Friday afternoon, we were headed southeast on I-90, midway between La Crosse and Madison, when we passed a tractor trailer parked in a field. “TRUMP” was painted on the side in big, bold letters. But somebody had taken spray paint and covered that up with bigger, bolder letters that spelled “LOSER.”
That was the moment we fell in love with Wisconsin.
Whoops, Platte is Nowhere Near the Interstate
Thursday evening, we said goodbye to our houseguests and hit the road for the first leg of our trip to Wisconsin. Tara had booked us a hotel room in Platte, ostensibly three hours from home, believing it was right off the interstate.
It was not right off the interstate.
Platte, it turns out, was 24 miles south of the interstate—a stretch of two-lane country road we had to navigate after dark, with so many bugs splattering against the windshield it sounded like it was raining. Needless to say, she felt bad. But it was the first night of an exciting adventure, so no big deal!
Friday morning we were up early, just in time to catch a beautiful sunrise.
Platte isn’t much more than a wide spot in the road, but it does have pretty skies. And surprisingly good breakfast sandwiches at the Dakota Food and Fuel gas station/convenient mart. There’s a pro tip if you ever find yourself passing through.
We were back on the interstate by 6:30 a.m. South Dakota and Minnesota flew by in a blur. We crossed the Mississippi River into Wisconsin early Friday afternoon and immediately marveled over the change in scenery. Where the trip had thus far been flat fields and prairies, Wisconsin is much greener and boasts large stands of trees everywhere.
We reached Madison around 3:30 and checked into our hotel. It was quite the swanky place, located just a stone’s throw from the Capital. We definitely splurged, because we wanted to stay in the heart of downtown so we could explore the area on foot. This turned out to be a wise decision given all the walking we did.
After we got settled in, we proceeded on foot to The Old Fashioned, so I could check off three items on my Wisconsin Bucket List: a Friday fish fry, a Brandy Old Fashioned, and fried cheese curds. All are quintessential Wisconsin experiences. And all delivered.
Old Fashioneds are my go-to cocktail, but I’d only ever had them with whiskey. In Wisconsin, they use brandy, and then top it with a “wash”—a splash of soda. You can order it “sweet” (lemon-lime soda, such as Sprite or 7-Up) or “sour” (grapefruit soda like Squirt, or sour mix). I tried both and prefer the sour. I enjoyed the unofficial state cocktail so much, this was the first of many on my trip. I don’t know if I can ever go back to whiskey again.
Don’t even get me started on the incredible fish (I had a combination of walleye, cod, and perch) or those cheese curds. The food on this entire trip was amazing. We just don’t have this kind of culinary scene in Rapid City.
Plan B for Baraboo
Saturday morning, we were up bright and early to hit the Dane County Farmers’ Market. The sheer size and scope of the market floored us. Vendors set up tents along Capital Square, which means they line the sidewalk on all four sides of the Capital (and spill out into the surrounding streets). It took us 40 minutes just to make a single loop. The volume of fresh produce, baked goods, meats, cheeses, jams, and more is mind-boggling. By far the biggest and most impressive farmers market I’ve ever seen.
The Raging Grannies are a troupe of older ladies who were serenading market-goers with protest songs. Madison is super liberal, which was so refreshing! Living in a red state with a governor hell-bent on overturning the will of the people gets real old. You can’t walk more than a couple of blocks in Madison without encountering a pride flag, BLM sign, or peace activist. It filled my liberal heart with joy.
After a breakfast of market goodies on the Capital lawn—bread, strawberries, beef sticks, and cheese curds—we drove north to explore Devil’s Lake State Park. This was a mistake, because it was noon on a Saturday during a holiday weekend. Everybody was exploring Devil’s Lake State Park. Fortunately, if there’s one thing Team MarTar is good at, it’s coming up with plan Bs. Literally, in this case: we decided to check out Baraboo in the Wisconsin Dells, after a quick stop along the Ice Age Trail.
Baraboo is the birthplace of the Ringling Brothers Circus and home to the Circus World Museum. It looked like a fun stop, but we were thirsty, so we ducked into the Driftless Glen Distillery instead for a couple of cocktails and a delicious salad.
While there, we made friends with a couple from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Ended up chatting them up for over an hour. They are very passionate about where they live and filled our heads with stories of life in the Badger State. Sadly, we didn’t even catch their names.
Our next stop was Wollersheim Winery & Distillery in Prairie Du Sac. Built in the 1840s, the place is absolutely beautiful, set on a hillside overlooking the Wisconsin River. There’s even a cave to explore. We did a wine tasting and then tried a cocktail from the distillery. I had no idea Wisconsin even knew how to grow grapes! Suffice it to say, we did not leave empty-handed.
By now, a light rain was falling and it had been a long day, so we drove back to Madison. There, we strolled down State Street, a pedestrian zone chock full of restaurants, bars, and shops—everything from a Target and Raising Cane’s to eateries selling ramen and pizza and dumplings. We grabbed a table at a college bar, ordered up brats (if you don’t eat a brat in Wisconsin, can you say you were even in Wisconsin?), then walked back to our room just in time to catch the setting sun glinting off the Capital.
Oh, Madison. You pretty little thing, you.
So far, it had been a wonderful trip full of adventure and fun…and we still had two full days. I’ll post the next part in a day or two, because this is already getting pretty long—and our drive home practically deserves its own entry thanks to the harrowing storm we encountered in Sioux Falls.
Spoiler alert: we survived. But for a few minutes there, I had my doubts!
What do you think of Wisconsin so far? Ever have a Brandy Old Fashioned? How about a Friday Fish Fry?