GSMNP Day 2 – AT / The Boulevard to Anakeesta Knob

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Great Smokey Mountains NP

On Wednesday 10/14, along with my friends Jason and Mel, I hiked 2.7 miles on the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap to The Boulevard Trail, then another 2.5 miles (roughly) to Anakeesta Knob in the northeast quadrant of the park, before returning along the same route. (Due to a late start, we judged we did not have time to actually summit Mount Le Conte further along that trail.)

Although the large number of cars during peak hours at the major parking sites (including Newfound Gap) can make GSMNP appear to be a crowded park, our experience was that the crowds disappear quickly after about a mile or so away from the parking areas. Most people seem to be just day-tripping from Gatlinburg or the surrounding area, driving through, and stopping for roadside photos or a quick mini-hike. The AT is a little more crowded than other trails, but once off of it we dropped from seeing just a few people to almost no one.

There were some nice views along the way, but the real highlight of the hike was the moss! On a whim, we started trying to name and classify all the different kinds of moss we found. Knowing basically nothing about botany or moss, this meant we just named all the mosses we found based on what they looked like to us!

Found moss types included: microfern, tempurpedic, frosty moss, mossted tips, christmas tree, spiky moss, feather moss, happy little moss, star moss, tentacle moss, off-brand tempurpedic, midsummer night’s moss, and Bob Moss Himself.

[All photographs are copyright 2020 Nalin A. Ratnayake. They are free to use and share for any non-commercial purpose, with attribution and a link to the original post on, without modification, and provided that this text is also included.]

Photos posted here were taken with a Canon EOS Rebel T1i and the EF 28-105mm 1/3.5-4.5 II USM lens. Images were compressed to 1/4 resolution and 85% image quality for easier upload and sharing.

GSMNP Day 1 – Jake’s Creek Trail / Meig’s Creek Trail

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Great Smokey Mountains NP

Last week, I got to spend four full days (and parts of two more) in Great Smokey Mountains National Park. So beautiful! It wasn’t quite peak foliage, but we still got some amazing colors.

Having grown up in the West, I’ve always been biased towards the number and quality of the western national parks — and while I expect any national park to be beautiful, I have to admit that GSM was the first to really convince me that the East can be on the same level as the West in terms of natural beauty!

The broad extent of the mountains in all directions; the lush vegetation and seemingly endless forests starting to show their autumn color; the abundance of water — innumerable streams, rivers, cascades, and falls, along with the trademark fog and steamy morning mists; and the diversity of terrain all made the park level up from the expectation of “probably good” to a genuine “wow this is awesome.”

My friend Laura and I spent October 13th in the northwest quadrant of the park, starting with a 4.25-mile trail run on Jake’s Creek Trail (near our campsite in Elkmont Campground) and part of Meig’s Mountain Trail. After lunch, we hiked Meig’s Creek Trail near The Sinks, where we counted 20 stream crossings!

[All photographs are copyright 2020 Nalin A. Ratnayake. They are free to use and share for any non-commercial purpose, with attribution and a link to the original post on, without modification, and provided that this text is also included.]

Photos posted here were taken with a Canon EOS Rebel T1i and the EF 28-105mm 1/3.5-4.5 II USM lens. Images were compressed to 1/4 resolution and 85% image quality for easier upload and sharing.

Ran a Marathon!

I finally get the 26.2 sticker!

I had been signed up for the OBX Marathon, which was somehow still not coronacancelled… I think because it’s generally a smaller race (300 ish people in a typical year) perhaps they were banking on figuring something out… alas, no.

When I found out the race was going to be “virtual”, I immediately started thinking about options… three months into a four-month training plan, did I really want to maintain that level of work another month, for a virtual race?

I knew the experience (and my performance) would be compromised anyway. A virtual race, even if it is scoped out to the same distance, is missing the aid stations, the nutrition and hydration support every two miles, a closed and controlled course, and the psychological hype of a major event with tons of spectators and friends cheering you on…. it’s just not the same.

Further, training for a marathon has been a LOT of time… running five days a week and an additional day of light strength and yoga. I was looking at heading up to the Great Smokey Mountains next week, for example, worrying about maintaining a training plan while camping in the mountains. Doable, but not desirable.

Early Autumn in the swamp! Taken from the Jamestown HS connector trail, just before it reaches the VCT proper.

In the end it was an easy decision: truncate the plan, forget any time goal, focus on recovery from the previous week, go simply for completion without injury, and look forward to the next time I can run a real race.

I ran 13.1 miles from Jamestown HS up the Virginia Capital Trail, where my friend Richard was parked, warmed-up, and ready to go. He resupplied me and we ran it back together to hit 26.2! For most of the way, it was a really pleasant run… nice fall weather and a light, cool rain sprinkling down to keep things refreshing and open up the scents of the forest.

My time of 4:49:04 includes all stretch, pee, hydration, and refuel stops. It’s slower than I had been originally aiming for, but again, goals were rescoped and I was also trying to be pretty conservative for the first 18 miles or so… Too many stories of first-time marathoners coming out too strong and bonking at 22!

Now that I’ve done one, I’m super pleased! It’s a big milestone in my running and now I have a baseline to build off of. Here’s hoping for real races in 2021…


Last post May of 2019? Probably because this site was focused on my writing, and I haven’t actively written fiction (or been involved with the scifi community) in a looooonnng time.

Some changes:

  • theme and appearance altered to emphasize the blog, and not my writing / author persona (though the Biblio page is still there if anyone’s interested)
  • new category added: Personal, with subcategories for outdoors and nature, DnD, running, and food — the pastimes that are actually where my time and energy go these days
  • phone app to quick post photos (may need to switch to a theme with post types to better accommodate photo-only posts)

This will all probably result in more posts! Probably. Maybe? We’ll see.

Review of “A Turn in the South” by V.S. Naipaul

I picked up V.S. Naipaul’s travelogue of the American South in a used bookstore in Charlottesville for a few bucks. It looked interesting, especially in the context of my recent binge of listening to the Bitter Southerner podcast and the associated thinking about the past and changing identity of the South

I loved it.

The writing is beautifully descriptive of the people, landscapes, and buildings that grace the South, yet manages to keep the prose clean and economical as well. Naipaul is clear-eyed about a history steeped in slavery, segregation, and multi-laterial racial resentment; yet while the racial past permeates the lived present, he never lets it detract from or overshadow the beautiful things either. He also doesn’t run from examining ideas and identities for which great care is required to preserve the essential truth, in whole range from nuance to outright contradiction

It had been hot from the beginning, from mid-April, that is, when I had gone south in Howard to see the place he thought of as home; and had been surprised by the colors of the Carolina spring, the new green of trees, the purple flowers of the roadside grass, the yellow-white dogwood blossoms; and had been further surprised by the beauty — in rust, wood-gray, faded green, and Indian red — of abandoned tobacco barns and derelict farmhouses and barns with peaked and spreading corrugated-iron roofs.

A fine piece of writing. It had made me want to not only read the Naipaul’s other works (I had never heard of him before this book), but also to start planning my own road trip around the region, to which I’m a recent transplant and have relatively little exposure.

My RavenCon 14 Schedule!

RavenCon 14 starts in less than two weeks (April 5-7)! I’m very happy to be appearing at this convention not just as a programming guest, but also having helped put together the first Science Track at this con, which will be in Room G the whole weekend.

I will be live-tooting (still haven’t quite gotten used to that term) on Mastodon as @quantumcowboy in the Wandering Shop instance. (If you are unfamiliar with Mastodon, the site JoinMastodon has a great introduction.) Expect the usual rolling commentary and photos on Masto, and (ideally) daily summaries here on the blog. See you in Williamsburg!


  • 5 pm – 7 pm (Private, Optional) Meet and Greet for Guests / Green Room
  • 7 pm (Opening Ceremony) Large Auditorium
  • 8 pm (Panel) Space Does Not Work That Way / Room G: A discussion of the most commonly used incorrect space and spaceflight tropes in science fiction, and where they go wrong. What are some alternatives? How could real constraints spur new creativity?


  • 2 pm (Panel) Going to Mars to Colonize It / Room G: A long-standing dream within science-fiction and science fact alike is to not only explore Mars, but to go there to stay. The panel will discuss various governmental and private ambitions for settling on the red planet in real life, as well as discuss how science fiction has played a role in shaping how we view our planetary neighbor.
  • 3 pm (Panel)  What Are the New Questions Science Fiction Should be Asking? / Room G: SF in particular is meant to be a forward-looking genre. What questions should contemporary SFF writers be asking that they are not? Which sciences are being overlooked, even in Hard-SF? What imminent issues are not yet being sufficiently addressed?
  • 7:25 – 7:50 pm (Reading) Room 4
  • 10 pm (Panel)  How Can Science Fiction Inform Science Policy? / Room G / Moderator: From ET to GATTACA to Star Trek, science fiction stories foster reflection on a range of social and technical issues. Scifi has long been a source of thought experiments and inspiration for current and aspiring scientists and engineers, but how should these stories influence the work of politicians, social leaders and activists? This panel will discuss the increasingly influential role of scifi in policy-making and activism, and ways your fandom can help shape the world around us. Come discuss scifi stories that influenced you, societal implications of upcoming technologies, and visions for a better future.
  • 11 pm (Workshop/Presentation) Ask a (Mad) Scientist/ Room G:
    Our science guests answer audience questions on science and science fiction. Always a favorite at RavenCon!


  • 11 am (Panel) National Novel Writing Month / Room 8: Our NaNoWriMo veterans share their experiences with the annual writing exercise and offer tips that will help you start and finish your NaNoWriMo novel.

Review of “The Andromeda Strain” by Michael Crichton

Great premise and I love that it’s bio hard science fiction, a sub-genre that I wish there were more of. Especially given recent advances in genetics, neuroscience, and prostheses, I feel as though there are lot of questions related to the intersection of science and society that the genre could be addressing, but isn’t.

The novel was written in the late 60’s, and some aspects of it haven’t aged well. All of the characters with any agency are educated, scientifically-minded, white men, and it was honestly difficult to tell them apart by anything other than their names and blunt descriptions. Counterpoints were Peter Jackson and Officer Willis, who had unique and well-crafted dialogue that I enjoyed reading “aloud in my head” if that makes sense.

The exposition is fairly heavy-handed, with technical (but at least interesting) info dumps roughly every other page. Like many thrillers, this novel is overwhelmingly plot-driven, with little in the way of introspection, reflection, or emotion shown by any of the characters. However, at least the hooks are laid well throughout the story — I definitely wanted to keep reading to find out what happened, and though the ending seemed a little too easily and quickly tied up, the journey was thought-provoking.

I’m glad to have checked off a classic I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time. Overall: enjoyable but dated, interesting but hardly enthralling.

3/5 Stars

Read an Ebook Week!

Smashwords is having their 10th Annual Read an Ebook Week Sale, and I’ve enrolled Red Soil Through Our Fingers in the 100% off category for this sitewide promotion! So, if you’ve been meaning to check out the start to the Red Soil series (more coming soon… I swear), this would be a great time to hop on board.

From March 3-9, just use code EB100 when you checkout to get the book for free. Also, absolutely browse the large collection of other fine ebooks available on Smashwords and their distribution channels, which are discounted this week at either 25%, 50%, 75%, or 100% off.

Writing Studio!

I’ve been accepted to an advanced fiction studio at The Muse Writing Center down in Norfolk! While I’ve attended many one-off writing classes and workshops, this will be the first time I will be a part of an ongoing fiction studio, where fellow writers submit work to be critiqued regularly and study the writing techniques of various authors under the guidance of a professional instructor.

My goals are twofold:

  1. Level up my fiction writing chops, particular in the areas of character depth and weaving together multiple subplots within an overarching structure.
  2. Use the requirement to regularly submit new work to supplement my motivation for finishing the sequel to Red Soil Through Our Fingers. I’ve tentatively titled Book 2 When the Ground Beneath Us Shifted, and there is a loose plan for a third book as well.

Objective 2 is one that I’ve been struggling with for two years, as a glance back through my previous writing updates over this time will show. It’s been a tumultuous couple of years, professionally and personally. I’ve been keeping up momentum though, and project a completion of Draft Alpha (first complete draft + self-editing pass) by mid-May.

Normally, at that point, I would send Draft Alpha to my Writing Group, but alas the one that I had in Boston is, for various reasons, disbanded at the moment, with only vague possibilities of re-forming. So, perhaps a tertiary goal of the fiction studio (and getting involved with The Muse in general) will be to make connections with new writers in this area who may be interested in forming a new group.

Super ambitious, probably impossible goal, but one that I want to aim for anyway: a book launch party at RavenCon 15 in April 2020!

For now, I’ve got three writing submissions from my new classmates to read and critique by Monday… gotta get to it! Probably another update next week after the first class.

Recap of MarsCon 2019, Saturday

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series MarsCon 2019

Most of my Saturday at the con was taken up by meetings for RavenCon programming (in particular the new Science Track, for which I am very excited!). However I did get a chance to browse the dealer floor, the art room, and attend a couple of panels.

In How Does One Write Near-Future Science Fiction?, panelists Patrick Dugan, Jason T. Graves, Drew A. Avera, and Gray Rinehart were moderated by Jim Beall. Unfortunately, though Jim was quite well prepared (a wonderful thing in a moderator), the authors on the panel did not seem to be well-suited for the panel topic, as most did not seem to have a lot of stories set in the near future themselves. However, most were writers of Hard Science Fiction (which is not necessarily the same thing). This mismatch is hardly the fault of the panelists, but perhaps Programming can take a note for future cons.

Though the panel did not spend much time actually answering the question posed in its title, I did walk away with several nuggets of useful information. One suggested way of avoiding the pitfall of having certain readers get too caught up in the numbers or “realness” of the story elements as if they are meant to be predictions is to a) generally avoid numbers all together if possible, and b) stick to explication only where you actually have expertise or knowledge based on research, leaving the rest implied. We discussed the questions of whether near-term science fiction has to also be hard science fiction to be good/enjoyable (not necessarily, and Neuromancer was offered as a counter-example), and also if near-term science fiction needs to attempt to predict the future to be useful (generally no).

I later attended The Big World of Small Press and Indie Publishing, featuring Michael Thomson, Leslie Heath, Melissa McArthur, Kacey Ezell, and moderated by Chris Kennedy. The panelists were all in some fashion indie or small press authors and/or publishers, with a good bit of diversity in how it was implemented (full-time, part-time, completely indie, traditional + indie, etc). All generally agreed that the major benefits to small press and indie publishing were: much more rapid turnaround at all points of the publication timeline (editing, feedback, cover selection, proof, release, etc), a much greater degree of control and input by the author at all points in the process, a more personal connection with everyone involved, and generally a larger percentage of the overall pie. The two major downsides being that mass exposure is much less likely or perhaps impossible, and that the author is expected and required to take on more (or complete) personal responsibility for the product at every step of the process.

The panelists listed the following mistakes they have made in the past that future indie or small press authors should avoid

  • Series sell the most, and waiting too long to continue a series can kill its inherent momentum.
  • Always read a contract, or even better, get a lawyer to look over it (it’s probably cheaper than you think).
  • Don’t forget about pre-marketing, and make sure to do the work to build up a community around a work before releasing it.

Further big news from the con, though it was not particularly con-related… I found out that I got in to the advanced fiction studio at The Muse Writing Center in Norfolk that I applied to last week! I’ll be starting that on February 4th, and I’m looking forward to focusing on my sequel to Red Soil.