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Postcards from Travel Near and Far by Jia-Rui


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95389, Yosemite National Park

View from Lower Cathedral Lake, near Tuolumne Meadows

View from Lower Cathedral Lake, near Tuolumne Meadows

Dear ——–,

While Los Angeles in July is choking on its own dust, Tuolumne Meadows seems still to be basking in spring. Under clear, smog-free blue skies, we hiked up the John Muir Trail to one of the Cathedral Lakes. After passing stands of lodgepole pine,we emerged into this breathtaking field of lavender lupine, meandering streams and randomly strewn boulders left by a glacier long since melted away. It sounds corny, but I actually wondered if this is what heaven looks like. I don’t know if it was the altitude or the exhaustion, but I was so startled by the beauty, I teared up. We had trail mix and beef jerky by the cold, clear lake, watching a marmot watch us a few feet away. Of course, we were not the only ones having lunch. Mosquitoes blithely ignored the clip-on Off! doodad I was using to ward off bugs and gave me five amazingly itchy welts.

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93274, Tulare

Highway 41, approaching Gold Rush country

Highway 41, approaching Gold Rush country

Dear ——–,

Getting to Yosemite National Park took us through a pretty interesting historical tour of California. On Highway 99, as we passed trucks full of red bliss potatoes, I had flashbacks to East of Eden. Even though that took place in the Salinas Valley, the Central Valley has the same agricultural ambition and potential ruin. (Selma proclaims it’s the Raisin Capital of the World and one of the main roads in Tulare is Prosperity Avenue.) From there, we turned onto Highway 41, where we went through the tiny Gold Rush town of Coarsegold. That place boasts tourist diversions including gold panning tours and treasure hunts! When we reached Curry Village, in Yosemite Valley and found out the lady who took our reservation over the phone several weeks ago apparently forgot to include the last night we intended to stay, we were pretty upset. But how can you look at El Capitan in the evening light and get upset at the mistakes of man?


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90046, West Hollywood

Playing the four-string Franken-instrument

Playing the six-string Franken-instrument

Dear ——–,

Bryan and I drove to an acquaintance’s house in West Hollywood to borrow a banjitar, a cross between a banjo and a guitar. Instead of the typical four strings, this instrument has six strings and is tuned like a guitar so guitarists can get that twangy sound without actually having to learn how to play a banjo. (It is also called a guitjo, but not a guitarjo as I mistakenly called it once last night.) Bryan is engineering a session with Five for Fighting next week and they want to test out the sound. On our way home, we stopped for dinner at Little Dom’s in Los Feliz, where I couldn’t get enough of the vegetables. The corn was roasted with basil and tossed generously with butter. The zesty salad featured some kind of delicious tiny green bean, with faro and baby celery. I realized I really like baby celery, just as I like baby corn. Is eating baby vegetables as bad as eating baby animals?


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91776, San Gabriel

Mapo Tofu at Chung King restaurant

Hot mapo tofu at Chung King restaurant

Dear ——–,

You know it’s good Sichuan food when you feel heat pricking your cheekbones and your tongue going numb. I met my friend Ja-Shin at the restaurant Chung King in San Gabriel last night, deep in the Chinese heart of L.A. (I loved passing Rosemead Gardens on the way over there. That’s where you can get your enormous Lake Tai-style stones or Guanyin buddhas in geodes.) The place was packed, even on a Wednesday night. I had to try the mapo tofu because it’s a litmus test for the rest of the food, the way pad thai is for Thai food. (One etymology says “mapo” refers to a pock-mocked old lady who invented the dish.) It didn’t disappoint; the pain was good. We also gobbled down the whole braised fish in a spicy broth with fava beans and stir-fried green beans. Like mapo tofu, the green beans showed up on the “vegetarian” part of the menu, but they both had minced pork on top. Can’t stop the Chinese from adding pig!


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90028, Hollywood

Michael Jackson's star on the Walk of Fame

Michael Jackson's star on the Walk of Fame

Dear ——–,

Went to see Michael Jackson’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame today. It was covered in photos from his Thriller and Bad days, which is I guess how I’d like to remember him, too. (The child molestation stuff makes me sad. I guess it’s just easier to avoid thinking about that.) Just a few feet away, impersonators dressed as Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and the Joker were sidling into tourists’ pictures, hoping for a tip. Those celebrities also died unexpectedly of overdoses of painkillers, sedatives and other drugs. (OK, the official test results on MJ haven’t come out yet, but it seems like everyone suspects this.) It made me wonder, does rising to this kind of fame always lead to an enormous amount of pain? Obviously they had better access to these drugs than the average person, but were they trying to escape the fame that most people would kill to have? I’m sure Michael Jackson’s unexpected death will seal him into the pantheon of America’s greatest stars. Maybe dying young is the price of living forever.


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94117, San Francisco

A glittery hula hoop meet-up at the Embarcadero

A glittery hula hoop meet-up at the Embarcadero

Dear ——–,

We spent a lovely weekend among nude bicyclists and (clothed) hula-hoopers. San Francisco just can’t help being itself. On Saturday, Geoff and Steven took us to browse modern art at the De Young Museum. I wondered whether anyone outside of the 1990s could appreciate those brash Dale Chihuly explosions of glass, but the Andy Goldsworthy faultlines to the front door were pretty inspired. After a lot of walking, we treated ourselves to salted caramel ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery, which was worth standing in line for. On Sunday, we were disappointed to find grandpa’s favorite Lichee Garden had stopped serving dimsum. So we got our xiao long bao at the very satisfactory City View instead. Carla showed us the art of hooping to dance music at the Embarcadero and we finished off the trip with the most perfect latte I’ve ever had at Blue Bottle Coffee in the Ferry Building.


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02138, Cambridge

Dragon Boat race on the Charles River

Dragon Boat race finish line on the Charles River

Dear ——–,

It’s so refreshing to leave a place where everyone who’s old dresses young and visit a place where everyone who’s young dresses old. I have not seen so many pinstripe button-down shirts or khaki slacks worn with belts in a long time. Just got back from my college reunion and I’m kind of glad that Cambridge doesn’t change very much. Sure, Toscanini’s has turned into a J.P. Licks, but it’s still ice cream, right? At least Burdick’s was still there. I convinced Bryan and Julia to sip some sultry dark chocolate hot chocolate with me. A slice of tomato-basil Sicilian pizza at Pinocchio’s at 1:55 a.m. also turned out to be the perfect way to prevent a hangover the next day. All that walking nearly killed my legs. Now that I live in Los Angeles, I’m not used to it! Thank god we took a break to sit down on the banks of the Charles River to watch the Dragon Boat Festival.