A Stranger in the Hometown

Now that summer is winding down I’m finally making preparations to decamp Madison, where I returned to in May intending to remain for a only week or two. As it happened, I was asked by my editor to poke around the life of a guy who’d recently hung himself in the jail here and ended up writing a 3,100-word feature on the guy’s bizarre legal odyssey.

Then the editor left the paper and I was asked to assist in filling the news hole while they searched for his replacement. Nearly an entire summer later, the new news editor has a start date, leaving me with just one more week of writing commitments until late fall when I have cover story due.

Of course I’m grateful for the opportunity and deeply flattered that of all the writers in their stable it was me who they asked to assist them.

Being in Madison these last couple of months has reaffirmed my ambivalence for the place. It’s a far different city than the one I grew up in. Gone is the color and flavor and counter-cultural flair it was once known for. My favorite neighborhoods and areas are increasingly gentrified. Now, on Willy Street, once largely peopled by eccentrics, a 16 o.z. cup of coffee is almost three bucks. The city is full of pierced and tattooed pretenders on bicycles who take great pains to show just how little they care. It’s not enough to be seen. Everyone wants to be noticed.

The city’s skyline is host to an array of modern condo complexes built to accommodate the influx of young professionals with a lust for expensive drinks and pretentious dishes at restaurants that try just a little too hard. Some spots are owned by young party-minded folk with self-destructive tendencies, similar to some of the generation of restuaranteurs who came before them. Basking in their moment, a young pair who owns a popular sandwich joint hot-knifed rock cocaine after hours atop their baking oven, in front of employees. But really it’s not as shocking as it sounds. It’s a fairly routine disaster.

In Madison it’s easy to be a rock star, to remain twenty-one forever. It’s easy to make friends and ingratiate yourself into one scene or another when you live for the party, whooping it up each night, getting so fucked up on liquor and drugs that blacking out is proof-proper of a good night had. Some fall of quick. Others crash and burn slowly. The more enduring ones might outgrow it, though by then the damage is usually done. In Madison, where everyone rubs elbows, secrets have a short shelf life and bad reputations are impossible to shake. What’s done is done and little will fix it. Word always gets around. I know because I’ve been there. I’m among the survivors.

For me the party life was an easy way of overcoming the challenges of Asperger’s, or so said one therapist and then another. That constant sense of feeling like an outsider, awkward and impersonal, and never truly connecting with people was easily assuaged on a bar stool. In college I became seduced by the thrill of chasing down and piecing together stories, an activity better suited to my restless and introverted nature than partying. Considering the countless crummy decisions I’ve made in my life, I find it no less than amazing to see my byline today than I did the day it first appeared in a newspaper. Each time it feels like a little miracle when compared with the lives of many I once ran with. To this day it breaks my heart to see the years of bad decisions exacting their toll in hard, painful ways.

In a city known for its parties, its binge drinking, its cavalier attitudes toward drugs, where so much of civic life centers around happy hours and tailgates, it’s no wonder Madison has a disproportionate population of highly intelligent underachievers.

Certainly there is a lot to love about Madison. Its lakes and nature preserves. Its outdoor cafes and myriad events. All of that creative energy, untapped because opportunities here are few. But after all these years I still feel like a stranger, an outsider in my hometown. Many solo travelers express similar feelings toward their homes, sharing a collective sense of outsiderness, which some say primes us for the isolation that comes with traipsing off into unfamiliar places. Travel writer Lauren Quinn sums it up like this:

People that perpetually feel like outsiders are more comfortable [traveling alone]. They’re more adaptable, not turned off by lack of familiarity and cultural anchor points, but enlivened by it… We have nothing to cling to, no one to help us find the hotel or discern the menu or listen to our worries. Like a meditation, we are forced out of the clatter and into the here and now, the exactitude of the present.

So the time has come to continue the adventure, to again escape the clatter of Madison for an uncertain future of seizing opportunities as they come or as I can create them. Madison is changing, yet so much remains unchanged. The dramas and disasters are all the same, but the faces are becoming older, more weathered and resigned to life in a stupor. I’m a product of that culture, but always knew I wanted more. Unfortunately it took a heroin overdose in 2000 for me to pursue my more meaningful ambitions. Back then the only way myself and so many others seemed able to carve out a different kind of life was to escape the madness all together, to flee the Mad City.

Traveling isn’t always as glorious as it sounds. Nearly every travel blogger will agree that travel writing means consigning oneself to a pauper’s existence, particularly if you’re traveling stateside where the dollar isn’t worth a turd. As a younger traveler I sold cold beers on Phish tour, which brought in enough to eat, drink and get to the next show. In later years I’d travel on pennies until I had barely enough loot to make it home. More recently I’d work my butt off to save money to travel on. Now I’m attempting to raise funds while traveling by selling mini-donuts at festivals around the country.

Donut balls to be exact.

My donut stand is nearly complete. My parts and inventory have been shipped. In early August I’ll work my first festival.

The hope is that it’ll provide all things… indefinite travel, decent money, the chance to be my own boss while offering plenty of time to write – and things to write about. And, if I’m really lucky, it’ll make Madison a place I visit rather than one I call home.

At 33, I’m escaping the madness once again.



  1. Vicky says:

    Nate… we will miss you.. from a 34yr old who never left, but sees every thing you wrote about happening every day!!

  2. Jonah West says:

    Hey Nathan, great article! Well written and intriguing as usual, I like your style. Being an almost lifelong resident of the mad town I can sympathize with many of your points. Madison has changed a lot, in some ways for the worse and some ways for the better. Perhaps its the destiny of any medium sized city as it grows and expands. Or perhaps it’s the attitude of society in general that’s changing. I’ve had a similar feeling of outsiderness in many cities I’ve lived in or visited and I often wonder if it’s just me who’s making me out to be an outsider? Because we are all after all the creators of our own subjective experience whether influenced by objective events or not. We all create our own realities. But back to the society changing bit. We are all changing all the time. Cities are growing everywhere and everyone is doing different things. Evolution is busily underway and we are it’s puppets.I think I stayed in Madison because familiarity was nice. Knowing what to do and where to go and predictability of things was nice. Up to a point. There’s a fine line between that being what I like and that being what I hate with a passion. The grass is always greener on the other side. I always want change only in so far as it provides a distraction from the monotony of day to day life. I’m ultimately scared of real change because I don’t know who or what’s on the other side of that wall.That being said, I recently decided I was going to do something about wanting real change and moved to Boulder, CO. I moved June 30th with my girlfriend and cat. We’ve been here for 3 weeks so we’re fresh off the boat.So far it still feels like a dream most of the time. In a sense not real like I’m going to wake up any moment now back in my bed in Madison. It’s exciting though. This is a beautiful place. I do have a strong feeling of being an outsider here but it doesn’t bother me that much. It’s sort of like the fear I get when speaking publicly. All I have to do is speak a sentence or two, establish a connection, any connection with the audience, and my fear is gone. That’s what it feels like here. I just have to find my niche and then I’ll be fine.I don’t know if the grass will be any greener here. I miss Madison already even though the weather is far better in Boulder and there’s beautiful mountains all around just waiting for an adventure. I’m 32 and am still “trying to figure it all out”. Whatever that means. I think the only figuring it all out there is is that I’m going to die. And all that matters between now and then is that I pay attention to everything that I can. My experience of life.Anyway, great article man. I really enjoy your style and I’m really interested on your take on things. Especially when they relate to Wisconsin which I know very well.Take care,- Jonah

  3. nathan says:

    Thanks for the compliment! Madison is a nice place, but lacks opportunity. It’ll always be home to me, but I’ll always miss how it used to be before being named Best place to live in the late 90s… I think you’ll come to love Colorado. If I settle anywhere I hope it’s there. Denver I thought was a close approximation to the better parts of Madison. Even the rural areas have a level of sophistication unlike that you find in most states. Something about that mountain air. After living in Philly I certainly have a deeper appreciation for Madison. I disliked Philly from the moment I arrived. The things I disliked were too numerous to ignore. I’ve always been a transient at heart so I think for me it’s purely a matter wanting to move from one experience to the next. Though I disliked Philly, I in no way regret living there for three years. I admire you for uprooting to far away place. It’s scary and exciting, but well worth it. Madison will always be here to welcome back its ex-pats with open arms.

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