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An irrigation ditch runs for miles along the eastern slopes of the glacial foothills not far from our home in Ashland, Ore. The ditch is fed by a large reservoir a few miles south of us, and the water is used by farmers and orchardists a few miles farther north. The land in between, toward which I was headed that summer, belonged to cattle ranchers years ago, but all of these ranches failed during the Depression years. Now the fields are star thistle and sparse, knee-high range grass, with dense little willow thickets every quarter or half mile, wherever there are springs. It's fine pheasant country, if you have a decent dog. Now, late in summer—and this was an unusually dry summer—deer would come down the slopes for water. There isn't any other water when it's dry. Often a deer will bed in one of the willow thickets near the ditch. What I was looking for was a chance to run deer as Indians used to, to challenge myself, to draw close to the life of the land.
I parked at the end of a gravel road a couple of hundred yards below the irrigation ditch. It was very hot, four o'clock, a good day to sweat and to learn what kind of shape I was in.
From where I had parked, a barely visible trail led up to the bank of the irrigation ditch. My plan was to work south, checking every willow thicket within 100 yards of water along the way, looking for deer.
I jogged up the trail, just fast enough to get my body working. The earth was dry as powder underfoot. In places, there were inch-wide cracks in it, and the grass had dried so much it was brittle. Without the grass, it might have been the surface of the moon.
By the time I reached the water I was sweating. Later, I knew, if I found my deer, I would drink that muddy water thirstily.
My legs felt good. I started south at something just under the pace of a distance man.
Along both banks of the ditch, the grass was thick and lush from seepage. In my first quarter mile I flushed three pheasants, two cocks and a hen; then a flock of at least eight birds exploded from the grass beside me, the cocks crowing loudly as they whirred and glided down the hill to disappear into the grass, which was extremely dry.
It was easy running beside the ditch. The county worked on the irrigation system periodically throughout the year, and their Jeeps and four-wheel-drive pickups kept the ground packed hard. And it was cooler near the water, as might be expected, by at least 5�.
I've run so much in my life that once I begin, it becomes automatic. It takes just a few minutes to warm up, to start sweating and to get the blood pumping, and then there is a sensation of what I think a state of hypnosis might be—a state in which you do something without being conscious of it, something without a beginning or an end. Of course, everyone has physical limitations, but I'm seldom aware of them in the beginning. I'm aware of earth and wind and movement, but it's as if I'm being carried along by some outside power.
The first of the thickets was a half mile long, about 50 yards from the ditch on the uphill side. I spotted a stone, scooped it up without stopping, threw it into the thicket and yelled loudly as it clattered against the willow branches. One hen pheasant flushed, nothing more.