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Postcards from Travel Near and Far by Jia-Rui


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93546, Crowley Lake

Hiking in Little Lakes Valley

Dear ——–,

We started off our day by picking up a pastrami sandwich at Tom’s Place, and then headed off to start a hike through Little Lakes Valley. The trail, which begins at the ominously named Mosquito Flats, was pretty popular. We certainly bumped into some characters — a girl who looked transported right out of Silver Lake in her moccasins and oversized glasses, a man who covered every inch of his face except his forehead with so much sunscreen it looked like clown paint, a couple of bleary-eyed guys clutching their Bud Lites and snickering. What made this trail great, though, was that we had pretty scenes to look at the entire seven-mile roundtrip walk. (Why do trails where the only payoff comes when you reach the summit?) Sometimes we were walking by meadows fringed with shimmying Aspen trees; at others, we were clambering over geometric blocks of rosy granite. We even saw fields blooming with Sierra columbine and mountain aster. We passed several lakes before settling down for a picnic by Gem Lake, whose water was a divine shade of peacock green-blue. We settled into the boughs of twisted Jeffrey pines to enjoy our sandwiches.

(By the way, we saw lots of dogs on this trail, in case you’re looking for dog-friendly hikes.)


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90036, Los Angeles

Kissing Series by Baldessari at LACMA

Dear ——–,

On Friday, Bryan and I went to see the John Baldessari show at LACMA. I love Baldessari because he’s funny and he isn’t too stuck up to let the audience in on the joke. His “California Map Project” is a stroke of genius: he started with a map of the state and then visited the physical location of each of the C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A letters printed on the map. At those places, he laid out the letters with red ribbon, rocks or non-toxic dye. The resulting photos were a playful sweep across the varied landscape of our state. We wanted to visit LACMA on a weekday because our neighbor Christal works in the conservation department. She took us to the paintings lab, where one of the conservators talked about how they restore paintings missing flecks of paint or browned by age. Morning, northern light is apparently the best for mixing colors to match the painting. If they are stumped, they ask scientists to analyze the composition of pigments on the original. The conservator talked about a difficult case with an Albert Bierstadt painting, where someone in the 80s decided to shellack it with a particularly thick varnish. When she pressed on it, an air bubble showed up like a badly laminated placemat. Eventually, by rolling a bone over the painting, she was able to pull off the whole layer with a spatula. She was able in this way to preserve the underlying original artist’s varnish, which turned out to be flecked with gold. As if the dramatic colors and composition of his lush, Romantic landscapes of the West didn’t already inspire a sense of wonder, I guess Bierstadt wanted a little extra shimmer!


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93441, Los Olivos

Clairmont Farms' field of lavender

Dear ——–,

We had only vague ideas about what we would do in the Santa Ynez Valley when we woke up on Sunday. We knew we wanted to taste a little bit of wine, but do mostly non-alcoholic things. (We also knew we wanted to avoid finding out the results of the World Cup final and watch it at home on Tivo.) Bryan did some quick internet research and we headed to an olive oil tasting at Global Gardens in Los Olivos. I never realized that olive oils could taste so different — one had mango overtones, another was peppery, another tasted of sage. We also walked away with an infusion of chardonnay vinegar, white balsamic, Meyer lemon and herbs. Then Bryan took me to a lavender farm — I didn’t know there was such a thing! The owner of Clairmont Farms said we came at precisely the peak, when the entire field of Grosso lavender was blooming and aromatic. Another staffer showed us how they extracted the oils in copper contraptions that reminded me of antique diving helmets. Hundreds of bees hummed around us. We rounded out our trip by sipping an unusual minty and “gravelly” sauvignon blanc at Coquelicot and some local pinot noirs at the Los Olivos Tasting Room. We drove home with a trunkful of consumable souvenirs.


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93463, Solvang

The windmills of Solvang

Dear ——–,

Solvang is a town full of windmills that contain t-shirt shops. After the drive up from Los Angeles and a night of airaoke (air guitar karaoke) at the Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez on Friday, we didn’t feel any need to get out of bed too early on Saturday morning. Plus, the garret-like room we had at our hotel the Wine Valley Inn was so cozy. We had a little time to walk around this Danish-themed town before Dan and Kate’s wedding. I giggled as I pointed to pastries at one of the bakeries: “Look, all of these are danishes!” We found a table for lunch at Root 246, a restaurant that got a great review in the L.A. Times. The Uruguay vs. Germany World Cup game was playing in the bar, so that’s where we sat. It was hard to pay attention to the food because the game was so exciting, but the burger with peach mustard turned out to be pretty amazing. The plate came with the most delicious pickles I’ve ever eaten and I love pickles so much I’ve drunk the vinegar out of the jar.


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93460, Santa Ynez

Sunset at Figueroa Mountain Farmhouse

Dear ——–,

Dan and Kate’s wedding ceremony in the golden, rolling hills of Santa Ynez featured a bagpiper, a chuppah, whisky in a quaich, Bon Jovi, and air guitar. As they read their vows — which were hilarious and sweet — an unlikely rainbow arced over the weathered-wood Figueroa Mountain Farmhouse. I don’t know how they could have scripted anything better. As we wandered around the grounds of the farmhouse, we nibbled on polenta snacks and sipped cocktails made of scotch, strawberries, mint and syrup. After loading up on fajitas and chile rellenos, we got down to the ceilidh. It was a little less crazy than our first attempt, thanks mostly to the presence of one experienced Scottish couple directing our group’s organized chaos. The dancing stopped for some video greetings from Scottish relations who were unable to attend, including a toast from Kate’s adorable grandparents. We hugged the bride and groom goodbye around 10:30 p.m. As we got into our car, fat droplets of rain began to fall consistently. The dancing continued despite the strangest July rainstorm. I slipped off my shoes at the hotel and found stray strands of hay.


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92310, Fort Irwin

Units leave their mark on Fort Irwin

Dear ——–,

To get to the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex — one of three sites around the world for antennas making up the Deep Space Network — I had to go through the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin. Near the gate is a cluster of boulders known as “Painted Rock,” bearing the shields and colors of units who have trained here. It’s kind of amazing to think of the Mojave Desert as a last stop for so many soldiers before they head out to Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s plenty of space to practice tank maneuvers, as General George Patton discovered in the 1930s. (Some of his tank tracks are apparently still out there.) The desolation of this place certainly focuses the mind. I saw a rock painted with the motto “Send Me,” and thought about how dangerous the environment is over there. Someone has to carry out the wars our government mandates. These guys raise their hands.


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90042, Highland Park

An aisle at Galco's Soda Pop Stop

Dear ——–,

In honor of the All-American weekend, I went to Galco’s Soda Pop Stop, where you can find practically any kind of fizzy drink. Every time I go, I have to have a theme or I get overwhelmed with choice. This time: root beer and related spicy sodas. I left with five different kinds of root beer, two kinds of birch beer and a bottle of sarsaparilla. When I go to Galco’s, I also have to stock up on some other hard-to-find favorites: Thomas Kemper’s ginger ale and Cheerwine. (I only went wrong once there — stay away from the spruce beer!) Galco’s also features an alcoholic section, where you can get beers and ciders from all over the world, and old-school deli and “vintage” candies. It’s kind of a strange outpost in a rapidly changing part of Los Angeles — many of the other stores there do all their signs in Spanish. But the whole area is full of mom and pop stores, so maybe that is a deeper part of the Highland Park character than language.