Finding meaning in the daily commute

Mansions, camels, abandoned buildings, and haunted hills. Samantha Krause searches for answers as she drives to work.
Collage over a map featuring a car, deer, road sign, camels, and more.
Illustration by Tim Burton

Every morning I start my whole life over. I climb into my little green car outside my Middleton apartment and connect my phone to the speakers with a cord that hangs on by one brave exposed wire. I choose a playlist that will make my drive to work feel important, like I’m starring in the movie of my life.

I check both ways for runners and dog walkers and cyclists before pulling out onto Century Avenue. These morning movers trickle out of Pheasant Branch Conservancy at a steady pace, pressing the pedestrian-crossing button and waiting for the neon numbers to reach zero; I am always wishing I could join them.

Century turns into County Road M and the buildings transform into fields. I follow the edge of the lake in the light, or in the dark, depending on the season. Mansions set back behind winding driveways block the water from my view, but I know it’s there; I can feel its hugeness from the road. One chance to glimpse it through the gated entrance of a country club. A fountain that shoots up even in winter, a manicured golf course. The Capitol across the water, lit up brighter than the moon. A postcard view I could draw from memory but still turn to see.

Once, I turned back to the road to find a buck waiting on the shoulder. I could see the outline of his antlers and the warm breath floating from his nostrils, small mystic clouds in the crisp fall air. Waiting for his chance.

Then, the castle-like Inspire Early Childhood Center. Out front, a pair of real-life camels graze, forever marooned in the Midwest. A friend says there are monkeys inside, along with a kangaroo, zebras and birds in an aviary. Wealthy parents drop off toddlers who grow up next to wild things.

I pass a monastery, a state park and an abandoned haunted house called Wisconsin Scaryland. In its parking lot in the summer, a man sells bonsai trees out of a van. They’re beautiful but I’ve never been able to keep plants alive, so I never stop.

Back in the city, I’m on the side of town where my father grew up, where all his stories take place. A man runs with a long-maned collie up Sanatorium Hill, where we would sled in the winter and Dad would tell us to look in the windows for ghosts of dead patients. When he was a kid, his friend Jay rode his bike down this hill and was hit by a car on the same road I am speeding down now. He says Jay had dreamt of being hit by a green car, and then it happened. He was 12 or 13.

A long, straight stretch of pavement past the edge of the airport, a thin fence between me and miles lit up by thousands of colored lights tracking dozens of possible paths. I think back to rolling along in the dark, alone in an airplane window seat, hypnotized out of reality by the colors, wanting to dissolve. I don’t remember if I was coming or going.

To my right, the concrete roofs of abandoned nuclear missile bunkers peek out from mounds beside yet another golf course. They were built in a faraway decade in which people also believed the world was ending. Now, a family of sandhill cranes nests nearby and doesn’t flinch when thunderous planes take off overhead.

Then, I am waiting for my last green arrow. I look for the man who sleeps under the awning of the urgent care center attached to the Lazy Oaf Lounge. He always seems to be packing up his things just as I turn the corner, kneeling on the gravel as he rolls up his sleeping bag.

Left, right, left, park. I turn off the headlights, turn off the car, gather my things. Take one last breath of fresh air before swiping the little black fob that lets me into a job I don’t love but don’t hate.

In all the changing lit-up signs, all the stops, slow-downs and gos on my way, I look for answers. I want them to tell me where to go next, what to do. But they can only get me so far.

I remember counting the steps to the bus stop from my parents’ house, coming up with a number that contained whole years of my life. I didn’t write it down.

Samantha Krause is a guest essayist to Madison Magazine.
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