Madison, WI: Drifting Thru The Driftless

Seven weeks into this particular RV adventure, moving to a new town every 3-5 days, we often find ourselves wondering exactly where we are. At the intersection of Should I Stay & Should I Go? Where The & Sidewalk Ends? Making all decisions via Rock & Paper & Scissors?

We’re not only clueless, we’re also driftless, drifting through the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, a unique topographical area whose rolling hills were spared the flattening effect of a giant glacier during the last ice age 15,000 years ago.  It’s the kind of gentle, quiet countryside where the cause of any traffic jam is likely to be a loose cow.

Rolling countryside town #1, MOUNT HOREB, is the “Troll Capital of the World,” though presumably competition is scant in that category.

The streets are lined with life-sized trolls carved from the trunks of trees.

Finding yourself tired and thirsty from your endless troll scavenger hunt about town, the Grumpy Troll is there to ease your troubles.

Rolling countryside town #2, MINERAL POINT, was settled by Cornish lead and zinc miners in 1827, and many of the existing stone buildings still predate Wisconsin statehood.  It’s perhaps best well know for Pendarvis House Restaurant, housed on a property with several historic cabins built by those Cornish immigrants, which was once named as a top seven restaurant in the country by the Saturday Evening Post and featured in GourmetLife, and National Geographic magazines. 

Leaving small towns behind, state capitol MADISON is where we met up with RV’ers Touring With The Bandeses (a.k.a. our brother and sister-in-law), who will be RV’ing with us for the rest of the month in Wisconsin and sharing Philip’s burden of my endless photo posing demands.

Set on an isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, downtown Madison is charming and picturesque, sometimes described as “78 square miles surrounded by reality.” It truly does feel like a magical, much smaller town than it actually is, particularly on pedestrian-only State Street and around the Capitol Square right smack-dab in the middle of downtown.

Of course, being a University town, there’s plenty of shopping and nightlife, including a dueling pianos bar which had just recently reopened after being closed for some time due to covid. Yay!

Named one of the 10 best bicycling cities by Bicycling Magazine, it is easily navigated via 75+ miles of dedicated bike paths. This is a dream-come-true for certain gun-shy cyclists (who shall remain nameless), who have been hit by cars in the past and detest riding in traffic.

The Saturday-morning Dane County Farmers Market is the largest producer-only farmers market in the U.S. This means the hundreds of sellers have produced or made everything they are selling there. The booths line all four sides of the Capitol Square.

With hundreds of vendors, sellers’ marketing techniques must be “on-point” to stand out from the competition!

Madison’s domed 1917 state capitol building is smack-dab in the middle of downtown.  It looks like a smaller version of the White House, and the always-open inside offers has elaborate artwork, mosaics, woodwork, and 14 kinds of stone from all over the world. 

The Capitol has an both an inner and an outer observation deck, reachable via narrow spiral staircases, where you can look down into the inner courtyard, and gaze around at the City.

Madison is a foodie town, with one of the strongest local food scenes in the country. “Madison Eats” guided us to some of the best with their walking and drinking and eating (mostly eating) tour of the area, highlighting not only great food but also terrific local architecture.

Not to mention, some of the best restroom signage!

If Pac-Man doesn’t impress you, how about a Walmart with 100% underground parking? When it’s time to get back downstairs to your car, your cart gets its very own escalator! This is not specific to Madison, certainly, but we were greatly amused!

We have been learning some very important Wisconsin facts! Starting with the fact that Wisconsin is dairy crazy. From the nation’s best cheese, to famous cheese curds (little squiggly balls of cheese that are separated from the whey during production but not melted/smashed into a solid loaf, rendering them inherently snackable), to cheese and ice cream from the Babcock Hill Dairy Store at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (home to the nation’s first dairy school), to macaroni-and-cheese pizza, there’s no denying your cholesterol is going to suffer here in Madison.

And of course to get cheese, you’ll need some cows, which are in abundance throughout the city. What’s the most popular beer in Wisconsin? Why, “Spotted Cow” Beer, of course!

Despite all the cow love, the state animal is the actually the badger. This is because most of the early residents were miners, and like badgers, they burrowed underground each day when they went to work. The badger is even on display in several places in the ornate Capitol building, and you know those plastic owls they use on rooftop to scare pigeons away? Well, here in Wisconsin, it’s not an owl — it’s a badger, of course!

Visiting Madison in your RV? Stay at the William G. Lunney Lake Farm County Park Campground, with bike trails leading right into downtown Madison in one direction, and the rolling hills of the countryside in the other direction, and abundant bird watching and nature all around.

Our next stop is still in the Driftless Area, but deserving of its own post with beautiful Devil’s Lake State Park, Dr. Evermore’s “largest scrap metal sculpture in the world,” and Circus World Museum and the Ringling Mansion — fitting … since this was the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus at the turn of the century! We’re drifting on to Baraboo, WI!

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