Neither Beast nor I could get a break today.
Overnight, it was windy and rainy. I remained dry in my tent (a tiny bit of water seeped in under the rain fly, but not enough to worry about), but Beast found a puddle of water in his tent that soaked his sleeping pad. So after getting a new pack, now he's also looking at needing a new tent as well.
Our plan for today was to go the 12 miles to the Tri-Corner Knob shelter, and make a decision as whether to push the 20 to Cosby Knob.
My day started out relatively better than Beast's, and then quickly went sour. Beast left camp a minute or two before me, figuring I'd quickly catch up on the downhill ahead. However, after I left, I found my rain pants were slightly too large (they fit fine at REI, but I had never actually tried them out in practice before), and have minimal adjustments (two barely functional Velcro strips), so I had to stop a few times as my rain pants kept sagging down to the point where it was difficult to walk. I eventually worked around the problem by pulling the pants up high enough that they could be held up by my pack's hip belt.
The morning started out in a cloud, with an occasional light drizzle, and remained that way most of the day. About a mile in, I passed the side trail to Charlie's Bunion, which I'm told is a great view. Unfortunately, due to the cloud I was walking through, taking the side trail to the overlook was pointless, so I continued on.
I reached a fork in the trail, followed the signs, and found a nice, easy downhill. Nice and easy, that is, until I reached an intersection, with a sign that said "Appalachian Trail 1.3 miles". Back in the direction I came from.
I had taken a side trail. How irritating.
People always say the AT is well blazed. It is not. At least so far, it is not uncommon to go (what seems like) miles between blazes. Beast and I have complained about that almost continuously for the past two weeks, when we're not complaining about the shelters always being uphill, or much further down the trail than it seems like they ought to be.
So when one accidentally diverts to an unblazed side trail, it's perfectly reasonable to keep going an awfully long time before questioning whether you're on the right trail or not.
Ironically, my being a better hiker now than when I started also contributed to how far off the trail I went. Three weeks ago, I'd have been checking the distance traveled and a map of my path every time I stopped to rest (far more frequently then than now). Had I checked, I'd have noticed that the trail was diverging from the TN/NC border (which it follows for a significant distance). Had the sun been out, I'd probably also have noted I was going southeast instead of northeast.
Anyways, the 2.6 mile diversion put a crimp on my spirits (and energy) for the day, especially once I got back to the fork and found the cause of the confusion.
At the fork, there were two signs. The one for the AT was pointing in the direction of the side trail. The one for the side trail was pointing at the AT. And I completely failed to notice the white blaze for the AT's path because my vision was obscured by the hood of my rain jacket (which, despite constant fiddling all day, never stayed where I wanted it).
The only upside to my taking the wrong trail is that I saved someone else who had made the same mistake. When I was returning, about a minute or two away from the fork, I saw another thru-hiker coming down the path towards me, and I was able to send him back to the AT without him making the full 2.6 mile mistake I did.
Once back on the trail, I made the decision that I was going to stay at Tri-corner, after 12 miles. The 20 to Cosby Knob would have been more like 23, and that was a much longer day than I'm comfortable with right now, especially with miserable weather. The rest of the day was a mostly dreary trudge through a cloud, mud, and standing and running water on the trail, with occasional rain. The sun only bothered to make its appearance about 5 minutes before I got to the shelter.
After an unexpectedly long (and expectedly dreary) day, I was hopeful of getting a place in the shelter, rather than tenting, because I had still managed to pass half a dozen people on the trail, despite my hour-long diversion. I really wanted a shelter spot, too. I was tired, and everything — shirt, shoes, socks, and rain gear (but apparently not my pants) was soaked, and I was looking forward to sitting next to a fire and drying everything out.
But when I got near the shelter and saw tents set up, I knew I would not be so lucky.
Apparently, Beast discovered, there was a group of people who took a zero at the shelter rather than moving on. Zeroing at a shelter is generally frowned upon (as it can cause large bubbles of people competing for shelter space), and is forbidden in the Smokies, since shelters are the only permissible campsites, and camping is forbidden unless a shelter is full. This group of people, by zeroing, have now created a bubble of hikers that are going to be competing for the next several shelters, and shelter space is going to be at an unfortunate premium for the next few days until things thin out again.
Beast was lucky enough to get a spot in the shelter: Chicken Feet was able to slide over a bit so he could squeeze in. But that was the last possible space; the shelter is even more overflowing than the last two have been: 21 people in a 12 person shelter (including a hammock that was strung up in the shelter!). So now I'm tenting on a bumpy incline with several other people, because a few people couldn't be bothered to deal with a little rain and move on.
Chicken Feet has also become somewhat of a hero. A few days ago, near Clingmans Dome, Limey fell and broke three fingers on his right hand. Chicken Feet re-set the bones several times until Limey was able to see a doctor and get a proper splint. Apparently, Chicken Feet had never done this before; his only experience was a video on YouTube.
Two new discoveries did arise today, though. My rain jacket, especially when there is moisture on the inside, can trigger presses on my Apple Watch's screen. This caused it to almost completely discharge before I made it to camp from spurious input (no, I don't actually need to know what the weather is; I've been walking through it all day), and then it did completely discharge later because it's battery gauge was not accurate.
Also, I found a purpose for a piece of Velcro on my tent that didn't seem to have a purpose: the Velcro strip at the bottom of the rain fly can reach that apparently useless strip, allowing one entrance on the rain fly to be kept open for easier access.
A couple of weeks ago, I was uncertain of my choice to tag along with Beast and the sisters, but I'm quite certain now of Beast as a traveling companion. We've developed a great friendship, and the first thing he said to me after I showed up at the shelter over an hour late was "are you okay?". He then practically bent over backwards to make the rest of my evening less shitty. I could probably have asked a lot more of him, because all I really felt like doing after I got into camp was to curl up into my sleeping bag and ignore everything until tomorrow morning. I was half considering skipping dinner and turning in early, though I'm glad I didn't. (As it was, this has probably been my most anti-social evening on the trail so far. The wrong turn in particular, but especially added with the dreary weather that made getting snacks a chore, was rather demoralizing.)
But, at 222.2 miles now, we're more than 10% through the AT, so there's that, at least.
Plan for tomorrow is to GTFO as early as possible, exit the Smokies, and make for the Standing Bear Farm hostel 18 mostly downhill miles ahead. (Beast hates this place with a passion, but that's a story for another day.)