Rod’s Dinner with the Governer

September 13th -- Dinner

We were both exhausted as we limped into the dining room of the tiny Hotel Diamond, forty miles north of Steens Mountain. Only two hours previously, Rod and I had dismounted from horses that had spent six hours transporting us over streams, through old Aspen groves, across rocky gorges, and up tall cliffs to take us to the edge of Little Blitzen Gorge on "The Steens", as the mountain is known in Oregon. It had been a magnificent view from 8500 feet to the Great Basin's high desert, alkali lakes, and distant mountains. But it had been a few years since we’d ridden that hard, so our legs were sore and we were eager for food.

Located in Diamond, Oregon, population 19, the hotel boasts eight comfortable rooms, one that even has its own bathroom. From the screened in porch, patrons view antelope grazing in irrigated alfalfa fields surrounded by rocky mesas and lots of sagebrush. The family-style restaurant on the hotel’s first floor serves primarily hotel guests and is by far the best of the three eateries within 40 miles of our Harney County homestead.

Occasionally, there is room at the table for extra guests, and I had called ahead to assure we wouldn't go hungry that evening. There’s no menu -- you eat whatever is being served, but the food is always good and plentiful, with fresh-from-the-oven loaves of bread at every meal.

We were a little early, and saw our names on the place cards at the smaller of the three tables, along with “Obherst” and “Cummings”. Rod and I sat down on the side bench, and soon a slight middle-aged woman sat down at the bench across from us. She was wearing jeans, had short dark hair, and seemed as though she’d worked hard to overcome her natural timidity.

“Hello, I’m Mary,” she said quietly, extending her hand. “What have you folks been doing today?”

Rod hid under his cowboy hat, so I introduced myself and explained that we were both rather tired from our day-long horseback ride. When it seemed as though Rod might completely ignore her, I peeked under his hat and said, “Rod, this is Mary. Mary, this is my husband Rod.” Rod shook her hand, said “Huunnh”, and retreated.

“Have you stayed here before?” I asked Mary.

“Just once, but my husband’s never been here.” She said.

“It’s a wonderful place,” I said, making appropriate dinner table talk.

“So where did you go today?” I asked her.

“My husband fished up the Blitzen River, near Page Springs Campground. I don’t fish, but I sat on the riverbed and read and wrote in my Journal of Political Irony, and played with our dog. It was so relaxing.”

I wanted to ask about the Journal of Political Irony, but just then our other tablemates joined us -- her husband Ted, and an older couple from Salem. Ted sat at the end of the table, near Rod, He looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t place him. We shook hands all around, and then Mary and the older couple got into a spirited discussion of the town of John Day's Chinese apothecary shop for which Mary was raising funds to convert into a real museum. Ted was almost as loquacious as Rod, although at one point, he did ask Mary,

“And what will be different once you’ve raised the money for the museum?” The question seemed a little off, and I wondered whether he supported her project.

She explained that they would be able to translate the Chinese apothecary’s notes, they could purchase real display cases, and they could install a plumbing system for visitors, among other things.

“Tell me about your homestead” she asked, changing the subject. “I hear there’s lots of history here.”

As I began telling the story of the Harney County homesteaders at the turn of the 20th century, and my grandmother's tale in particular, I noticed that Mary and the older couple were listening, but Ted seemed distracted. He looked down at his shepherd dog lying quietly by the table.

I came to a pause in the story and looked at the dog as well, “Your dog is so well-behaved.” I said. “I wish she could give my dog some behavior lessons. Did you have her trained?”

Mary replied for Ted, in the same way that I sometimes reply for Rod. “No, we got her at the pound. Given our circumstances, I wasn’t sure we could manage a dog, but the humane society officers said they’d test her out by having her be with them at the main counter for three days to see if she’d bark or have problems with children or anyone else. She passed with flying colors.”

“Circumstances." I wondered what she was talking about.

Then something clicked. “No, it couldn’t be.” I thought. I looked at Ted and all the pieces fell together -- Salem, raising money, fishing, Journal of Political Irony, circumstances, and Ted, a man in the process of some big decisions, and incognito at the Hotel Diamond.

It had taken me forty-five minutes to realize we were eating meatballs and chili rellenos with Governor Kulongoski and his wife Mary Oberst. I leaned over to Rod, as unobtrusively as possible, and whispered, “You’re sitting next to the governor!”

I was processing this revelation, and Rod was still hiding under his cowboy hat when a waitress approached our table and said to me, “Hi, I’m Clara. I guess we’re almost neighbors.” I recognized her as a Thompson from the Thompson Ranch in Princeton, eight miles or so down the road from our homestead.

“Yes, I guess so, although almost everyone is a neighbor here in Harney County, no matter how far away you live from each other.” I said. “You should come by sometime for a visit.”

“I’d like that”, she replied.

Rod seemed to wake up. He leaned towards her and said confidentially, “Yea, come by and we’ll get drunk.”

Everyone laughed. Just then Ted reached over, put his hand on Rod’s arm and said, “I’ll be there!”

Dessert came – a delicious bread pudding with caramel sauce. The conversation wandered a bit. I wondered what I had been talking about, and began to think about all the things I should have been talking about. After a few moments of embarrassment and self-recrimination, I realized that we had just been ourselves, and that was probably for the best.

As we finished our meal, Ted reached his hand out. I shook it as he said, “Thanks for having dinner with me.” Rod nodded under his hat.

Ted and Mary wandered upstairs, and we walked to our pickup for the desert drive home.