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In Madison, Wis., the King of Quirks

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 1, 2005; Page P01

The magazines and trade associations that rank cities for one thing or another constantly mention Madison, Wis. A visitors bureau handout lists 65 accolades from recent years, including "Best Places to Live in America" (Money magazine), "Best Walking Cities" (Prevention) and "Best College Sports Town" (Sports Illustrated).

According to America's list makers, Madison is also one of the friendliest, best-designed, healthiest, most literate, best-wired little cities in the country, with the best biking, canoeing and hotel rooms under $125.

Public radio host Michael Feldman gets a rooftop view of Madison, Wis., and the State Capitol from Monona Terrace. (Andy Manis For The Washington Post)

It takes Michael Feldman, who hosts the public radio show "Whad'Ya Know?" from Madison's convention center, to put the boosterism into perspective.

"If you don't factor in the weather, Madison is number one for everything," says Feldman. "If you do consider weather, it's 159th."

My thoughts on first seeing Madison on a warm spring day: It's like an idealized New England town designed in Berkeley, Calif. The University of Wisconsin campus has stately buildings with wide green spaces for student lounging, and the downtown begins with a leafy square, from which streets lined with tidy old buildings branch off. And it's not one of those fakey old downtowns. It's a real downtown, where you can buy not only presents but also everyday items, like a notebook or ball of twine.

Feldman, whose humor/quiz show is broadcast over more than 300 stations nationwide, provides a bird's-eye view of the area that creates another more vivid mental picture.

"From the air, it looks like a giant sinus cavity," he says, "with Madison as the septum."

During the tour through Madison that Feldman agrees to squire, I never get an aerial view. But any map will show you he's right.

Taking the sinus cavity perspective, the campus sprawls just above the bridge of a large nose. The lively downtown stretches down an isthmus -- a nose-shape strip with shops, restaurants and a spiffy performing arts center in the midst of a $200 million expansion.

The State Capitol is in the nostrils area. Drainage, namely Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, sit on either side of the nose.

I meet Feldman in the Capitol rotunda. Easily as impressive as the U.S. Capitol, which served as its model, the Wisconsin version looks brighter and better, probably because of the $145 million renovation project completed a few years ago.

On this day, blind people representing various organizations are spread in a circle at tables beneath the Capitol dome. I approach Ralph Barten of Ladysmith, Wis., who is representing the Wisconsin Coalition of Blind Hunters. Sure, people who are blind can hunt in Wisconsin, Barten tells me. In fact, he says, last year the state legalized the use of laser pointers on guns and bows for blind hunters.

What you do is take a sighted companion, who describes where the animal is, and you shoot it. With a laser, it's a lot easier for the sighted person to know when you've got your shot lined up right.

"Some companions just say, 'There's a deer to the right,' " says Barten. "But good companions can make it really exciting, with great descriptions of what's happening."

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