, because we were 18 and sensed adventure in it.
In the evenings Odey would tell stories, dozens of them, on visit after visit, never the same one twice unless he was asked. He drew us in, sitting wide-eyed and silent in his living room. We never heard enough; later we barely understood how to retell them.
Whenever we came we brought him two cans of Prince Albert pipe tobacco and a little Jack Daniel’s. Nettie didn’t approve of the whiskey. Odey’s eyes would sparkle behind his wire-frame glasses, a look of boyish surprise would come over him and he’d affect astonishment and delight at her disapproval. And he’d say, “Well, boys, I declare. . . .” He studied the gifts, turning them slowly in his hands as though they were as exotic for him as ostrich eggs. “Thank you,” he would say. He was the first man I know who was not accustomed to receiving inexpensive gifts.
Odey was slow to begin a session of stories, as the art required, but once under way the range of his historical experience, the touch for revealing detail, his timing and rhythmic pace took you and lulled you. Almost every incident of which he spoke—the time a wounded owl punctured his hand, the way they cut ice on the river with horse-drawn saws—had occurred within 20 miles of the house we sat in. He’d cleared the land around it with his father and a team of oxen before the turn of the century. He’d seen commercial logging for white pine and spruce come and go, and with it the railroad and the town. Cass now supported a clothespin factory, and in summer rides to a nearby hilltop behind an antique Shay logging engine. In spring there were half a dozen wheelless cars in vacant lots strangling in vines. His children had gone on to become a university professor, a state trooper. Another son, the youngest, had stayed on to help his parents, working part-time in the Green Bank Observatory, nine miles east by foot or 30 by West Virginia mountain road.
At 78, six-feet-four-inches tall, with hands so large he had to take a doorknob in his fingertips, with physical strokes perfectly measured to whatever work had to be done—splitting wood or winding the stem of his pocket watch—he strode down the road with us on an evening walk at a pace we couldn’t catch. And he knew it.
Odey was outsize for us, in part because he hardly made himself the subject of conversation, and we felt this a quality to admire. In the years we visited we only heard stories of his prodigious physical strength and his generosity from friends, neighbors with names like Walter Beverage and Charles Seabolt. It pleased us to think that they thought of him as we did, though to them he was only what they were to him, all of value in that country, neighbors, ones who went way back.
At the time, the largest unexplored cave in West Virginia lay under Odey’s land. With the aid of some crude maps made by a U.S. Geological Survey crew, Peter and I went down into its tunnels and caverns, an adventure of self-induced terror and, to be sure, of awesome sights. When we unraveled our stories that evening Odey listened as keenly as we had to him, strengthening the flow of our narrative with a gentle question or two, helping us shape it, though we could not understand this at the time.
We stumbled into rattlesnakes in the nearby hills (he told us once their dens smelled like cucumbers, and he was right); and we watched, stunned, one night from a second-story window as a black bear tore up his sheep pens and most of his cash income for the year. The next morning he fired up the stove, milked the cow and went to work on the sheep.
I don’t ever remember getting up earlier than he did.
I learned more than I comprehended at Odey’s, about hardware disease in cows and how to shoot crows; about a farmer’s life 80 years long, set dead against half as many bitter winters, violent economic loss, forest fires, friends chewed up in farm machinery and stillborn children; about backwoods skills he though unremarkable, and a capacity for improvisation—quick and sharp in men with little income who worked alone. He was, of course, like a grandfather to me, in part because I had never known grandfathers. He was orthodox in that he never spoke in our presence of religion or politics. In general, he moved us by his own example toward a respect for people for whatever they might do well, and to recall that different people lived in different ways. I never saw bitterness or resentment in him. Or meanness.
In later years, when I read about Appalachia in books like Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands or heard a man like Doc Watson sing of hard lives in the hills, I would think of the thing Odey had given us: we had lived that time like willow shoots with a man rooted in the earth like a tan oak. We had repaired his fences and milked his cows and run his sheep and brought him whiskey; and he had told us well-fetched stories of young ladies met at county fairs, or bear hunting for meat, and of practical jokes to break the back of a terrible winter, about what he thought were the courtesies and obligations in life, in short to be self-reliant and neighborly, and grateful for what there was. And then he sent us on our way.
Some things Odey said about integrity didn’t bloom in me for years. For the most part they came in time.
There was another man. During summers after my sophomore and junior years at Notre Dame, I moved West to work in Wyoming, some of that time with a man in his 60s called Bill Daniels. We cleared forest trails together and I wrangled horses on a few trips on which he was employed as a cook. He took a liking to me. On our days off he took me into places in the Teton Wilderness Area he felt not many men had seen.
At the request of the Museum of Natural History in New York, Bill Daniels had prepared an exhibit on Sheepeater Indians, people banished to the Rocky Mountain ranges by their respective tribes for heinous crimes, people who lived on bighorn sheep the way Plains Indians lived on buffalo. As far as I know, he was the only man around at the time who knew the location of several of their caves and could easily find evidence of their vanished culture. My time with him was less keen and shorter than with Odey but he introduced me to a perception of America’s indigenous people more complex than anything I was later to read about them, and he formed in me a sympathy for mountain men.
I realized later that he saw, without motive or design, to a part of my education that required his attention.
There was a third man who affected me as much as these two, though years later, a kind of frontier roustabout called Dave Wallace. As a young man he had hunted wolves and coyotes for bounty in North and South Dakota. He later moved to eastern Montana where he worked on cattle ranches and drilled for oil before going north to crew on a commercial fishing boat in the Gulf of Alaska. I met him, crippled by accidents sustained in those and other jobs, living in the southeastern Oregon desert where he was making a living mining and trapping coyotes.
I spent several days with Dave in the winter of 1976. He lived in a shack and adjacent trailer without electricity or running water, in a sheltered spot beneath cottonwoods on a stream called Pike Creek. From his door you looked across sixty or seventy square miles of bleached playa desert south into the Trout Creek Mountains. It was dry country, with an annual temperature range from 100 degrees above to 35 degrees below zero. Dave subsisted mostly on canned foods, was kind toward his infrequent visitors, congenial, and he shared whatever he had without making a fool of himself.
I’ve met several me like Wallace in the West, but few of such varied background who were as clearheaded and energetic. When I asked him he agreed to a series of long interviews.
What Dave Wallace, Bill Daniels and Odey Cassell represented I thought was vanishing. Before it was gone I wanted to speak with them, formally, as a writer; to make extensive notes; to try to elicit those things in them that were so attractive and give them names. For me who had had difficult times, without money and companionship, they were uncommonly free of bitterness. There was a desire in them to act to help when something went wrong rather than to assign blame, even when the trouble was over. When something went very wrong they reached down into a reservoir of implacable conviction, as a man puts his hands into a cold, clear basin of water. And they wrenched humor—impish in Odey, raw in Bill, laconic in Dave—out of the bleakest of these things.
I wanted to speak with them. Because there are lives, near and distant, wearing out too quickly, without plan or laughter.
I received word through a mutual friend the week I was making ready for the trip that Dave had died. He had apparently had a heart attack while driving down the dirt road past his place and had slumped across the steering wheel. The pickup had slowed, drifted off the road and come to rest against a thick tuft of rabbit brush. The engine must have run until it emptied the gas tank.
I made the 300-mile drive a week later. His cabin had already been vandalized, by the same sort of people he had made welcome and fed from his meager garden.
A month later I learned of Bill Daniels’ death in Dubois, Wyo., at his brothers’ ranch. He had taken with him his extensive knowledge of the Sheepeaters. He had told me once that after seeing what had been done to other Indian sites he would die without telling the rest of what he knew.
When I read, a few weeks after this, Nettie’s letter—“. . . he hadn’t been able to be out on the place for a long time, which he wanted to do so much . . .”—I felt the loss of what Odey had been, and that his life, like Daniels’ and Wallace’s, was now irretrievable. The heart of my pain, and anger, I think, was that, unproclaimed, these men would have seemed to so many like failures.
I was, of course, very fond of them, as young men are fond of their grandfathers by blood or not; I realized just before they died that there was something of transcendent value in them, fragile and as difficult to extract as the color of a peach. I wanted to be able to have it and pass it on, and so their deaths left me burdened and confused, as though something had been stolen that I owned. The silence and obscurity that were so essential to their lives escaped me entirely. I could not leave them alone in their deaths.
In the days following, no longer charged with a responsibility to describe them, I began to drift back to older, more personal feelings. One evening when I was out walking along the edge of a river that runs near my home I stopped and became absorbed in the swirling current of jade-colored water. Close by in the Douglas fir and cedar trees was a roaring, a white-water creek sheathed in mist where it hit the rive in an explosion, and was absorbed in that massive, opaque flow. I took Nettie’s letter out of my pocket, gently unfolded it and let it go.
The river flows I do not know how many miles, Odey, to another, which flows farther on to the Columbia, and on to the Pacific. There are whales there—they lead obscure and exemplary lives. They are as long as your barn, and speak with voices like the sound of the wind in the cave beneath your pasture. They are for the most part undisturbed. They seem to me to be at home.