There and back again
There's more between Milwaukee and Madison than cows. Pull over and see for yourself

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Traveling between Milwaukee and Madison this summer? Chances are you’ll spend most of the 78.7-mile journey between Lake Michigan and Lake Mendota rolling down Interstate 94, the concrete umbilical chord that connects the two cities.

To the unknowing eye, the landscape holds little more than cows, open fields and the occasional pit stop.  But the four counties between the state’s two major cities actually offer many attractions for those willing to get off the highway and explore. Whether you’re interested in history, culture, outdoor activities or shopping, you’ll find something intriguing enough to turn your routine journey into a minor adventure.

Waukesha County History

Traveling west, one of your first stops might be Old World Wisconsin, located just south of the Waukesha County community of Eagle. Operated by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Old World is a trip back to 19th-century Wisconsin’s farms, villages and agrarian culture. Interpreters recreate the daily life of planters, craftsmen and other residents of Crossroads Village, the attraction’s fictional community. Historic buildings, traditional animal breeds, heirloom gardens and other authentic features complete the picture.

A bit farther down the road in Genesee Depot, Ten Chimneys, the fabled summer retreat of Broadway legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, recreates a more contemporary slice of history.

Old World Wisconsin and Ten Chimneys provide a new dimension to “lake country,” otherwise known for its contemporary recreational activities, such as golf and boating. And you never know – you just might learn something new.

The road more arduously traveled

Want to bypass the interstate entirely? Fill your water bottle, strap on your helmet and take the Glacial-Drumlin Trail, a 52-mile bicycle route that crosses over often well-graded former railroad beds. The path begins at 810 W. College Ave. in Waukesha and runs south of the interstate to 220 S. Main St. in the Dane County community of Cottage Grove. Along the way, it passes through 12 southern Wisconsin communities, each with a uniquely interesting history.

The New Berlin Trail at the east end connects the Glacial Drumlin Trail to the city of the same name, while connections to the Capital City Trail in the west take riders directly into downtown Madison. For maps and more information, go to www.glacialdrumlin.com.

Shop ’til you drop

Everyone likes a bargain, especially deals that involve designer names. Johnson Creek Premium Outlets, located adjacent the interstate at the Johnson Creek exit, offers the best of both worlds.

Familiar names like Aeropostale, Ann Taylor, Calvin Klein, Eddie Bauer and Tommy Hilfiger loom large among the close to 50 factory outlet stores that line the mall. The bargains are always ripe, and the annual Labor Day sale from Aug. 31 to Sept. 3 will drop the prices on your favorite brands even lower. Stores are generally open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Monday through Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 7p.m. on Sunday.

So the next time you’re driving past, you might consider stocking up early for the holidays ahead.  Beat the crowds and the frigid weather.

All singing, all dancing, all eating

Those who consider the term “dinner theater” a poor example of both haven’t visited The Fireside Theater. Located in the Jefferson County community of Fort Atkinson, the Fireside mixes both elements successfully, while adding a healthy dose of shopping to the mix. The musical theatre fare is light by design, the food flavorful and filling, and the accompanying shopping is a lot of fun.

The summer schedule includes an encore performance of “The Rock and the Rabbi” (July 12-Aug. 12), which tells the tale of how the fisherman Simon became Peter, the “rock” on which Jesus – he’s the titular rabbi – would build his church. The story is set to a contemporary musical score. Following closely on Jesus’ heels is the ever popular “Hello Dolly” (Aug. 23–Oct. 21) and “Scrooge the Musical” (Oct. 25-Dec. 23.)

Get legendary

The Jefferson County community of Lake Mills calls itself “legendary” largely because of its connections to Aztalan State Park, site of some unusual signs of early Native American habitation (see sidebar). Legend has it that stone pyramids found at the bottom of the 1,371-acre Rock Lake, around which the town circles, were alters for sacrifices to the gods during an unseasonably long drought centuries ago – and that the lake itself was the gods’ answer.

Regardless of the past, the community bustles with current activity, and the lake draws a variety of watercraft during the summer. Lake Mills, which bumps up against the Glacial Drumlin Trail, is home to Ephraim Faience Pottery, which produces beautiful collectables in the Arts and Craft Revival style, and Tyranena Brewing Co., one of the state’s more interesting craft breweries.

Brewer Rob Larson is best known for his slightly outrageous “Brewers Gone Wild,” described as a “series of big, bold, ballsy beers” that includes such titles as HopWhore India Pale and Ale and Shaggin’ in the Wood Bourbon Barrel-Aged Scotch Ale. (The brewery has a nice tasting room, too.)

The Lake Mills Art Festival, a juried show that fills the community’s Commons Park, is scheduled this year for July 21.

For something completely different, check out Aztalan Racing, the motorcross track next to the wayside on the south side of the highway and visible from Interstate 94. The track is home to Aztalan Cycle Club and open to members only. But it provides some exciting visuals to passing motorists during races. Details at www.aztalanmx.com.

A different kind of wheel tour

Biking fans already have a soft spot for Trek Bicycles, Lance Armstrong’s brand of choice. But few know they can tour the factory in Waterloo, just north of Lake Mills, and see how their favorite mode of transportation is made.

The Trek manufacturing facility, located at 801 Madison St., offers hour-long wheelchair accessible tours at 10 a.m. each Wednesday. Groups of 10 or more need to register at least five days in advance by calling (920) 478-2191, ext. 12049. In addition to the manufacturing facility, the tour covers the historic Trek collection in the world headquarters’ atrium and a walk through the design department.

Interested in antique tractors? (Well, of course you are.) Waterloo also is the home of Wilkes Classic Tractors, a family-owned dealership with a collection of between 100 and 150 hard-to-find tractors, as well as tractor parts, toys, signage and peripherals. Recent acquisitions include an Oliver 2150 FWD and a Cockshutt 1800 Standard Diesel. For more information, go to www.wilkesclassictractors.com.

Up, up and away

One of the best ways to see southern Wisconsin, especially during its verdant summer months, is from aloft. Token Creek Balloons, located in the eastern Dane County community of Token Creek, is happy to take you there.

Now in its 25th year of operation, Token Creek, affiliated with A Great American Balloon Company LLC, offers a variety of balloon rides, always at dawn or dusk, when the winds are calmest. In a hot air balloon, you ride with the wind, and your only sense of motion comes from visual cues. Close your eyes and you’ll feel the sensation of standing still. Open them and you’ll see the ground passing languidly beneath you.

Far away from the rushing interstate traffic, both physically and figuratively, ballooning may be the best way to travel. Visit http://www.wedofly.comand prepare to sail away.

A slice of theatrical history

Theater fans know that besides Broadway, one of the most significant sites in American theater can be found in Genesee Depot. Ten Chimneys, where construction began in 1915, was the summer home of actors Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, the toast Broadway from the 1930s until their retirement in 1960. The residence became a favorite getaway and sometime theatrical workshop for the Lunts and other theatrical luminaries, including Helen Hayes, Laurence Olivier, Carol Channing and especially out entertainer and playwright Noel Coward. He is said to have written his play “Design for Living” for and about his relationship with the Lunts.

Saved from the wrecking ball in 1996 and lovingly restored by the late Joe Garton, a former Madison restaurateur, the Waukesha County property has become a major tourism destination for fans and acting students and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Public tours are offered daily from May 26 to Nov. 10. The Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship Program offers a weeklong master class each July to eight to ten outstanding regional theater actors. This year’s master class will be taught by musical theater star Joel Grey, and the student list includes the Milwaukee Rep’s Sarah Litzsinger.

More details at www.tenchimneys.org.

Walk like a Mississippian

Fans of ancient history will enjoy Aztalan State Park, site of one of the country’s best-preserved examples of a unique Native American culture. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Aztalan was the site of a thriving community that historians refer to as the Middle Mississippian Tradition, which existed from the 10th to the 13th century.

The community, characterized by massive platform earthworks that were used for religious as well as social purposes, was an important stop on the trading route between the Great Lakes and the Gulf coast.

Three original platform mounds remain in the 172-acre Jefferson County state park. The stockade walls that once protected the community have been reconstructed.

The name Aztalan, originally used by Mexico’s Aztec people to describe a land in the north from which they believed they originated, was given to the ancient settlement because of the similarities between the earthworks and the design of Aztec temples. The park offers audio tours and an interpretive museum operated by the Aztalan-Lake Mills Historical Society just north of the park. Included on the tour are two pioneer churches and other 19th-century buildings.

Details at dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks.

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