Madison, Wisconsin

Outside magazine, July 1995


Madison, Wisconsin

A town where you can have a real job, a real life, and still get to move in with the scenery. Several reasons to split the city and head for the Big Outdoors.
By Mike Steere


Population: 170,616; Dane County, 323,545
Gestalt: Mind over Midwest

Nothing for hundreds of miles qualifies as really steep, high-altitude, wild, or otherwise extreme, but this handsome heartland city still manages to be extremely outdoorsy. Its conspicuous natural bonus is a chain of lakes along the Yahara River that fractalize geography and give Madison a breezy vacation-town feel. Downtown and the state capital squeeze onto a skinny isthmus between the two largest lakes, Mendota and Monona.

The town's sixties holdovers like to imagine they're the lefty pioneers. But Dairyland's Erehwon--somewhere between Stockholm, Berkeley, and Eau Claire--has always had bent politics, and environmentalism and outdoor recreation have always been high on Madison's agenda. For some years now, commercial success has been, too. Consider Gordy Sussman, who once ran his horse, Sundowner, for district attorney and sold kayaks out of his basement; now he's built Rutabaga (named for Frank Zappa's vegetable song) into a paddle-sport empire, with 1,600 canoes and kayaks in stock.

Heartlanders gather in Madison to will themselves out of the Midwest. People from elsewhere come and stay because Madison is so midwestern: safe, honest, friendly, and focused on community and quality of life. But it's the Midwest itself that keeps the town from being insufferable. Wisconsin's beer-drinking gemütlichkeit contributes a saving silliness, as does the all-importance of cows.

Out there: The University of Wisconsin's Memorial Union, with its enormous waterfront deck and boat rentals, could pass for a major resort. Madison's open-air passions owe a lot to the Hoofers, a ferociously active multisport club based at the school. Cyclists break away on Wisconsin's well-paved back roads to abruptly hilly land just to the west. The worn-down but still evident Baraboo Range rises about 40 miles north of Madison, providing the Midwest's best rock climbing at Devil's Lake State Park. Madison's corps of serious whitewater buffs thinks nothing of making the four-hour drive to the Wolf River, in Wisconsin's northeastern corner, and paddlers, sailors, and boardsailors act like they're right next to Lake Michigan, some 80 miles away. Maybe because it's the capital, Madison treats all of Wisconsin's natural endowments as its own.

Paycheck: Employment prize is a hard-to-get sinecure with state government or the university (40,305 students). Don't count on it. But don't worry about starving, either. American Family Insurance, CUNA Insurance, Oscar Mayer Foods, Lands' End, Hazleton Laboratories, and four large hospitals are here, and Madison also has a small but growing tech sector, as well as low unemployment.

Home: Fixer-upper three-bedroom frame house, about $80,000, in Willy (short for Williamson) Street neighborhood a block from Lake Monona, just northeast of downtown. Cute and bright in the same neighborhood, close enough to the lake or river for portaging a C-1 without popping a sweat, $100,000-$150,000. The same money buys a house on a few acres of rural land 20 miles west in eastern Iowa County.

Neighbors: Fiscal analyst for the state and university lecturer taking time off for mothering. Female attorney married to jewelry maker, both masters swimmers and bike racers.

Très Madison: Reflexively oppose all public works projects; check out an exhibit of Druidic-feminist bark sculpture, then go bowling; rage about how California passed Wisconsin in milk production with chemicals and cow abuse; pedal to work year-round, with a special pannier/briefcase for your laptop.

Please, no more: Perpetual grad students, All But Dissertation, who will grow old happily underemployed.

Prices of paradise: Lack of mountains and ocean, and often unpleasant weather, can drag down nonmidwesterners. This can be the La Brea Tar Pits of ambition. People settle for less-than-perfect jobs just to be here, and then find themselves too comfortable to get upwardly mobile. Special warning to women: Take too much postpartum time off, and you're a hockey mom.

Kindred spirits: Austin, Texas; Boulder, Colorado; Bloomington, Indiana.

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