Madison and Milwaukee, WISCONSIN
The best part about getting to the other side of the continent are the shorter driving times between our destinations. As we approached Madison, I not only saw a sign for our college town destination, but also for our following two destinations after that: Milwaukee and Chicago. I got excited over the aspect of more exploring and less driving!
Though the weather wasn’t as bad as in Minnesota, it was hot and humid nonetheless, so it came as a relief to discover that the University of Wisconsin campus was set on the shore of a giant lake. How great it was, we thought, that after a tough day at school, these students could just hop in the lake and cool off. In the parking lot on the edge of campus, I changed into my board shorts with the intent of doing just that. But first, the requisite tour.
The sun beat down on us during our walkabout through a quite impressive campus and all Ian and I could talk about was how lucky these kids were with their giant lake. If it weren’t for the snow, I could easily see myself attending Wisconsin. The lively State Street directly links the main entrance of campus and the state capitol building. It is lined the entire way with a very Telegraph-like vibe (think local shops and cheap eateries). We explored most of State Street, then veered through the frat houses in search of the lake shore, reveling the entire way about how “college town” it felt. If being a college student was a life-long career, Ian and I would be its prime candidates.
Finally! We reached the park on the edge of Lake Mendota! I almost ran to the lake shore, ready to wash off an afternoon’s worth of sweat, but then. . .
What was this?! Sludge on the brown mud-sand! Green waves! I quickly learned the difference between a giant lake shore and an ocean beach. California and Hawaii have spoiled me. Wisconsin can have their sludge waters and snowy winters, I’ll save my swimming for elsewhere.
We hopped back into the car and took off for Milwaukee.
Our arrival in Milwaukee coincided with Summerfest, the world’s largest musical festival. People of all ages flock to the festival park for almost two weeks of musical performances on eleven different stages. This was where we were going to meet our host for the night, Mike. Having no idea what we were going to do in Milwaukee otherwise, Ian and I were eager to partake in the festivities.
I don’t think either of us expected the vast amounts of people at this show. The band that Mike was watching wasn’t hard to find, but pinpointing our host among the thousands of fans was. The crowd was pretty packed and almost impossible to navigate, so we gave up on the search and enjoyed the groovy stylings of Fitz and the Tantrums.
Sidenote: check this band out! Awesomely soulful and upbeat. Mike is justifiably a big fan.
When the band was done, they moved to a side table for autograph signing while Maroon 5 took the stage. It was in line for the signing that we met Mike and fellow couchsurfer Alissa from Minnesota. Not only was it easier to find Mike because of the more specific location, but also he was Filipino. Probably the only one in Wisconsin. What were the chances?
We liked Mike and Alissa right away. They were both entertaining, lively folks eager to share their lives and to learn about ours. Mike had been playing tour guide to Alissa for three days, so he was excited to show off his city to new pairs of eyes. We left Summerfest and rejoined our host at our first of many destinations that night.
Our first stop was a hookah bar and Middle Eastern restaurant, which was totally what I expected in Milwaukee (please note the sarcasm). Ian and I scarfed down hummus, pita, and the biggest falafels I’d ever seen while Mike derided the “LA-like clientele” of the restaurant. The young crowd was definitely more dressed up than I expected anyone in Wisconsin to be, and they were totally digging the club music blasting through the speakers. The four of us were quite like-minded and, though we all enjoyed the food, decided to move on before it got too Jersey Shore.
Our next stop was the coolest bar I’d ever entered. It’s called the Safe House, but you wouldn’t know that by the outside, which was just an unmarked doorway on the side of an alleyway. Mike went in first and quickly disappeared, leaving Ian, Alissa, and me outside and confused. After checking our IDs, the hostesses asked us if we knew the password. None of us did, so we were told to act like rabbits, holding up “ears” with our fingers, hopping around, and shaking our rumps. Only after the embarrassing charade did the bookcase open up, revealing a spy-themed bar.
Spy paraphernalia cluttered the walls of the maze-like hallways that linked the many rooms in Safe House. There were moving wall puzzles and false doors (a brick wall stood behind one door marked “Men”). Every now and then, lights and sirens would go off. Mike informed us that the infamous picture of Burt Reynolds hung in the women’s bathroom with a flap covering his package. If someone lifted said flap, it set off a bar-wide alarm. The biggest feature, however, were live feed TVs on which patrons can watch newbies perform the embarrassing acts for admission.
We sat at a table for a while discussing the racial make-up of Milwaukee, or the lack thereof. Save for the black workers in the back, we were the only non-white people in the establishment. Mike also discussed his disregard for the townies of the surrounding suburbs, who saw Milwaukee as a big, scary city that they usually avoided. Driving twenty minutes into town was a daily habit of Mike, but a once-in-a-blue-moon adventure for his neighbors. It must be all them liberal, colored folks crowding their bars!
Our last stop of the night was an ale house with a back patio on the Milwaukee River. We made it just before last call. This was my favorite stop of the night because we got to meet a few more people: Mike’s friend Dan a.k.a. Bone, and Dan’s friend Sarah, who had the thickest Wisconsin accent I’ve heard yet. Both were equally interesting, well-traveled people who are also part of the CouchSurfing community. That site attracts the coolest people. We all talked story for a while before finally calling it a night and heading to Mike’s giant house in the suburbs.
The next morning, after a breakfast of kimchi and fried eggs (again, totally expecting that from Wisconsin), we said good-bye to Alissawho was done with her trip and heading back to Minnesota. Mike took us on a little tour of downtown Milwaukee, which included brats at a German beer hall, a stroll along the river, and—of course—the Bronze Fonz!
The city seemed a bit empty until we drove by the lakefront. Huge crowds of families gathered in the park for that evening’s fireworks show. . . on the Third of July. Apparently, they love this holiday enough to celebrate it twice. Ian and I didn’t stay for Milwaukee show, we had plans to watch fireworks over Lake Michigan in Chicago.
We were definitely excited about Chicago, since that marked the beginning of our string of big cities destinations that continued down the East Coast. Most places between Seattle and Chicago were considered necessary stops and not desired destinations, but, as it turned out, all of those place have pleasantly surprised us. Boise, Salt Lake City, the Twin Cities, Milwaukee. . . we rolled into these places looking down our nose, only to leave staring up at them in admiration. We owe huge thanks people like Mike and Allison to show us that cool hangouts and awesome people exist in what I once considered fly-over states.