The Door Is Always Open In Madison

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For a small town, there’s certainly a lot of hustle and bustle here in Madison, Wisconsin.  People are walking, running, biking and playing a part in their small, yet robust upper mid-west community.

While walking to my hotel, I encountered a woman on a park bench and asked her about living here.  Turns out she had just relocated from Mississippi as her daughter is now attending the university of Wisconsin. (Go Badgers.)  She replied “Actually, yeah” when I asked if she was happy with her new home – almost surprised that she had a found such a great new place to live.

While dining at Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company, my friendly native Wisconsin server was all too eager to talk up her hometown.  Tricia has lived in different parts of the world and said she loved coming back to Madison because it has everything you’d want in a big city without the big city feel.  The “weird mix” of people, as she put it, makes this stand out as one of the best places to live in America.  Madison routinely tops surveys and polls as a great place to raise a family.

COME ON IN!

It’s one of the more open and inviting cities I’ve been to in recent months.  Security is almost non-existent to the public eye.  The state capital is open all day and anyone can waltz right in to use the restroom or just cool down on a hot Summer afternoon.    At public events, people seem to do what they’re supposed to do for the most part.  Where many cities would have police or security – Madison locals seem to know how to behave.

There’s also an overwhelming emphasis on putting community first in Madison.  One cool, quirky social experiment directly across from the capital building is called The Dream Bank Technically, it’s an office for American Family Insurance – a Madison based company.  After walking through the front door of this old bank (the safes inside have actually been re-purposed into doors)  you probably won’t even hear about insurance.  Instead, it’s a community center of sorts for people looking to discover or build upon their dreams.  Whether that dream is starting a business or passing a college exam.  They have study groups, book clubs and more.  It’s free and the door is always open.

CHEESE, PLEASE.

Wisconsin residents in general do not seem to shy away from the fact that they are from the dairy state.  If you announce you’re going to visit here, no doubt, some out of state idiot will ask “are you going to have some cheese?”

While it’s a completely un-original inquiry – it’s quite accurate to say that cheese is a big part of this town and every town in Wisconsin for that matter.  They love it and are unafraid to tell you so.   Cheese curds are offered everywhere and are yummy!  Especially considering they don’t have to go far to find the cheese.

 

 FARMER’S MARKET

The Dane County Farmer’s Market is most likely the biggest farmers market in the country.  It wraps all the way around the capital building downtown on Saturday.

Starting at 6am, vendors are ready to sell their produce.  There are strict rules on who can sell.  You have to meet certain guidelines that prohibit a “middle man”. You basically have to grow everything you sell on your own.  Veggies, fruits, flowers – it’s all most likely grown by the person selling it to you on the sidewalk.

The line moves around the capital building in one direction.  As Judy Frankel, the public relations coordinator for Madison told me, when she first moved here 13 years ago, she had no idea about the protocol.  Wondering why she was getting un-happy glares from locals, she quickly figured out she and her family were walking the wrong way.  Standing back, or watching from the top of the capital building it’s actually quite incredible that so many people do in fact, “go with the flow”.  I’m not sure that would happen in most cities.

A typical guy – I’m not much of a shopper but, I did the obligatory walk down Madison’s popular shopping area, State Street.  Thousands of people were enjoying a beautiful Saturday and were pumping money into the local economy.

Since I didn’t have a wife or girlfriend (or both) to drag me from store to store – I decided to make my way to the water of Lake Monona instead.

The city itself is located on what’s called an isthmus.  Madison is one of only two major U.S. cities built on an isthmus, the other being Seattle, Washington.  I’ll save you the effort of having to google “isthmus”:

[quote] ISTHMUS: A narrow strip of land connecting two larger land areas, usually with water on either side.[/quote]

You’re welcome.

During my visit, the locals were celebrating their annual Rhythm and Booms event on the shores of the lake.  While I sat with a group of spectators who had lawn chairs and coolers, I plopped onto the grass and witnessed one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.

The Mad City Ski Team was entertaining the crowd and I just couldn’t believe what was happening.  Call it a consequence of being too cheap to pay for cable TV  – but I had no idea that “team skiing” was a sport!   If you’ve never seen this in action, it’s simply amazing.  In a nutshell,  a group of people all ski at the time, with one foot on a ski and the other free to do ballet type moves while being pulled around the water by a boat.  Some of the routines actually had people standing on the shoulders of the people on the balancing on one ski.

The evening ended with a fireworks display that went on for at least 30 minutes.  As someone with a little bit of experience in what goes into fireworks displays for municipalities – I can assure you that a 30 minute display is incredibly rare.  The locals should be thankful – most cities don’t get a show quite like the one I watched that night in Madison.

HATE TO LEAVE

During the fireworks display, I chatted with a younger couple that had moved here three years ago from Salt Lake City.  They’re moving back for a job opportunity but made it clear that they’d grown quite fond of Madison.

That seemed to be the recurring theme during my visit – people come to Madison and hate to leave.

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Bill is a travel journalist, broadcaster and freelance writer based in Saint Louis, Missouri. Bill travels all across the country doing positive stories, highlighting people and places making America great. He's the host of the weekly Rediscover America podcast and author of the new book 100 Things To Do In America Before You Die! Bill enjoys parks, talking to strangers, eating medium-rare steaks, playing Pickleball and telling good jokes.