Travelogue: O, Madison!

A Capitol view of State Street - All Photos by Randy Stern
A Capitol view of State Street – All Photos by Randy Stern


Madison, Wisconsin used to be my home…

It is all too familiar location for when I do road trips by car between home, Chicago and the annual sojourn to Road America for the Midwest Automotive Media Association Spring Rally. Though Madison is skewed closer to their intended destinations, it serves as a respite from the road. It is a place where I could see friends and colleagues, along with revisiting old familiar places.

What I meant by "used to be" was that I used to live there – from October, 2000 to the spring of 2004. I lived in two places there. One was an apartment a block from the northwest shore of Lake Mendota in Middleton. The other was a home I shared with a couple on Madison's Far West Side, several blocks from my day job. Between these two places bore the genesis of this work you are seeing now.

That began as a meeting with someone connected with an old community work I founded in 1996 via the internet. We met in February, 2001 at a bar in Chicago's Lakeview East neighborhood near Wrigley Field. Soon after, Tom Wray offered me the position of Managing Editor of his lifestyle magazine website, in which I worked remotely from my home in Wisconsin. It was from that starting point where my professional life began – as well as my automotive work.

Madison always served as a hub for my travels. It would be either Chicago or Minneapolis-St. Paul as my usual destinations. Interstates 90 and 94 were familiar roads to me – lengthy and wanting of being there, or perhaps the want of going home when I was done.

Now based in the Twin Cities, Madison remains a four-and-a-half hour adventure on Interstate 94. It is worth the drive, thanks to a good friend Jason who let me stay at his place whenever I'm coming through town. On occasion, I would stay at a hotel. Either way, I always make sure to spend enough time to see friends and colleagues while in Madison to keep those connections going.

My normal routine for a Madison drive is to try to leave at the crack of down. My goal is to try to beat the rush in Minneapolis and St. Paul. That way, I have a good run through Wisconsin down Interstate 94 with enough allowance for stops along the way – including meals.

2015 Audi A3 TDI

However, this last run was a bit different. In May, I was staying a couple of nights at Jason's place prior to the MAMA Spring Rally. I was told by the media fleet management team that the 2015 Audi A3 TDI I was reviewing for Carfax.com had to be at the Osthoff Hotel in Elkhart Lake on Monday – no questions asked!

Normally, I would just leave early as usual and get there early enough to get settled in. That did not work out that way, but for good reason. That Saturday morning, I was planning on making a stop in Eau Claire to visit the Chippewa Valley Cars & Coffee event. My plans changed as I had breakfast with a potential client in Minneapolis before heading east.

It was a good meeting and thought to have enough time to possibly stop in Eau Claire. I did, but not without some traffic in Wisconsin. By traffic, I mean a tight pack of cars and trucks going at the speed limit – as legally allowable in the state. When I got to the Cars & Coffee venue, the group was just leaving. I'm glad I caught them for all of ten minutes. I knew I had to press on.

Onward from Eau Claire, traffic was just as frustrating. There were trucks and cars going the speed limit – or below. Then, you had people that sped up only to slow down for another 10-20 miles. It was the kind of passive-aggressive driving that ruins a rhythm. A lunch stop in Tomah did not help matters a bit. The service at the place I ate at certainly continued my mood.

By the time I hit Wisconsin Dells, I began to finally relax. The next town over, Baraboo, is where I do my "back way" into Madison along US Highway 12. In recent years, Wisconsin's Department of Transportation worked on creating a bypass around Baraboo and improve the road towards Middleton onto the Beltline. The latter is the loop that bypasses the Isthmus – the heart of Madison. The Beltline is a collector of several US Highways that touch Madison. It made the trip into town much easier.

One thing about Madison that a lot of people would know is the restaurant scene. For being a combination state capitol and college town, Madison has been known for some really good restaurants – on par with many places across the country. Jason and I wound up at a great pizza place in Middleton called The Roman Candle. Though they have a few locations in Madison and in the Milwaukee area, the pizza was among the best I ever had. Since I am not a foodie, we got what resembled a Hawaiian pizza with a soft pie dough and a nice spread of pizza sauce.

2015 Audi A3 TDI

The Sunday before MAMA Spring Rally, I was working on a morning photo shoot with the Audi A3. The ideas came from a colleague, Thomas Bey, who thought of a few places to shoot this car. My first place was the State Capitol building. Located in the middle of the Isthmus, it serves as the nexus for the entire city. Without revealing my political leanings (which shall remain private on this blog), I decided to have fun with this shoot. In the drive facing West Washington, I positioned the Audi between two official vehicles, a car ahead of them. I have to admit my glee on how those images turned out from the capitol. You might say that I was Governor of Wisconsin – for a few minutes.

The second shoot turned up at the wrong location. I was looking for an industrial ruin off of Olbrich Gardens on the city's East Side. Instead, I ended up at the front of the Madison-Kipp corporation's main building – across the street at an empty small industrial building. I never ventured this location before. It was quite a shoot there, also. Most of those images would be found on my review of this car on Carfax.com's website.

My last stop before brunch was at a place I used to hang out with an old roommate of mine. Mother Fools was a place where the counterculture continued, as some of Madison had continued along with it. I saw some cool music, drank their coffee, worked on my writing…even played congas along with my old roommate on keyboards which resembled some sort of experimental music piece. By shooting the Audi in front of a mural at this place was a contradiction in its own way – and it worked!

Sunday brunch with my colleague Thomas yielded a classic Madison location – Mickie's Dairy Bar. Located across the street from Camp Randall Stadium at the University of Wisconsin campus, Mickie's is an institution where breakfast is served in healthy portions. The food was terrific and you will not leave hungry.

A post-brunch drive yielded some observations about the city I once called home and have returned numerous times since becoming a Minnesotan. One disturbing trend I saw in the last few years have been the huge number of condos that have sprung up in Madison. In a city where there is a transitional population of college students, I never quite grasped the need for condominiums and expensive apartment units? Madison just seemed like the least likely place to see this scale of Manhattanization that has stretched from the Hilldale area onto East Washington Avenue.

Perhaps I was putting Madison to the view when I lived there over ten years ago by being appalled at the construction of these high-rise units across town. That was when I saw some new units being built along Williamson Street – also known as "Willy Street." This is the street where Mother Fools live. It has also become a place where the newly hip and cool are flocking to for new establishments for food and drink alongside the old standbys of the counterculture.

Wisconsin State Capitol 2

This only scratches the surface of the love-hate relationship I had with Madison stemming from my first visit in early 2000. Lately, I see Madison on a tolerable level. It is no longer home for me, but it is a place where I can be with friends and colleagues that live there. Perhaps the business I am in has changed my perception of Madison. I dabbled in it while I was there and have taken to it in full stride today.

Obviously, my road trip did not end in Madison. On the prescribed day, that Audi was driven to the Osthoff via Fond Du Lac. Two days later, I came home in a 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport GT 2.4. Yet, I did not go via Madison, as I first though I would. There were some matters to tend to at home, so I followed the same route as I did the two prior times from MAMA Spring Rally.

That route is actually the directly route to and from Road America. It is a route that could be easily broken up because of some distinct segments. Once I go through Fond Du Lac, it is up on US Highway 41 to the split with US Highway 45 in Oshkosh. Then, it is another split with US Highway 10 that would take me to Interstate 39/US Highway 51 around Stevens Point. That next highway takes me to Wausau and onto Wisconsin Highway 29 towards Chippewa Falls. Eventually, that merges with Interstate 94 through the last segment of Wisconsin into Minnesota.

It seems such a segmented route that I would be easy to do. By this time around, I was all too familiar with its segments. I used to think that the Wausau-Menominee leg was a long one. The one where I have less patience with is the US Highway 10 part from west of Oshkosh to Stevens Point. Yet, I seemed to be missing the point of this route home. Perhaps it is the fact that my mind was focused on getting home in the first place, rather than taking in the sights along the way. Just going through Waupaca, Stevens Point and Wausau yielded some beautiful landscapes in central Wisconsin. That is what makes the drive home worth it.

For the times I would go to Road America, I have never done the reverse route. I always tell myself to do so, but always think of Madison first before heading to Elkhart Lake. Why is that?

Then, I began to think of the things that happened while I lived in Madison 15 years ago. How much its proximity to Chicago and the Twin Cities had opened my eyes on many levels! It rekindled my want to write – poetry, commentary, fiction…just writing about what I am passionate about. Mainly, it was the automotive writing and how much that had opened doors during my time in Madison.

There were other things, too. The friendships I had back then, which some continued today. How Jason and I worked at the same place, but never sparked our friendship until I was ready to leave town. How Dave and I tried to drum together one time – him on his set, me on my conga – but, now still think what we're doing is still cool. I always hoped to see Richard, Todd, Fred, Glen and Chad on subsequent trips – even if the timing was tight for work and other things in preventing us to connect.

State Street, Madison 1

Madison also yielded new connections with Thomas and Harvey Briggs of Pursuitist.com. Because there are fellow members of MAMA in town, Madison is still a place where it is still possible to maintain a professional link in the physical realm of this work.

That love-hate relationship with Wisconsin's state capitol still yields one thing above all. It remains a hub for this work I do. It still kindles that passion that keeps the work fresh.

Damn you, Madison!

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