For all those who have been waiting on tenterhooks (whatever those are) to hear whether I managed to resolve the shoe problem I posted about last week, I believe I have finally reached an acceptable solution. Or at least, I have reason to hope so.
The boots shown in the picture are the "Paula" model from Rugged Outback, which are made entirely from manmade materials (in China, but then that's true of most shoes these days). They were the only leather-free boot I could find at Payless.com in a size 6.5 wide (and it's a good thing I bought them when I did, because I just checked the site and they're no longer available). Shipping was free, and I knew I could return them to any Payless store if they didn't fit. This proved to be a good thing, because the size 6.5 wide turned out to be a bit tight. I could get my feet into them, but they only fit comfortably with thin socks, which isn't what you really want to wear in the coldest days of winter.
So I did a quick search online to see if any local stores had them in a size 7 wide, and we found a pair at the Payless in Milltown, about 6 miles away. However, since the boots were delivered around 6:30 on Wednesday evening, it was a little after 7pm by the time I made this discovery, and the store was closing at 8pm. So we hastily packed the shoes back into their box and hustled out the door, reaching the store by 7:30. Fortunately, half an hour from closing time turned out to be plenty. I was a bit concerned that the boots might turn out to be unavailable in a 7 wide after all, but the clerk quickly found me a pair, and I was able to get them onto my feet without discomfort—which was about all I was asking for at this point. So we simply traded in the smaller pair for the bigger one and were back out the door in about ten minutes.
My new boots aren't perfect. For one thing, they do have a slightly raised heel, about an inch and a half, so it will take some adjustment to get used to walking on them. It's also pretty clear that they're not terribly well made; just from putting them on and taking them off several times today, I've already started to pull the lining loose on both boots (though I've managed to stitch it back in place for now). For another thing, there's no denying that a size 7 wide is a bit roomy on me. Finally, they have basically no internal support. However, I think I've managed to mitigate these last two problems by adding a pair of molded insoles from the drugstore.
So what I've ended up with is a pair of boots that fits all my basic criteria—sort of. They don't fit perfectly, but they fit reasonably well with the inserts; they are leather-free; they look acceptable; and they cost under $50, although the inserts actually bump their price up to slightly over that limit. Now if this new pair of boots will just last through an entire winter, I can consider this a successful shoe shopping trip, which is enough of a rarity for me to be worth celebrating.