Chicago to Madison, or: Driving through the Corn

This morning was uneventful, except that I packed and headed out the door to pick up a rental car in downtown Chicago. I walked into a small Budget Car place and asked if I could get an upgrade from my compact car rental. He offered me a new Ford Escape with eco-boost. I said I was concerned with gas mileage and he told me the new Escapes get 30-32 mpg. I didn’t believe him, but I can now tell you he wasn’t lying. He sent me out to the lot with the keys and when I said I wanted to check for damage, he said that as long as I don’t return it with a broken headlight or the bumper dragging behind it, there won’t be a problem. Whatever. There wasn’t any damage anyway. So I got myself settled and took off. I really like this car! I’d like to get one.

I was on the freeway within a couple minutes, but did get to try driving downtown under an “L” track, so that is an experience to remember. It wasn’t difficult or congested, it was just neat. The only concern is that the roads have four lanes, two in each direction, but cars only travel in the two innermost lanes. The outermost lanes are for taxis to pull over and situations like that. So I just had to make sure I did what the other cars were doing. I headed toward northwest Illinois with no traffic, but there was a lot of traffic going into Chicago.

After about 40 or 50 miles, my GPS took me off the expressway and onto a country highway (like Oregon 30 for those of you up there. Actually it was more like Alston Mayger Rd.). At first I wondered why, because GPSes tend to screw up like that, then I realized I had it set to avoid toll roads. Ultimately, I zoomed out on the map to see how much of an actual detour it was, and it was only 8 minutes longer, so I stuck with it. That was a good choice, because I got to experience the “typical Midwest.” That means about 25 miles of driving past large homes with barns and silos, acres of corn on both sides of the road, and roads that sometimes turned into gravel. With absolutely zero traffic. I actually hit the brakes a few times, and rolled in reverse to take advantage of some photo opportunities (there were no road shoulders at all). One of my first observations is that beneath the high grass and corn, and along side the road, the ground seems to be a fine tan-colored gravel, almost the consistency of sand. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it has to do with the fact that there was a 2000 foot deep glacier covering this area many eons ago(?)

Corn as high as an elephant's eye.

Corn as high as an elephant’s eye.

Lovely Caledonia, IL.

Lovely Caledonia, IL.

Eventually the road brought me back to the highway at the Wisconsin border, where the toll ended. It was nice to have no traffic all day.  Within my first few minutes in Madison, I noticed several things. There is a lot of nature around, hills (not huge ones), forest trees, lakes, a mix of very modern architecture (like Seattle) and old (like…historic Portland). And there are an unbelievable amount of bike lanes and bike/running trails, and people using them. There is a great mix of young (U. of Wisconsin), families, hipsters, athletes,… after a few hours here, it just seems like an awesome place to live. Yes, it gets snowy cold in the winter, but that’s not necessarily bad. Madison is regularly listed as one of the top 3 places to live in the US. They’re frequently #1. It’s a very relaxed city. Not much traffic, and I’m here on a weekend. And a very slow pace of life for a city with 300,000 people. It feels more crowded than Olympia (60,000+) but not much. Madison is officially added to the list of places I could handle living in. It joins a select few other American cities. Actually, I seem to like college towns. There’s more energy, more people out getting exercise and being social, better infrastructure (or at least the city planning seems to be better)…and more brewpubs. Madison is the only American city, other than Seattle, located on an isthmus, and as I drove into town, I saw swimmers, boaters, rowers, and kayakers all enjoying the water. Oh yes, when I arrived it was 99 degrees and 60% humidity. That’s the downside.

[They have Co-op grocery stores, and they have GroupHealth Cooperative hospitals, too. I thought that was only in Washington State]

I sort of hung out in the room until just before the baseball All-Star Game, then went down to a local brewpub, the Great Dane Brewery. It is located right by the State Capitol (the biggest one in the US), and they had about 16 beers which are all truly brewed in the same building. You could see the brewing through the large glass windows, and these award-winning beers travel no more than 50 feet (officially) from where they were made, to the tap.

I stayed for the whole game (3 hours), so I sat in an area that wasn’t quite in the restaurant and not quite at the bar. Anyway, I loved their menu. I took a long time to decide because I wanted 14 different items. Two people next to me were sharing a regular nachos appetizer. It was absolutely enough for six! Nice portion sizes and very affordable prices – almost nothing over $10. I ordered a poutine appetizer and snacked on that for the first few innings, then got a veggie sandwich. I also tried three of the beers: a Cask ESB (!), a wheat beer, and an altbier. They were $5 a pint, but I got them in 12 oz. glasses because I knew I wanted to try several. I watched the National League’s sorry performance come to a close while enjoying some local fair-trade, organic coffee, which my server, Emily, offered me for free. She also gave me some good tips on city spots to photograph tomorrow.

State Capitol

State Capitol

Reflection of opposing windows.

Reflection of opposing windows.

Lakefront Road. Long Exposure.

Lakefront Road. Long Exposure.

Completely off-topic note-to-self: Whenever I wear my red/gray striped watch or my “whale” shirt, as I did this evening, I get lots of compliments. I have this gray shirt with a whale blowing glittering confetti out its blowhole. I got it at Buffalo Exchange.

Tomorrow, I’m taking some photos of the town in daylight, then heading to the northeast. I have no plans yet for the night, but it could include Oshkosh (b’gosh), Fond du Lac,Manitowac, Green Bay, “Door County,” or sleeping in my car. You’ll have to wait ’til then.

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