A Travellerspoint blog

America's Northern Midwest: Madison to Eau Claire

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The capital of Wisconsin has always lived in the shadow of Milwaukee, but Madison has its own character completely distinct from that of its far larger neighbor. Madison achieved its status as the state capital in a highly questionable fashion, in that the federal judge who purchased the land and built the city essentially bribed the territorial legislature with choice lots and buffalo robes. Given that, however, it is hard to complain about the capital's location in the south central portion of the state amid a chain of beautiful lakes. I hadn't realized until we were almost at our Airbnb that the city's downtown occupied a narrow isthmus between two large lakes. Thanks to the short drive from Milwaukee we'd arrived in plenty of time to explore the center of the city. The first thing we noticed is that downtown is designed such that the state capitol building can be seen from almost every intersection, thanks to the diagonal roads that point to every corner of the building. The capitol is one of the most impressive in the fifty states with a neoclassical design reminiscent of the US Capitol and the largest granite dome in the world.
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We continued our walk until we found a Thai restaurant for dinner. Afterwards we saw a crowd in the park at the shore of Lake Mendota and realized we'd stumbled on a waterskiing competition. The jumps and other stunts were very impressive. It was a good reminder that it isn't just people who live on the coasts who can become adept at water sports.
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There wasn't a whole lot to do in Madison on a Monday but we were armed with a long itinerary of sights outside the city. First we had breakfast at Ella's Deli, a locally beloved luncheonette with a carousel in front and all sorts of toys and displays inside. It was a kid's paradise that represented one couple's labor of love over decades and doesn't feel commercial at all.
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About an hour to the west of Madison is Taliesin, the estate of the iconic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The combined residence and studio was designed by Wright himself and is emblematic of the architect's desire to have his buildings reflect the nature of the surrounding landscape. Personally I'm not attracted to the homes Wright designed, which look to me more like medical clinics than comfortable homes, but of course no one ever asked my my opinion about architecture. At the time we visited the architectural school Wright established at Taliesin was in session although it closed not long afterwards. The tour was rather dry even for us adults so once the group moved to the outdoors we remained in the fresh Wisconsin air after the others had returned to the interior.
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Amazingly enough there is another unique architectural attraction just ten minutes away from Taliesin which has nothing whatsoever to do with Frank Lloyd Wright. In the 1950's an eccentric multimillionaire named Alex Jordan Jr. decided to build a sprawling Japanese-style home atop a rocky outcrop well above the surrounding valley. The fourteen rooms of the House on the Rock are filled with antiques, replicas, and eclectic artwork except for the Infinity Room, a cantilevered projection over the valley which uses forced perspective to create the impression of a never-ending corridor. The house is surrounded by gardens and pools that have a vaguely Asian character but would probably look like a nightmare to any Shinto temple designer. Jordan opened his house to the paying public in 1960 and the subsequent owner has continued to keep it open and even add to the collections inside. Some have described it as the "ultimate tourist trap", but we found our tour to be an enjoyable taste of American eclecticism.
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Wisconsin still had more unusual sights in store for us that day. I had been eagerly anticipating a visit to Dr. Evermor's Forevertron since I had discovered it while doing my Wisconsin research before the trip. The park is in the middle of nowhere but fortunately fairly close to both Spring Green and Madison so it was the next logical destination on our day trip. Thank to the out of the way location, we were the only visitors when we showed up. Tom Every, the artistic genius who called himself Dr. Evermor, had already had the first of a series of strokes that eventually led to his death in 2020 and wasn't at the park. However his wife was there to explain the concept and direct us on our self-guided tour. The park is filled with whimsical metal sculptures of animals and improbable machines. The piece de resistance is the enormous Forevertron, en enormous construction in the center of the park that resembles a rocket launcher. The egg shaped capsule in the center is intended to be propelled into the celestial sphere via the collection of lightning energy from the surrounding devices. Ian was particularly awestruck by the sculptures and we had to watch him continuously to be sure he didn't wander out of our sight.
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Back in Madison after an exhausting but exhilarating day trip there was just time for a leisurely dinner and some exercise before bed. When we're on the road we have to improvise when it comes to keeping in shape.
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We had already experienced more in and around Madison than we had any right to expect from a relatively small American city, but we still had more ahead of us. On the morning of our departure we stopped at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, a breathtaking collection of flora at the shore of Lake Monona. The peaceful gardens are filled with water features such as a creek, pools, and waterfalls and the landscaping is somehow meticulous and feral at the same time. The prize of the garden is a golden Thai pavilion, a present from the government of Thailand in recognition of the large Thai student population at the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin.
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About an hour north of Madison is an area known as Wisconsin Dells which has a concentration of water parks and other outdoor activities. The kids were just getting to the age where they could have fun at a water park so we decided to try out one called Kalahari. As I expected the kids loved it although it was nervewracking trying to keep my eye on both the older kids at the large splash park while Mei Ling entertained Spenser in the toddler area.
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The drive to Minneapolis would have been quite long so we decided to break things up in Eau Claire. This was a typical midwestern town just large enough to have a downtown commercial district with a string of ethnic restaurants and small boutiques on the attractive main street. For an added bonus there was a decent-sized farmers market the following morning with a Vietnamese food truck to fuel us for the drive. We made one final stop at a very large and innovative city playground and then we were off to Minnesota. Wisconsin had been an amazing experience, one of the most fun and interesting states we've ever visited. We were eager to see what more surprises lay in wait for us in this unheralded part of our country.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 08:28 Archived in USA

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