It was 93 degrees when we arrived at the church, at least, according to our car’s thermostat. After standing outside for a few minutes as people arrived for the scheduled 3:30 rendezvous, it felt more like 2,000 degrees Kelvin. We all wilted a bit as we chatted and talked carpools. When everything was arranged, with a few kids wedged tightly into the back of the church van, our caravan of six vehicles pulled out onto the open road.
The drive out to the Cowboy Dinner Tree is a bit like a panorama of all Central Oregon’s biomes. As residential areas and golf courses with “Keep Oregon Green” signs disappeared, they gave way to the thick pine forest on the way to La Pine, set off by the lava flows of Newberry. After a stretch on 97, we hung a left onto 31 and the foliage began to shift, slowly becoming a mixed bag of the familiar pine trees and hardy sage brush. As the road wound around cliffs, the trees thinned further, until we finally reach the sage covered hills of the “Oregon Outback”—a good reminder that Central Oregon really is a high desert.
We kept on for another longish stretch, catching a brief glimpse of Fort Rock in the distance and the turnoff for Christmas Valley—a place I’ve always imagined decked with holly. My dad tells me otherwise, but as a writer I enjoy delusions.
Finally, we made the final turn and just when we started thinking this whole “Cowboy Dinner Tree” was a big joke or collective hallucination, the sign came into view, peeling paint and all. The 93 degree heat in Bend had become 96 degrees in Silver Lake. As soon as their feet hit the dirt, the kiddos in the group rustled up a rope and started practicing their skills on a dummy horse and old chuck wagon out front as we waited for our table. My family grabbed a patch of shade and talked to a couple who had arrived in a different car, while others went up a small incline to play a game of corn hole or milled around the gift shop.
All along, we had our ears tuned for the dinner bell—or, in this case, old-fashioned dinner triangle. Before long we were summoned and rushed for the building in the hope of air conditioning. We were ushered into a room to the left with an elaborate array of fans, none of which seemed capable of the task set before it. I sat on the bench with our new-found friends and two more people from the carpool, and I began to seriously wonder if I would melt before drinks were served.
To distract myself, I took in the walls, which were covered in one dollar bills with little messages on them. The cool glass of water brought to me by the nine-year-old busboy was like an tiny oasis. I guzzled. After a word of thanksgiving by pastor Loren, our table started on the salad course and began connecting the dots of our lives.
Within a few minutes we found out that another man at our table and my mom had lived within a few minutes of each other in Southern California, and even attended the same church at the same time back in the ‘70s. The other gal who’d taken up residence at our table had also spent some years in the cities that make up the greater LA area. We talked about places and moves, and related about the way great teaching styles and the Bible transcend location.
As the next course—two delicious soups and sweet rolls—came out, the woman of the couple we’d met outside assumed uncontested management of the table, hospitably doling out butter, bread, and soup with the keen and unselfish eye of a great hostess, while she and her husband informed us more about the area immediately around this way out-of-the-way dining establishment.
Then the meat came. And that’s the moment that the heat vanished from my mind and the rustic digs became worthwhile. The steaks were not only huge—32 oz. each—they were also tender, juicy, and had been treated with a delicious rub for added flavor. The whole chicken my mom had ordered was equally well handled. As our group fell almost silent, each occupied with strategizing their approach to such a monumental culinary task, though, I realized how apropos the heat was.
Our trip to the Cowboy Dinner Tree wasn’t just about great food, it was about those small connections, the kind weary travelers make around the campfire. So, our campfire was the blazing sun, and our travels hadn’t been all that tough on that specific day. But here we were, learning just a sliver of God’s larger stories for each of our lives and realizing the amazing places he’d arranged for our stories to cross.
We left full to the brim (although, only my dad and the guy who’d lived in SoCal polished off their steaks), with a few memories of our own to tuck away for the next time TFAB mentions the Cowboy Dinner Tree.