Sunday, January 24, 2010

USA trip Part 2 of 4 - Madison, WI

First off, apologies for the long delay in getting out Part 2, but such are the constraints of the work week. Back to the story...we left Chicago around 11 am on a bus from O'Hare airport to Memorial Union University of Wisconsin, Madison. The bus trip was fairly comfortable and took us through the snow-covered towns of Rockford, South Benoit and Janesville en route to Madison in about 3 hours. Along the way, I had called Enterprise and arranged for them to pick us up at the Memorial Union bus stop so we got picked up there and went to their rental office ~ 20 mins away to pick up and sign for our rental car. Thus began my first-ever experience of driving in extreme snow conditions.

I was clearly nervous, despite having rented a full-size car with traction control and GPS. So, we headed out slowly from the Enterprise rental office towards my sister's place. It was also the first time I had ever used a GPS device while driving so it took me a little while to get adjusted to the system's prompts (I always feel more comfortable when I know the whole route instead of just the next turn), and I slowly developed more trust in the system's directional accuracy. We stopped by a Target first to pick up some nibbles before heading over to my sister's apartment.

It was simply wonderful to meet my sister, the baby (see right!), and my mother since the last time I had seen them was at my wedding. We were quite tired and hungry so we had lunch (mum's food...yay!) immediately before sitting around and chatting with them and my sister's mother-in-law (yes, there were a lot of people who wanted to see the baby! ;-)) Later in the evening, my brother-in-law returned from work and took us for a short ride to see some outdoor Christmas lighting. It was beautiful stuff, but I was a little uncomfortable because it was so darn cold outside!!! Once we got back home, we decided to pack some dinner that my mother had made and head out to check in to our hotel. It was just a short 5 min drive to our hotel, but it was quite exciting and challenging at night in snowy conditions!

Once we checked into our room, we were simply exhausted. We just had dinner, while watching our favorite TV channel du jour, the Weather Channel, and then just called it a day. The next day, we wanted to go and see Cave of the Mounds, fascinating limestone caves that we had previously read about on the Internet. So, we left our hotel after breakfast, armed with the security of the GPS in our car, to make the ~ 25 mile trip to Blue Mounds, WI. The route suggested by the GPS was completely different to the one I had got from the customer service staff at the Cave when I had called ahead of our trip. And because the GPS route was taking us through some ultra-rural parts of WI, I was a little nervous that we may get lost in the middle of nowhere! However, I decided to trust the GPS because it had the correct final destination and was indicating the correct travel time required (~ 30 mins). After about 20 mins of driving along various snow-covered county roads, we finally hit the freeway (Route 151/18)! And then it was just 5 mins till we got to the caves! Phew!

Since there were no scheduled visitor tours at that time, we had pre-arranged to join a group of schoolchildren on their tour of the caves. Needless to say, there was a lot of commotion during our tour, thanks to restless, playful kids! However, the caves themselves were spectacular! We hiked through a section of winding limestone caves, enjoying underground beds of water, stalagmites and stalactites along the way.

After our tour, we watched a short video about the history and significance of the caves. Apparently, they were found by accident while miners were blasting off limestone in 1939. You can read more about the caves on their website. Then, we were drove back to my sister's place for lunch, and spent the afternoon just hanging out with family and the cute baby. That evening, when my brother-in-law returned from work, he informed us that there was going to be a major snowstorm the following day (the 24th) and so we ought to leave early for Chicago to catch our flights. My sister and the baby were flying to Singapore with my mother for a vacation, and the Wife and I were also flying to Nashville a few hours later on the 25th. So, we decided to leave Madison in the afternoon of the 24th, spend the night at a Chicago airport hotel (the same one we had previously been in!) and catch our respective flights in the morning. It turned out that we missed the brunt of the snowstorm, but we did experience one for a brief period. Words cannot adequately describe the feeling, so there's a short video clip at the end of this post taken at the entrance of our hotel, the night of the 24th.

Driving back to the hotel that evening from my sister's place was a real challenge. I had to fill up gas as well along the way, and nearly froze as the snow was coming down sideways! The 5 min ride to the hotel took 20 mins that night and we went to bed hoping we would be able to make it safely to Chicago the following day. The next morning we had breakfast, then went to pick up my mother who travelled by bus with us to Chicago while my sister, the baby, brother-in-law, and his mother travelled by car. Then, we went to return our rental car at Enterprise, but it took us a good 10 mins in the freezing snow to figure out where to drop off the keys since the office was closed and the drop-off box was not obvious! We took a taxi back to the hotel, packed up all our things and left for the Memorial Union bus stop to hop on the return bus ride to Chicago.

Thankfully, all went well, and we reached Chicago that evening, checked into our hotel, had dinner and slept. We had made it Chicago safely, now our flights just had to be on time the next morning! And they were! We went to the airport first thing in the morning to help my sister, the baby and my mother check in and bade them farewell. Then, we headed back to the hotel to have some breakfast before packing our bags and returning to the airport for our flight to Nashville. At the airport, we met with the Wife's mother's cousins and their family for a brief chat. I was a little surprised at the massive crowds at the airport on Christmas day, so we had to say goodbye to them soon to get through the security lines but at least everything went smoothly and we were soon on our way to Music City USA!

You can see the complete pictures of our Madison trip here.

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