A wilderness discovery

Dave Nimmer, Don Shelby and Rod Sando pose in front of a fishing lodge near Agness, Oregon.
Dave Nimmer, Don Shelby and Rod Sando pose in front of a fishing lodge near Agness, Oregon.

The three of us — former DNR Commissioner Rod Sando, WCCO anchorman Don Shelby and I — were heading east along the Rogue River Gorge from the Oregon Coast late this past summer. We’d just finished two fine days of fishing salmon and hiking in an old-growth forest with lush ferns and giant redwoods. The most memorable part of the trip, however, was still ahead of us.

The 32-mile trip along the Rogue to the tiny town of Agness made me sit up and take notice: I saw the silver ribbon of the river at the bottom of the gorge and, on the canyon walls, the emerald greens of Ponderosa pines, Douglas firs and white ash trees.

This was a wilderness road, with narrow shoulders, one-lane bridges and dozens of S-curves punctuated by an occasional 90-degree corner. By the time we got to Agness, we were famished. We’d had no breakfast and were desperate for a café or a bar and grill.

We found neither, but we did spot an old wooden sign on a post that advertised a ranch and fishing lodge. It was about a quarter-mile down a gravel road, past a grass landing strip. The first look at the place took me back about 60 years.

The main lodge had a sitting room, hardwood floors, an upright piano and a front desk with a guest registry. Some of the cabins had names, all had numbers and some had curtains and a stove. The dining room had long tables and featured home cooking. We were standing next to a table when the owner/operator, a fifth-generation family member, walked up.

She’d make us breakfast, she said, but lunch was ready right away — cold fried chicken, fresh biscuits, coleslaw, iced lemonade and hot coffee. That’d do, we said, and the food was fine. The waitress who served it was very fine — quick and efficient, solicitous and generous.

As she cleared the table, she spotted a tattoo on Shelby’s wrist.

“An Army insignia?” she asked.

“No,” he said, “my wife’s name, but I was in the Air Force.”

She said her son had been in the Marine Corps, serving two tours in Iraq as a chopper mechanic. She was obviously proud of his service and subsequent college education.

But he came back changed, she said, and estranged from her. She’d never seen her two young grandchildren. She started to cry as she recalled that, in her family tradition, the children always came to see the parents. Not the case with her son. She apologized for the tears, and we told her it was OK. We were no strangers to pain.

Sando gently told her perhaps she ought to initiate the visit. And Shelby added how he thought she probably wasn’t part of the problem, but could be part of the solution. I gave her a hug. She thanked us for listening, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and cleared the dishes. We paid the bill, left a tip and, on the way out, Shelby left another twenty with the owner to give to our waitress.

He said to tell her this was a down payment on a plane ticket to go see her son. The gift she’d given us was the sense that we could be trusted. We left feeling wiser than we used to be: We listened better, talked less and shared more.

As we pulled out on the gravel road to head back to Portland, it was clear that what we paid for, and what we got, was a lot more than lunch.

Dave Nimmer had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to [email protected].