The dream is of the open land, the hills of piñon and juniper, the neighing of horses under the sky blushing in spring's evening glow - and the red mud hut at the center of it all.

It has come to Olivia Dickey as she's been away from her country home south of Colorado Springs for the first time, working the past five months as a student teacher in Spokane, Wash. She's learned how absence makes the heart grow fonder.

She often recalls a quote from Mother Teresa. "It's about finding peace," Dickey says. "'Go home and love your family.'"

She's back home for Easter, the busiest day of the year in the mud hut that is Juniper Valley Ranch Restaurant, famed for the family-style fried chicken dinners that haven't changed since they were first served in 1951. Dickey represents the fifth generation of her family to lend a hand at the nearly century-old building off Colorado 115. Her great-great-grandfather, Guy Parker, constructed it and homesteaded the ranch across the road, the 300 acres with adobe homes her relatives live in today.

And the restaurant remains their pride.

"It's heritage," says Dickey's father, who opened Juniper Valley's doors for another season this month.

Greg Dickey is into his 34th year running the restaurant. He knows longtime customers as Mr. and Mrs. from his toddler days as a busboy. Among them is Judy Bell, 80, the Colorado Springs golfing legend who likes to sit at one of Juniper Valley's 14 round tables every weekend.

Like all regulars, she swears by the food - swears that the fixings are the finest she's had since Sundays at grandma's. And like all regulars, she goes for more than the food.

"I equate it to going out to the farm," Bell says, waxing nostalgic of her Kansas youth.

She's been going since the 1960s, when the restaurant was run by Greg Dickey's Aunt Evelyn and Grandma Ethel. The sisters made Juniper Valley's first meal and went on to accomplish the vision their father had for the mud hut when he built it, inspired by the natural-looking architecture he saw in New Mexico.

More than anything, Guy Parker - one of Colorado Springs' first babies, born in 1875 - was inspired by the Old West. And as Colorado 115 was being laid in his later years, it seemed he feared the fading of a culture.

In yellowed letters kept by the family, Parker alludes to his wish for Juniper Valley to always represent old-fashioned values. He writes about those in his book of poems, published in 1955 and dedicated to his parents, "a good, honest pioneer couple."

"We don't have much Havlin' china / we're not strong enough for silverware," goes one poem. "But our appetites are something / that will stand test anywhere."

And the restaurant has stood the test of time. The family keeps patching the mud walls. And they keep cranking the handle of a vintage record player, with polka music that the square-dancing Parker would appreciate.

'Genuine love'

Until their deaths, Aunt Evelyn and Grandma Ethel worked long enough to bridge over a generation of management, to when Greg Dickey was ready to take over. It was only practical that he would: "I was out of high school, married with a baby on the way," he says. "Gotta get to work doing something."

So began his days of waking at 5 a.m. on the weekends to prep food, with the afternoon dedicated to roping on horseback before returning to greet dinner guests. In the offseason, he's worked other jobs: construction, driving a semi, flipping used cars most recently. "It's never really been enough to sustain you," he says of the restaurant.

But no way would he let it go. And no way would he change it, though he did introduce chicken fried steak to the Friday menu a few years ago. Not that he considers himself culinary inclined; he simply knows the passed-down ways.

Over the original stovetop, the fried chicken magic happens in three, decades-old cast-iron skillets. "Bought a new one a few years ago," Dickey says, "but it didn't do the trick."

"No secret really," says his son, Preston, 33. "Flour, salt and pepper, always fresh chicken, and time."

The apple butter is similarly simple: apples, sugar, water, cinnamon. Perhaps the secret is in the three hours it takes for optimal thickness. Florence Straight, 85, has long carried out the secrets of the biscuits. As for those riced potatoes - fluffier than mashed, the family maintains - they're made with the ricer, the hand-squeezed tool that tests forearm strength. One squeeze is about enough for one of the typically 100 customers who dine each night at the restaurant, receiving a handwritten thank-you note with their bill.

"People always ask what the secret is," Olivia Dickey says. "It's just genuine love."

Looking to the future

At 52, Greg Dickey has no plans to step away. But as they get older, his children have been thinking more about Juniper Valley's future. Preston lives in Denver, happy with his job at a nonprofit. Olivia wonders if her chosen teaching career will be conducive to running a restaurant.

Neither is committing to anything.

"I'm not gonna force anything," Greg Dickey says. "You know, if it's over with my generation, then it's over."

But the siblings struggle to envision that. They think about their childhood memories inside the restaurant. They think about what their great- great- grandfather wanted.

"I don't think it was for material gain or notoriety," Preston says. "He just saw something timeless and special about this place."

For Olivia, being away has reinforced the importance. Things have changed, and things keep changing, but back home at Juniper Valley, nothing does.

The apple butter is sweet as it's always been. Her father mailed her a jar the other day.

"I cried when I tasted it," she says.

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