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
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.