Madison Monday: The view of the valley

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Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them. . .a place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.

Inspired by this quote from Joan Didion sent to me by a friend, I’ve set out to write more intentionally about Madison as a scenic place. Scenic not in the sense of the most beautiful places or views, as last week my topic was the power plant stacks, a view that not everyone would consider particularly scenic. But to write some about what Madison looks like, which is of course, connected to the kind of place Madison is. I’ve covered the streets, the windows and the stacks so far. This week, the valley.

Madison postcardMadison, in case you had not noticed, is in a valley. I say this as someone who has at times taken the beauty of a valley for granted. When I had been in Madison only a short while, a friend came to visit and declared, “It’s like being in the fjords in Norway,” having had direct experience of such things. Perhaps he compared Madison to Norway because he felt the need to put a good face on the fact that I was living in a small town in rural Indiana. Many people who don’t live in small towns in rural Indiana, and even some of us who do, sometimes feel a good face is necessary to cover for all the things we’re missing.

But maybe my friend was just truly struck by the beauty of our valley. This is the explanation I choose to believe. I lean towards this latter explanation because I know that it is often difficult to perceive the beauty of familiar landscapes. I’ve never been to Norway or seen a fjord, but I bet the people there live their whole lives think nothing of it, and wonder why people travel across the world just to see the view they take for granted.

What is beautiful about a valley? For me, it’s the way the valley makes things both visible and invisible. The valley is what gives us the view of Madison snuggled in against the river and the hill as you’re driving down the road across the river in Milton. The valley makes all of Madison visible, laid out before you like a town in miniature. But it also makes Madison invisible, as you have no idea that Madison is there, waiting for you, until you turn the bend and head down the steep hill. Because Madison is in a valley, it doesn’t march towards you at a distance on the horizon. It appears magically out of nowhere.

The valley plays with distances, making things that are far seem close. When I first began to spend time in my husband’s house in downtown Madison, I fell in love with the view in his bathroom mirror. At a certain angle, you could see the northern side of the valley reflected there–a bright green from the trees in summer or sometimes the white face of snow in winter. It was as if the landscape extended inside the house.

Madison river valleyFrom the bathroom mirror in our house now, I can see the hills on the southern side of the valley. I can see Kentucky, which is a great comfort to a person who spent the first eighteen years of her life in that state and still considers it a home. As I brush my teeth in the morning, the view from the mirror reminds me that I have not really traveled that far from where I was born, and for me, that’s a good thing to know.

The valley turns the river into our very own lake. The river bends here at Madison, and you know it’s come from somewhere up river and that it’s headed somewhere down river. But you can’t see where those places are, cut off as they are by the hills. You can convince yourself that right here, the river is just ours. It is not just passing by. It belongs to us.

Looking down on the valley from above seems to suggest infinity, as if the whole world is made of nothing more than these kind of rolling hills and rivers. Tucked down inside the valley, you can believe that the world ends at the top of the hill, that this little space is all there is. That nothing from the outside world can truly matter that much to us.

Living in this river valley, you might start to feel that here, the earth has folded in upon itself in mysterious and magical ways. Or perhaps that we are all being carefully held in a gently cupped hand. Perhaps we are.


  1. Kathy Rohlfing says

    I left Madison when I was three years old. All my life I remembered the beauty of the river valley here, and how it was more beautiful, in a sheltering way, than any other I had seen.
    I remembered for thirty years, and then I moved back.

  2. Jane Vonderheide says

    Like you said, it is so easy for us to stop seeing the place where we live. I have found that if I just look UP, and beyond the general business of being a human being doing human being stuff, I see the natural beauty of where I am and where my life is centered. There is beauty from every vantage point. A particularly lovely spot to look up is from Lorenz Park on North East Street where you are surrounded by hills. Also, the west end of the riverfront offers a lovely 360 degree view. I love looking down all of the north/south streets at the river, and the view from Kathy’s house is one of the best!
    Also Robyn I was glad you mentioned your views from the bathroom window. I see rooftops looking southwest across downtown and it reminds me of paintings by Van Gogh and others. I see a combination of humanity and it’s place in the world.
    I appreciate your eye for the beautiful and your ability to express it in words.

    • Thanks so much, Jane. I’ll have to check out Lorenz Park. I don’t even know where that is, but it won’t be hard to find in Madison. Have you ever been tempted to paint some Madison landscapes?

  3. Love how you gave me an even deeper appreciation. I don’t live in Madison any longer but when I drive there to visit I come from Kentucky and it always thrills me when I turn that bend and Madison is suddenly there. Your observations encourage me to be observant. Well done.

    • Thanks, Jill. That view of Madison from the Kentucky side is just such a treat, especially in winter when you can see through the trees more easily. And if there’s ever enough snow again, it’s a lovely sight.

  4. Belinda Knoblock says

    I remember the first time I visited Madison about 23 years ago. We went down a steep hill on the Kentucky to get there and back up a steep hill on the other side of the river. I, being from West Virginia, where if you go up a hill there is another side to go back down, was very puzzled about the lay of the land here. I remember asking someone where it was that you went over the other side of the hill.

  5. John Robert Krause says

    Your write up sounds beautifully romantic. I love old movies, and that is how I discovered Madison. I am a single guy, from California, born in the San Francisco Bay Area, lived there for 30 years, then, the last 24 years, here in Sothern California. Needless to say, I am used to all kinds of lifestyles, cultures, people with various backgrounds. Having little family in existence, and being a hopeless romantic myself, I am, more than strongly considering buying a house/condo, to call Madison my home. I haven’t even visited yet. I am, however, concerned about how I would be accepted by the community there; a young, single, 55 year old “gay” man, ex-hair stylist from Marina Del Rey, CA (Los Angeles). I discovered a bit of negative comments on other sites, regarding how Madison is redneck country, and very conservative, and hateful towards anyone different than themselves. I have a problem fully believing that, just based on the passion that I see being exuded from Madison’s townspeople, not to mention, that most of the town, is on the National Historic Registry. I guess that I want to feel comfortable with my potential choice to move there. I love history, and heritage. I myself, helped to petition for my neighborhood in Fresno, CA, to be included on the national and local historic registry. Anyhow, I am currently making plans for my first visit to Madison, in May. I need to get a true feel for the area. Yes, I realize that it would be a HUGE adjustment, but I seem to be truly motivated by natural beauty. Please feel free to share with me, any and all thoughts you may have. I am just looking to quell my concerns, and not to think-to-much, about negative comments, that are loged on various sites. Thanks, John

    • John, thanks for reading and posting. I can speak for myself and all my friends in saying we’d love to have you in Madison. We extend open arms to anyone who appreciates everything we’ve got here, and it sounds like you’re just that kind of person. Obviously, every place has good people and people who are less than good. Madison is no different. I won’t lie and tell you that there have never been incidents of harassment or ugliness. You wouldn’t be the only single, gay man living in town, either. If you send me an e-mail via the contact form on this page, I can put you in touch with other folks who could answer your questions, too, so you wouldn’t just have my perspective.

      • John Robert Krause says

        Hi Robyn!
        Thanks for getting back to me.
        Well…you’re making me feel more hopeful, about the prospect of moving to Madison.
        So much so, that I want to get on a plane, in the next two or three weeks, to see the town, and the condo at West Main Street. So…if you could put me in touch with those folks, that would be great! Let me know if you received my email info.


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