As Ann from London had promised, after an hour or so (I really have no concept of time on the trail. Once I thought night was falling but it was actually 4 PM and just getting cloudy...) the track merged with a 4-wheeler "road" and was so easy to walk. An eternity of flat, spacious trail, surrounded by golden fields of grasses which were, in turn, surrounded by majestic mountains. It was spectacular. It was hard to feel I was making progress, unlike climbing mountains when every outcropping of rock is a waypoint and every corner of the trail an accomplishment. But I did love the scenery and it was good terrain for a long days hiking.
Although I felt like I kept up a good pace until the very end of the day when my calf cramped, it was evening by the time I got to the hut. I climbed over the hill and saw... horses standing outside. I'd been looking forward to a hot fire to dry my boots and a comfortable(ish) bed to rest my weary limbs and, tired as I was, the thought that I might have to sleep in my tent to avoid an asthma attack almost made me break down and start crying. But I straightened my shoulders, marched up, and pulled off my boots. I was greeted inside by a roaring fire, a large, cheerful group of folks about my parents' age. I was given a cup of coffee and some chocolate. There was a young cowboy who gave Bethany and I a couple smokes. And, best of all, I didn't have a terrible reaction. I slept in the common room instead of the bedroom where people were keeping all their horsey gear and got away with a few sneezes.
The woman who owned the horses was named Heather, and she was so great! I think what first attracted me to her was her hair - a thick grey braid hanging down to her waist, very suitable for a carer of horse. We got to talking about various subjects and she ended up giving her contact information. She said when the trail runs closest to her house (which is still a fair few miles off), she'll come pick us up and we can come for a shower and a feed and pitch our tent in her yard!
Working for her was Ryan, a good-lookin cowboy (got that deadly dark hair, blue eyes combo). He wasn't there when I arrived; Bethany said he'd ridden off with one other man and a rifle. Heather told us the gun was mostly to scare off wild horses, but Bethany misheard her and thought she said "locals", which led to some hilarity. "The gun is mostly to scare of the wild locals. They get real interested in my horses and come up and bother them, so we just fire a couple rounds in the air to scare 'em off." Haha. On this occasion, however, Ryan was using the gun to hunt, but only got a rabbit. He did, however, tell us if we were still in Hanmer Springs, where we were going to resupply, when he got back home he'd take us pig hunting. Dogs and all. So, that will be a fun new experience. I hope...
On the following day, our sleep in the common room was interrupted rather earlier than usual by morning people cheerfully greeting each other and making breakfast. I think we caused a few chuckles with our reluctant, bleary-eyed stirrings, but it was actually very useful for us to get on the trail early for another long day.
The day was easier for me than expected. I thought I'd be more tired after the day before but, while it took me a little longer to get into "the Walkin Groove", I actually had better stamina. I met an Austrian fellow before lunch who said I only had five more hours on the trail. "5 hours! woohoo, I can do that". "Well, maybe 6" he amended. Still sounded great to me!
I still had energy in the late afternoon and, inspired by Ann from London, decided to run on the downhills that weren't threatening with roots and loose rocks. It was fun to change the pace and hilarious to imagine how I looked with my giant pack bouncing around behind me. It only lasted an hour, though, before I was ready to return to constant walking. Still, I would never have considered doing that the first week of TA.
Although I was pleased with my energy, I was really ready for the day to be over when I got near the end of the trail. My boots had been wet for days, never properly drying before being re-soaked in some river, puddle, or mud patch and my feet felt as though they were in early stages of trench rot. Blisters I now turn a blind eye to, but trench rot? Too far. So when I got to the Outdoor Education Center in Boyle "Village" where I was supposed to meet Bethany and she wasn't there, I was not happy. I dropped my pack and took off my boots, then started looking around. No Bethany in the parking lot, no Bethany in the yard, no Bethany by the bathrooms, no Bethany inside the building. Then I started asking people. When this produced no better results, I began to freak out a bit. I walked down to the road where we planned to hitchhike. No Bethany, but I saw where the trail continued.
Returning to the Center, I met a man who seemed willing to help me out. He wrote down Bethany's name, showed me maps of the area, and suggested that she might have just gone to the next hut to sleep, it being "a 1/2 a km or a km away, just off the road." Although it would be unlike Bethany to push on from our meeting point without me, I was tired and a little scared by this point and thought it would be worth checking. I was ready to be pretty mad at her if she was there, though, as I was not particularly happy about another km of hiking at the end of the day. In retrospect, I should've just waited, but he was oddly convincing in my frazzled state.
The trail followed the road for a bit and I stopped to check a building that looked of the same quality as a backcountry hut, but ended up being just a house, perhaps abandoned. The trail then crossed the street and meandered through undulating fields sparsely populated with scraggly trees and bushes. In my frazzled state, I followed some goat track and got off trail. Suddenly I was in a very uniform landscape with no trail markers in sight and started crying. I didn't indulge for more than a few shuddering gasps, then followed my own trail back to the last marker. I probably walked about 1.5 km at breakneck speed before I decided that there was no way Bethany would have gone so far beyond the road. The hut was still nowhere in sight (I later learned it would have taken me 3 hours to get to it) and dusk was creeping up on me. I turned around and walked back, resolving to camp the night and hitchhike alone in the morning if she hadn't shown up. The only form of communication we have (besides old-fashioned talking) is via internet, so getting somewhere with wifi was worth a shot. If that didn't work, then I could really start panicking about her loosing her footing and lying somewhere in a rocky gorge. If that didn't work out, I'd start organizing search parties.
She was waiting in the parking lot, playing ukulele. Turns out she'd made a wrong turn on the trail and gone an extra couple km out of her way to an off-trail hut. In the interim, I had passed her by. She'd been worried too. thinking I was still behind her on the trail because she'd gotten a long view ahead of her at one point and not seen me, she'd slowed to let me catch up. When I neither caught up, nor was waiting at the Center, she began to be concerned. We had a quietly emotional reunion and I felt my upset, angry, worried, confused, panicked, tired knot of tension dissolve into relief. We still tried hitchhiking, without success, then set up the tent in the field across the highway and ate the last of our food.
*I didn't realize that something qualifying as a so-called village could be smaller than my expectations. In my mind, a village is a really really small town. It may not have a grocery store or a bank, but it has a tiny community of people, 10 or more perhaps, living in relatively close proximity to each other. Not so with Boyle Village. There's an Outdoor Education Center and a few supporting buildings and... I think that's it. I don't think anyone actually considers it home. That's not a village; it's a compound at most.