Day 155 – Two Misadventures

Early Morning Stroll

 

From the grassy plateau the road wove down the canyon to the Devoll river, which we had crossed the night before. A picturesque view that we did not appreciate in the slightest as we raced down the road, chasing the last flicker of Düldül’s tail round the bend; the horses had escaped.

A few minutes prior, all three had been peacefully grazing unattached. They were fully prepared for departure, except Griva and Johnny, who were yet unbridled. As we approached Johnny to bridle him, he bustled towards Griva, trying to hide behind her to keep grazing. At that instant they both realized they were not tied, and Griva took off at a full gallop across the plateau. Johnny followed without thinking. Düldül was grazing a few meters away and to his credit, thought about staying. But he took off with his friends as well, and that’s how we found ourselves chasing them back down last night’s road. We were so far behind them, they probably didn’t even know we were chasing them; they were going on their own morning trot, not a care in the world.

We decided to cut across the face of the mountain, a much more treacherous route but one that allowed us to descend faster. How far could they go? Where were they now? It was impossible to try and track them while lumbering down the rocks.

Quentin intersected thee road at the same moment they came trotting back into view, towards us. He bellowed a loud, “Stop!” and from a hundred meters away they did just that! Slowly slinking up to them, we caught Griva and the fun was over. Two kilometers later we were back where we started and the day could begin.

In the Ochre Hills

The next three days were a sweltering march on the Via Egnatia, a road built in the second century BC by the Romans, running between Istanbul and Rome. In Albania much of this road has remained dirt track. It runs along the mountainside at about 1200m, the altitude protecting us from heat exhaustion. Summer had hit hard and like the local farmers we had adopted an early bird rhythm of waking up with the birds at half-past four to be on the road before the heat set in. Between the ochre hills, the solitude and the bunkers, leftover from Albania’s paranoid dictator, that dotted the mountainside, we might have been on another planet. To purchase food and supplies we had to descend more than 800m and several kilometers to the Shkumbini river where the main road lay, bustling with activity.

Johnny the Jumper

 

We had just arrived at the riverbed and were watering the horses when I looked over at Johnny and Quentin.

 

“Did you take your stirrup off your saddle and put in your saddlebag somewhere?” As I asked the question, I knew the answer.

 

I mentally listed all the times Johnny had jumped since we had last stepped out of the saddles. He had jumped many times. Judging from Quentin’s face of pure frustration, and the collective fatigue from the 30 km we had already racked up that day, I made the decision to retrace our steps alone on foot while Quentin watched the horses and tried to find lodging for the night. Slinging the second stirrup over my shoulder in the hopes someone would recognize what I was looking for, I set off. The distance was much longer going up on foot. I began trotting up the hill, beads of sweat slowly drenching my t-shirt, my legs becoming heavier and heavier.

Being only five years old, there are many things that can make Johnny jump. A cat in a bush, the water of the spring being too cold, a minibus rumbling past, children waving hello: Johnny’s spooks are innocent but unpredictable.

As I arrived in each area where Johnny had spooked, I scrutinized the surroundings, looking for that stupid stirrup. The stirrup was not where the minibus had made him rush forward. Nor was it by the cafe where the slam of a door had made him leap. Nor was it at the curve of the road where we had begun walking several hours ago. At the top of the road, the last place it could have been, a flash of red twinkled hopefully on the roadside. Rushing forward, I found a beer can, the same shade as the stirrup pad. The realization the stirrup was really lost hit me and I started crying. In my current state, no tears came out, just a weird wheezing of frustration, fatigue and desperation. Gathering myself, I accepted there was nothing left to do but turn around and run back down. We’d figure out how to replace the stirrup in the morning, probably by borrowing one from a friend in Tirana, some half day’s drive away.

On my way down, a dirt bike crackled up behind me and I hailed it down for a ride. This improved my spirits immensely; I wasn’t frustrated in the least when he stopped to chat for a long time with a man driving his car in the other direction. After a few minutes, the driver peered around the dirt bike man and looked at me.

  

“Is that girl foreign?”

“Her? Yea, she’s American.”

The car driver thought for a second, pulled out his phone, and shortly handed it to me. To my delight, Quentin’s voice was on the other end.

“Hey. Your phone still on airplane mode?”

“Yes..”

“Yea, I figured. I tried to call you. Some kid brought me the stirrup back.”

“Oh. Great. When?”

“About a half hour after you left.”

 

My insides sighed with relief and screamed with frustration at my futile search as I hung up and thanked the man for relaying the message.

That night, Quentin securely closed the stirrup latches on both saddles with thin wire before we tucked into our sleeping bags. We may be horse-trekking amateurs but we don’t make the same mistake twice!