Book Review 50: The Fourth Bear

It had been twenty-five years ago, to be exact. Jack had been a mere subordinate in the Nursery Crime Division which he now ran. Technically speaking, cautionary crime was 'juvenilia' rather than 'nursery' but jurisdiction boundaries had blurred since the NCD's inception in 1958 and their remit now included anything unexplainable. Sometimes Jack thought the NCD was just a mop that sponged up weird.

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I picked up my copy of "The Fourth Bear" at Powell's last year. I found a signed, first edition on the shelf, put it in my basket and spent the next 20 minutes trying to decide if I wanted to spent so much money on a book that's not a huge collector's item, by an author I have never met. In the end, I bought it, though I'm still not sure made the right call. But it wasn't that outragously priced and I did like the first book so I try not to think about it too often.

Jasper Fforde's The Fourth Bear is a fun return the world of the Nursery Crimes Division characters we first met in The Big Over Easy (which I reviewed here). It's clever, intelligent and funny. At the same time it's a darker more complex book. Since this is the second book it the series, I suggest reading The Big Over Easy first, but it's not strictly necesary to understand what's happening in The Fourth Bear. The Fourth Bear, however, will spoil the first book's ending if you skip it.

The plot involves the brutal prison escape of the psychopathic killer know as The Ginerbreadman, the mysterious disappearance of reporter Henrietta "Goldy" Hatchett, odd explosions (with terrible, awesome puns), a huge wealthy corporation, a WW I theme park, a mysterious car, and the politics of the bear community.

I enjoyed the book and can recomend it. At the same time I didn't enjoy quite as much as I enjoyed the previous one. The novelty of the novel has worn off a bit. The integration of the nursery rhyme world with our world isn't quite as fresh.

At the same time, starting with a basic familiarity with Fforde's wacky world, or more accuratly a mindset that is already recepetive to the basic rules and metaphysics, means this book can be more complex. Fforde is able to expand on the nature of this real/unreal universe.

That means he can make the plot more complex, and bring other issues to the forefront. In addition to the mystery, Fforde is able to grow the characters, and let them go through their own personal crises.

So while not as hysterically funny as the first book, it's still a great, if more subtle, read.

Beyond the plot, Fforde explores the nature of the nursery rhyme characters we encounter. Exactly how are they different from normal people?

'We call them PDRs,' explained Mary. 'Persons of Dubious Reality. Refugees from the collective consciousness. Uninvited visitors who have fallen through the grating that divides the real from the written. They arrive with their actions hardwired due to their repetitious existence, and the older and more basic they are, the more rigidly they stick to them. Characters from Cautionary Tales are particularly mindless. They do what they do because it's what they've always done - and it's up to us to stop them.'

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By telling stories, and repeating them, we bring these characters into exisitence. Stories aren't just things we know, stories are things we create by knowing. Enough people knowing, telling, and believing a story brings that story to life.

Many PDRs even forget their nature. Jack Spratt came to see himself as real.

Jack's heart nearly bounced out of his chest. He'd hidden it for so long that he'd almost forgotten that he was himself a PDR - a Person of Dubious Reality

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When I first encountered this idea from Fforde, it reminded me of time spent studying the White Wolf RPG system in the early 90s. Under their Mage game, the world of technology was opposed to the world of magic. And as people chose to believe more in reason and less in magic, that very thought process led to the decline of magic as a force. As fewer people believed in magic it gradually, and actually, began to disappear from our universe.

It's an idea addressed just slightly less literally by Matt Ruff in his book, "Bad Monkees" in which the overall theme is "Omnes Mundus Facimus," or, "We all make the world." The power of belief, story-telling and faith, can actually alter our world.

It also reminded me of Voltaire's famous statement, "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him."

But Fforde isn't just sneaking in a philosophical discussion in the book. He also explores current issues in a much more blatant fashion.

In the Fourth Bear, anthropomorphized bears have certain rights, and a community, but they are also segregated from the human population. They interact, but relations are strained. Fforde handles the bear/human relationships with all the subtlety of Star Trek's, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"

Porridge consumption is highly regulated in this book, much like drugs are in our own society. Main character Jack Spratt disagrees.

'Here's to the day when they repeal porribition,' said Jack as they walked out of the car park and into the sunshine. 'The associated criminal element of supply far outweighs the harm that it does to the bear population.'

'What's the alternative?' said Mary. 'Unregulated porridge use? We'd have trippy spaced-out bears wandering around the town, hallucinating who knows what in the Oracle centre.'

'If I made the laws I'd let them,' said Jack. 'Porridge is a great deal less harmful than alcohol - and we seem to embrace and promote the sale of that almost everywhere!

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The passage works, and doesn't come across as heavy-handed because of how committed Fforde is to the joke. Had he mentioned it in passing, it may be eye-roll inducing, but he pushes it far enough that I found myself suppressing a great deal of laughter on the airplane.

Fforde uses a variety of pun techniques in the book, including this dialogue that sounds like it's straight out of "Airplane!"

'When did he escape?'

'Ninety-seven minutes ago,' replied Copperfield. 'Killed two male nurses and his doctor with his bare hands. The other three orderlies who accompanied him are critical in hospital.'


'Yes; don't like the food, beds uncomfortable, waiting lists too long - usual crap. Other than that, they're fine.'

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Fforde spends plenty of time on Jack's personal life. He has his own existential crisis. He has a Greek god living in his house. Yet he still has a healthy, humorous relationship with his second wife (his first died from eating too much fat).

'I'd like you to accompany me,' she replied with a smile, 'but I can go on my own and flirt outrageously and in a totally undignified manner with young single men of a morally casual demeanour.'

'You know, I don't feel quite so pooped any more.'

'Good. We should be out of the door by seven-thirty.'

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Jack spends time dealing with his new neighbors, too. PDRs Punch and Judy are a married couple engaged in regular, significant domestic violence. Their fights and beating on one another annoys the neighbors wherever they live. But when confronting neighbors they are a solid team. The extensive violence between the husband and wife is not something typically played for comic effect in novels. But because they aren't quite "real" and instead are PDRs doing exactly what their nature dictates, Fforde gets away with it.

One town that figures prominently in the story is the town of Obscurity. Fforde never misses and opportunity to play up the puns.

'Large graveyard,' observed Jack as he peered over the wall.

'You'd be surprised by the number of people who die in Obscurity,' observed the vicar. 'The gravediggers are rarely out of work.'

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I also appreciated some other subtle allusions. I'm guessing Fforde is a fan of Neal Stephenson for throwing in this minor character at a party:

'Ladies and gentlemen. Admiral Robert Shaftoe. Never lost a ship, a man, or in retreat, a second.'

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So while "The Fourth Bear" isn't quite as much fun as "The Big Over Easy" it makes up for that in the more complex story, character development, and social commentary. It's a more serious book without being a serious, or preachy, book. If you've already read "The Big Over Easy," you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of "The Fourth Bear."

If you're a fan of puns, literary allusions, nursery rhymes, and the mixing of worlds, pick up a copy of "The Big Over Easy," and then pick up a copy of "The Fourth Bear."

Looks like it's time for me start Ffordes other series where he gives similar treatment to traditional literature.


2009 Seattle Macy's Holiday Parade

Once again, the GF and I trudged down the hill, bellys sloshing with last night's dinner, to the Seattle Macy's Holiday Parade.  Ours is the day after Thanksgiving, which I guess fits in well with the whole Black Friday - Shop Downtown thing.  The parade is mostly the same each year, but it's still fun.

Last year, I shot pictures with my Sigma 70mm - 300 mm lens on my Pentax K10d, but I wasn't satisfied with the result.  Too many images were either underexposed from the more limited aperture or blurry from the long shutter speed. This year, I used my Pentax 50mm f1.4.  I figured I could get the exposure right, I could always crop images to make up for the lack of focal length.  I last wrote about this lens here. The focus wasn't always ideal due to the shallow depth of field, but I'm satisfied with most of my results.

Of course each parade has its share of cheerleaders and school bands.

I'm not sure if this piece of candy has a cold ear or an important cell phone call.

Not everyone appeared thrilled to be marching.

The Connect All Stars put together a pretty impressive demo of tossing women.


Several of Seattle's professional sports teams were out on this chilly morning.

The Seagals rode on the front of a giant football helmet like the statues on the front of old ships.  But happier.

They led the Seahawk mascot Blitz and the Seahawk band through the streets of Seattle.

The Sounders, our professional soccer team also had a substantial presence, led my mascot Dopler, who was followed by their marching band.

The Mariners, befitting their current stature in Seattle, brought the Moose and a van.

Seattle is know for having more dogs than children, so even though the dog clubs may not yet out number the marching bands and drill teams, there were still plenty of dog clubs marching, celebrating St. Bernards, Scottish Terriers, Old English Sheep Dogs, and Dalmations.


People stuck in the snack world may be a metaphor for modern American culture, but they also make neat parade attractions.


The unicycle riders were impressive.

This rider is jumping rope on her cycle.

I'm not sure what's more interesting here.  The fact that these two riders trust their friend's skills so much, or the shocked and appalled looks on faces of those in the crowd.

We had dancers dressed as Poinsettias.


The fire department brought out the big ladder truck.  I lucked out with this shot.

Of course what parade would be complete without a snow globe prisoner.  I like how the downtown skyline reflects in her glass cell.

And lest there be any doubt, Santa Clause is, "Innovative. Real. Groundbreaking."

We followed up the parade with some piroshkies.  I'd call it a successful morning.

You can see more of my parade pictures here.


I'm sitting in my chair, drinking the last of the Thanksgiving wine.  It's a Viognier from the Mt Baker Vineyards. It has a nice citrus flavor with little after taste. I like it.

But I know nothing about wine.

It's one of those areas I'd like to know more about.  I should know more about it.  But I don't think that's going to happen.  I suppose I just don't have the passion required for it.

Generally, I drink only Washington state wines.  My thinking is that there is no way I can learn "the wine world" but if I know one little corner of it really well, that's all I need.  There are two problems with this theory.

1) I don't know this one little corner really well.

2) It's not such a little corner.

So instead of arguing about which year produced the best Pinot Noir from the Walla Walla valley, I'll content myself with arguing about which is cooler -- the Death Star Playset or the Landspeeder.

Enophile may not yet make it into my profile. I'll continue to order Washington wines with confidence even though I have no idea what I'm doing.  As long as I stay away from Boone's I can't do too much damage.

And isn't that what most people do, anyway?


A bird on the deck is worth...an enraged gardener

I was happy to find a bird on my deck tonight.

Normally, I don't like birds occupying my territory or my airspace.  The can fly nearby and do their pretty bird thing, but I want them to respect my borders.  Birds make a mess of things and I find myself having to clean outdoor furniture. 

And Seattle must be the only place in the world with vegetarian crows.  What kind of scavengers are these things?  For a while, they were eating my cilantro.  After than died, the strawberries came into season.  I watch a crow land on my deck, walk up to the pot, look around for the best berry (that I planned to eat), take it off the bush and head off. 

I try to chase them off when they come to steal and feast, but I'm not sure how productive that is.  When I come running out the door, they fly away (with my produce) but will their tiny little brains actually remember that experience next time, or will they swallow their ill-gotten games and forget the crazy guy running at them.  I still don't know what I would do if I actually caught one that didn't fly.

The other issue is that in retrospect, running towards the railing 6 stories up, just to scare a bird (with strawberry juice dripping down its face) might not me the smartest ideal in the world.  In fact, it's one of those that should likely start with, "Here, hold my beer and watch this..."

But tonight, I put the bird on the deck. I brined the turkey in a big pot and left it out there to stay cool.  Those birds are the ones allowed.

Perhaps instead of brining it in the bag, I should have put it on a pike sunk into the tar paper so it could serve as a warning to the other avians to stay away.

The only bird allowed on my deck is a dead turkey.

And maybe a living penguin.  That would nifty.


Original Galactica on NBC

I have one of those ring tones that most people under 30 don't recognize.  When someone calls, and I'd don't have things set to vibrate, the strains of majestic music burst forth from my cell phone. Well, maybe burst is optimisic.  The notes more trickle out of my Samsung A900 (I know, it's time for new phone).

The tense chase is on, and the mind of sci-fi fans from the 70s drift back to that powerful theme as Galactica leads the colonists on a quest for freedom.

The original Battlestar Galactica theme reminds of those days when I longed to pilot a Colonial Viper. 

So I was thrilled to stumble across the NBC Classics site.

You can now watch  full episodes of the original BSG, the original Bionic Woman, the original Knight Rider, the original A-Team, the original Miami Vice, and a few shows they haven't remade yet.

NBC early on "got it" when it came to online video with their current shows, and now it's great to see them bringing back these classics for free. 

If your craving hour-long 70s and 80s drama, check out the site.  Now you can finally satisfy your jones-ing for more Simon and Simon.


Coffee and lessons

I learned stuff this week:

  1. Eventually coffee beans turn into paste.
  2. White lawns are simultaneously pretty and creepy.
  3. A poorly maintained coffee pot surprisingly doesn't smell.

Two or three months ago, I switched my coffee routine.  I switched from this:

To this:

My Cuisinart coffee maker is nice, but a lot of work.  It will grind the beans for me, make 10 cups at a time, and even starts on its own due to the build in timer.  It's great to prep coffee at night and have it ready as soon as a I wake up the following day. And the thermal carafe keeps coffee warm for hours without burning.

But it's a pain to prep and clean.  I have to clean out the bean grinder, the bean grinder lid, the filter basket, the filter basket lid, the filter, and the pot.  And none of it is really easy.

So I switched to the press, which makes better coffee anyway.

In advance of Thanksgiving guests, it was time to prep the Cuisinart.  It makes more than the press and I wanted to be ready. 

Out came the white vinegar, and important coffee machine cleaning product.  I got ready to run some hot water and vinegar through the equipment so it would be all fresh and sparkly.  I grabbed the carafe and made and unfortunate discovery.


The dregs of the last pot of coffee I made were in there. At least 3 tablespoons worth.  I dumped it out and stealed myself for what I now knew to expect from the rest of the machine.  Multi-month old, damp coffee grounds.

I popped open the filter draw, and pulled out the assembly.  I pried the lid off the filter basket and found a lawn.  A nice, thick, lush, damp,white lawn growing on top of the coffee grounds. 

I thought about mowing it, but don't have Deere that will fit in there.  Instead I turned it upside down to dump the nearly sentient coffee grounds in the sink.  And that's when I made my next discovery.  Cofffee grounds, as they age, begin to think they are above Isaac Newton, and don't need to obey his silly laws.  They just hung in the filter.

Tap.  Tap. Tap.

Tapping on the filter did not help.


Banging it on the bottom of the sink and smacking it into the side still did not dislodge this stubborn culture.

So now it was up to the water.  5 minutes of hot water pouring through the filter was enough to finally break up this coffee paste.  It took a couple days of soaking and scrubbing to get the rest of it off.  Eventually, it was mostly clean and now I could unleash cries of, "DEPLOY THE VINEGAR!" 

I filled the carafe, which at one point actually had a silver interior, with hot water and a bunch of vinegar and ran it through the equipment. And did it again.  And again. And again.

Now, it's mostly clean.  I'm running daily flushings of just hot water through there to get rid of the vinegar, and now it's as good as new.  Or at least as good as six months old.


Who wants coffee?


Delays as the norm

On Thursday, the failure of a single piece of hardware in Salt Lake City made a wreck of the air travel system. It impacted hundred of flights and resulted in cancellations and delays across the country as we head into one of the busiest travel weeks of the year.

From the Seattle PI:

ATLANTA -- Air travelers nationwide scrambled to revise their plans Thursday after an FAA computer glitch caused widespread cancellations and delays for the second time in 15 months. The Federal Aviation Administration said the problem, which lasted about four hours, was fixed around 9 a.m., but it was unclear how long flights would be affected.

My favorite part is that so many airports are so messed up that massive delays and cancellations look like business as usual.

Despite the problems, the public areas of Atlanta's airport seemed no busier than usual.
In the public areas of Newark International Airport, where delays are routine, Thursday seemed like a normal day, though several people paced around the terminal trying to rearrange their plans.


The actions of the airports would be worthy of kudos if the situation was more like, "they delays meant a lot more people were in the airport waiting for flights, but the logistics were manageable."  The issue is that there was no evident difference between this day and any other.  The major mess was just business as usual.


Geek Culture Part 01: w00tstock poster

Seeing the various Geek Culture posts I've done over the past year, it's time it gets its own title category.

This weekend, I finally got around to hanging my w00tstock poster.  I picked it up at this show in San Francisco last month.  After a nearly 3.5+ hour show, the performers stayed around so everyone who wanted to could meet and chat with them.  My poster has autographs from:

So it's a great keepsake from the event.

Despite meeting with hundreds of fans, everyone was genuinely nice and friendly.  They all still had the energy to talk to people.

I made a point of mentioning to Molly how much I enjoyed "Our American Cousin," her song about the Lincoln assassination.  She said that even though you're not supposed to pick your favorite child, it's probably her favorite too.

I chatted with Adam Savage about how much I enjoyed Mythbusters and appreciated the way they constantly illustrated the whole control/experiment structure. He said they weren't actually trying to do that.  All they wanted to do was tell good stories. Adam was all about telling stories, and that was really interesting.  If it wasn't for the press of the line behind me, I think I could have gone on chatting with Adam quite a while without crossing over into annoying fan.  He really seemed to enjoy talking with everyone who came up to him.

So there was plenty of awesomeness all around.  While my Paul and Storm, Kid Beyond, and Wil Wheaton anecdotes aren't quite as interesting to tell, they were also great with the fans.

So I framed the poster, which was the point of this post.  And now it's hanging on my wall.  I picked up a "cheap" discontinued frame at Aaron Brothers, and paid $25 for it.

What's with the framing consortium?!  I know custom framing is expensive (hundreds of dollars for a decent size puzzle), and I'm sure that stuff requires great skill.  I'm not saying it's not worth it, or that it's easy (I spent many hours making frames for puzzles and Special Olympics medals as a child). At that same time though, it's crazy.

My poster cost $5 and the autographs cost some Sharpie ink.  Okay, the autographs now make it awesome and priceless, but still.

It just seems wrong to spend 5 times as much on the accessory for something as I do on the thing itself.  What is this? Printer ink?

***Update: for thoughts on w00tstock 2.0 in Seattle, and videos from the show, please see this post.***


Packaging fun -- Coffee Pocky

A couple weeks ago, The GF picked up a snack for me at Uwajimaya, the local Asian supermarket.  The snack was coffee-flavored Pocky Sticks.  They tasted sort of like a solid version of the Starbucks Frappacinos you see in bottles at the grocery store.  So basically like coffee scented milk.

The real fun began when looked at the packaging.  It seemed to be telling a story:

Naturally, this appeals to me. It involves coffee.  It involves snacks.  It involves a puzzle. And it involves a garden.

I have no ideal what the characters above the pot say so I am left to guess.

Pots A, B, and C appear identical, and they get an identical amount of water.  Yet they sprout different sizes and quantities of flowers.

Is this a metaphor for life?  The idea that strange things can happen?

Is this an indictment of science that says even when the inputs are identical, you still can get different results?

Is this a lesson in Quantum physics that says even when the inputs are identical you still can get different results?

Is this a mini-Forrest Gump where the pots represent the chocalates in the box, and "You never know what your gonna get?"

Is it a diagram of the Pocky production process?

Is it a subliminal message from the floral industry telling me I need to buy flowers for some reason?

Is it a reminder to start work on my garden now?

My mind boggles at the possibilities.  And I am now spending way too much time contemplating Pocky.

Contemplate Pocky
So crunchy, sweet, and floral
I still need coffee


Super Mario Galaxy and 244 Stars


Two years ago, I started playing this game on the Wii and mentioned it here.  Tonight I finally beat it.  I got all 244 stars, playing as both characters, and it only cost me 3,464 lives (2,270 Marios and 1,194 Luigis).

Now, I didn't play straight through like I would have as a kid.  Things like work interferred with my video game time, and there were the daliances with Mario Kart, Guitar Hero, Wall*E (only once  -- great movie, stupid game), and Wii Fit.

The neat things is that I don't alwasy finish video games.  They get too hard, or I lose interest, or something else distracts me.  This was a game that I kept coming back to, and it marks the second console game I've actually finished (the first being Paper Mario for the Wii).

And now I can relax and work on other projects.

At least until Super Mario Galaxy 2 comes out.


Currier Museum of Art

Earlier this week, I unexpectedly found myself with a few hours to kill in Manchester, NH.  A colleague suggested I visit the Currier Museum of Art. A $10 admission fee got me into this neat facility.

At first I was regretting my decision to visit.  The first gallery was mainly paperweights.  Paperweights!  The sheer mundanaity of the concept hurt my head. But I looked closer, and some of these glass weights were beautiful and impressively crafted, especially since they were so old.  In general, I found the glass on exhibit here to be more interesting than the exhibits at Tacoma's Museum of Glass. 

But the cool stuff was behind another door. The European wing featured paintings that were hundreds of years old.  The skill that it took to create these images is something I rarely think about.  Yet the detail in the paintings, the colors of the faces, the emotions that reach out from the canvas seem just as vivid now as they must have been hundreds or years ago.

While there is no touching of the art, you can still get close to it.  I found it a powerful experience to be staring  with my face inches away from these paintings hundreds of years old.  One even predated Columbus's journey to the new world. 

These fragile treasures survived wars, fires, the rise and fall of nations and civilizations, weather, being lost, stolen , or found, and they eventually made their way to this small corner of New Hampshire.

It makes my head spin.

The other really cool thing they had was an exhibit of photography of Brett Weston.  Most people can name Ansel Adams as a well-known American photography, but hoe many people can name others?  I was not familiar with Weston's striking and natural work, but I'm glad I got to see these images and learn a little about his story.

I know enough about photography, that I feel if I had the time and inclination, I could do work just like these masters.  But then I look at these collections of images -- these simple images, and know that I can't.

An artistic photograph isn't finalized in Photoshop, or the dark room, or the camera.  The shot is done before the artist presses the shutter.  It's done when the artist chooses the scene and chooses the frame.  The camera is just equipment.

But the point is, if you have the time to check our the Currier, do so.  I only highlighted a couple sections.  There is still plenty more to see the next time you are in New Hampshire.


Life in the Garden Part 35: Plant Nanny

It's November and the deck is pretty bare now.  I have a few plants out there trying to last through the winter and we'll see how they do. This gives me a good opportunity to look at garden equipment from this year.

Regulating water is a perenial challenge so this year I added Plant Nannies.


A Plant Nanny  is a piece or terracotta that you put in the pot.  The included auger helps you did deep enough so that the top of the Plant Nanny is at or just above the soil level.

Then you fill a wine bottle with water and turn it upside down in the Plant Nanny.  Jim Beam bottles work too.  The water doesn't pour out.  Instead, it seeps slowly into the soil through the Plant Nanny.  A wine bottle of water can last days or weeks depending on the weather, soil, plant and other watering habbits. 

If you get them in the pot early enough, roots will often grow around the Plant Nanny as the seek the water source.

There is another type of Plant Nanny, too.  If you want to use soda bottles, or other threaded or short necked bottles,you can use these smaller Plant Nannies.


You fill a large or small soda bottle with water, screw on the adapter, and slide the assembly into the terracotta.  From there is work the same as the bigger one.

The smaller ones can hold more water than the bigger ones because you can use 2-Liter bottles with them. But they are more awkward.  They spill more than they others.  And they leak more.  Plus they get a little wobbly. 

My plan for next year is to pick up more of the large wine-bottle plant nannies.  Instead of one per pot, I will will  do 2 or 3 per pot.  This should help keep the soil uniformly moist and accoodate my travel schedule well.  I'll also be adding the Plant Nannies at the same time I put pots in the plant.  This should make it easier to insert them and promote healthy root development.

I won't get any of the smaller, threaded ones.  They're just not worth the hassle when the other one are so easy.

I guess that means I have to drink more wine this winter.  Cheers!


Mount Helena in 1999

One of the great things about my old college campus was the view from the dorm.  I had a great view of Mount Helena outside my window for several years. 

When business took me back to Helena 10 years ago, I followed the trail up mountain and took a bunch of pictures along the way.  I shot them on Seattle Film Works film on my old Pentax K1000 SLR (that thing was tank).  When I got them developed, they also put them on a CD (crazy advanced technology in the late nineties). Somewhere along the line, I added them to Flickr.  A few of my favorites are below.  You can see the rest of them here.