As you may gather from our travels so far, Loops and I try as much as we can to stay out of, and away from, as many large cities as we can. It’s not that we don’t like big cities per se, I mean they can be filled with a wondrous variety of things to see and do and learn about; it’s just that they also have a tendency to go hand in hand with lots of people, hustle and bustle, noise and traffic. All things neither of us are very fond of.
However, it would seem just a little bit rude of us to ignore the capital city of Wisconsin and not stop in for a look-see, bearing in mind we will be driving right past it. Not to mention they have an Elks club right on the waterfront for us to stay at. Get in.
One thing I haven’t mentioned so far on our drive through the state is this: for a state renowned for dairy produce, I haven’t seen any cows.
Not a single Daisy or Bessie anywhere.
So I have to say I am very much pleased as we navigated State Road 151, to find ourselves amongst the farming communities of Wisconsin. I would go so far as to say we took a beautiful drive through the picture perfect farmsteads, vivid green pastures filled with livestock and not an arable crop to be seen anywhere (let’s face it, corn in Indiana can be pretty, but also overwhelming and a bit dull after a fashion).
Even better, we pass through the towns of Stockbridge, which reminded me of home, and Fond du Lac, which reminded me of the film Shrek and made me smile.
I do notice that during our whole ride, we pass through no poor areas at all. Every small town has an affluent feel to it; the farms are large expanses that could easily have featured on a postcard – crisp white painted fencing, barns that look brand new and imposing two storey farmhouses.
Making our way into the state capital I am surprised by the small city feel of it. There are no skyscrapers towering over the city skyline, the roads are mostly two lane dual carriageways rather than the three and four lane monstrosities you usually find (at least in Tampa).
Chugging in at 6.30pm and with the light fading, I am shocked by the number of people who are out and about on the pavements – jogging, walking and cycling – this is one active city for sure, and one that happily is not scared of muggings it seems.
When we finally locate the Elks lodge, we discover a slight problem, the car park is packed. It seems we’ve chosen the one night that the lodge has decided to host some musical entertainment and everyone and their brother has turned out to listen (though stepping out of the bus and hearing what was on offer, I really did have to question why).
Loops solution – to park Belle in the centre of the small turning circle at the back of the lodge – he literally turned her into a roundabout that cars had to circle around in order to exit the road.
While I wait in the bus, hoping that no local police would notice the new 43ft vehicular roundabout that magically appeared in Madison, Loops pops into the lodge to grab us some dinner to munch while we wait out the band.
Finally around 9.30pm or so we are able to take up our spot right on the waterfront, providing us the opportunity to throw open the windows for the night and fall asleep to the sound of the lapping waves of Lake Monona and the breeze blowing through.
The next morning provides me with a first this trip, the opportunity and desire to have breakfast outside. I grab my bowl of cereal and my book (The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane – thank you Alex the Archaeologist!) and sit in the bracing wind to eat my breakfast, looking up occasionally from the pages to admire the view.
Loops and I decide to put aside our dislike of the big smoke and cycle into the city centre to visit the state capitol building.
Now, for those of you with a keen eye, you might notice the use of an ‘o’ rather than an ‘a’ in the word capitol. I will tell you now, this isn’t an annoying glitch of the US vocabulary (like mysteriously banishing the letter ’u’ from words and adding a ‘z’ when it’s perfectly obvious that the letter ‘s’ does the job just fine); but rather to avoid confusion between the capital of a state i.e. the ruling city where the state government is based, and the capitol of a state i.e. the building where this governmental ruling takes place.
While I’ve seen one or two state capitols from the outside before, looking most grand and attempting to appear old, I’ve never taken the time to wander inside one or really give any thought to what might be behind the closed doors. However, thanks to my handy tourist information, I have found out that you are allowed to just wander straight through the front entrance of the Wisconsin State Capitol and have yourself a look around, for free! Well, that’s just too good an offer to pass up.
So, what can I tell you about the building? Well, for a start it looks like the majority of other capitol buildings in that it’s several storeys tall, white, with some pillars and a dome sitting on top. Just because I was curious to see how it matched up to other state capitols, I did a quick Wikipedia search and for some reason was tickled to giggles by the fact that 70% of the US capitol buildings could be easily interchanged without anyone blinking an eye. Either they all had the same architect or one state waited until another state’s building went up and then snuck over and copied the design.
No matter, the building is still worth a look of awe. And it does have the additional wow factor of having four wings to it, one for each point of the compass.
When you enter there is an information desk, where we encountered a lovely elderly gentleman who explained we could walk around all by ourselves and gave me a printed history guide to read as we went. So off we toddled.
I first learned that the Wisconsin State Capitol we are standing in was built between the years 1906 and 1917, but is actually the forth building of its type, the last being mostly destroyed by fire in 1904. It cost $7.25 million to build, which does sound a fair amount I’ll admit, but nothing really when you think about the fact the building had to be restored between 1988 and 2002 to the tune of $158.8 million. Now I’m not in the building trade or anything, and I know zip all about inflation, but to me that starts to sound like the time you’d normally call in the building team to flatten it and just start again; especially here in the US where that seems to be the normal protocol.
In the centre of the building is an enormous rotunda, and looking directly up you can see straight to the roof of the dome which contains a painted mural in the centre, which is pretty to look at for about 20 seconds before your neck aches and you start to get a feeling of vertigo. From the outside of the rotunda branches off the four wings of the building, each covering three levels, and everywhere you look there is art work, sculptures and classical decoration.
Each floor of the building contains office after office for this is, don’t forget, the headquarters of the state government. We pass doors for the state representatives and other government officials, including the governor’s office which we are allowed into to nose around at the patriotic murals decorating his walls.
At one point we accidently stumble into the Supreme Court, empty right now, but I felt rather awed by the judges bench with the name tags lined up and a huge mural of the declaration of independence being signed, covering the wall behind. I sat down for a few minutes in one of the chairs and thought about the types of cases that might come into this room. I have never been in a courtroom before and it had an intimidating and overwhelming sense to it.
Our final traipsing around the capitol brought us to the dome, where you are allowed to climb up and out of the doors on the roof of the building, giving you a 360 degree walk around view of Madison. From up here I notice that we are standing on the tallest building around, and I discover the reason for this is a law that prevents any building in the city being taller than the columns holding up the dome of the capitol; hence, no skyscrapers. I also can now appreciate where the city sits, perched on a thin strip of land running between the two lakes – Lake Monona and Lake Mendota.
Heading back inside you can walk around a display chronicling the history of the capitol including artefacts from the previous building that burned down, but were saved. A final staircase brings you almost to the very top of the dome itself with a balcony that you can stand on a look down on the crowds of people below, now appearing ant like.
Overall, an enjoyable and enlightening way to spend a morning and I highly recommend visiting a state capitol if you can to check out what may be inside – I can only guess that all of them allow people inside, and hopefully for free?
With our morning of culture complete, we decide we have had our fill of the city and head back to Belle to make our next travel plans.
It seems that Loops has decided that while we are still in this part of the country that he would like to have a couple of repairs done – the air conditioning unit at the front of the bus needs looking at (we have no A/C coming out of the front vents where we sit) and something is wrong with the generator, but I wasn’t really listening to closely to that at all.
So it seems our course is now set south with a slingshot around the base of Lake Michigan to head east and back towards Indiana and Michigan.
Oh, we need to pass through Shipshewana again, you say? Oh, well that’s such a shame….