I just got back from a work trip to Madison. I haven't traveled anywhere by myself in at least a few years - not to mention I haven't stepped foot in Wisconsin since we crossed the border for the last time with a moving truck early last summer. On first travel day, I paced around the house with nervous excitement. Marissa would return home from her job and take me straight to the train station.
Miles waited beside me. My nervous excitement rubbed off on him too. He grabbed his little backpack and stuffed it full with a few toys.
Goodbyes were brief. I kissed Marissa through the car window and gave Miles a quick thumbs up. My train was already lurching to a stop at the platform. The official trip began.
It's been so long since I traveled anywhere by myself. Being a work trip, I felt obligated to act as outwardly cool as possible, as if I ride trains and busses and stay in hotels by myself all the time. But who was I kidding? I was excited for an adventure.
The train ride to downtown was brief. As soon as the doors opened, my legs exploded into a fast walk heading east down Jackson. I glanced at my watch every few blocks.
I made it to my favorite food hall with plenty of time to spare. I would have ample time to make it back to the station, find my bus, and maybe eat my lunch while I waited.
I made my way back to the station. I slumped into a wooden pew and wiped the rain drops from my glasses. I contently ate my turkey and duck liver sandwich, stealing side glances of the beautiful, soaring ceiling and walls of Union Station's grand hall.
A coach bus picked me up on a side street outside the station, and there ended the exciting part of the commute. No more barreling train cars, automatic metal doors, and beautiful stations. The final, longest leg of the journey took the form of a humble bus ride into Wisconsin. The last time I road one of these may have been on a church missions trip. In and out of a nap with my head rested on the windowsill, the bus finally arrived in Madison. I walked toward the center of the capitol down state street. Legs pumping uphill carrying my heavy backpack and chest heaving the muggy air, I shed my zip-up long before completing the brisk hike through this unfamiliar part of the city. My phone buzzed in my pocket - my team was already making dinner plans, and that sounded good.
I found my team gathered in the hotel lobby. Maybe this is unique to remote work life, but the experience of meeting zoom friends in person feels totally surreal. After exchanging hugs, we stood there for a minute commenting on how big, small, short, and tall everyone was compared to our expectations. Each time one of my teammates turned their head, I found myself studying the side of their head - a view that was totally new to me. People look and feel so different on a zoom call.
We had plenty to talk about over dinner. Afterwards I dropped off my backpack in the hotel and went on a long walk around Madison. I didn't make any premeditated plans, but unsurprisingly I ended up heading east toward my old house. I made it back to my favorite neighborhood bar just before they closed - just enough time to share a beer with my old bartender, Sid.
I had a nice chat with Sid, catching up on neighborhood gossip. "Can I buy you a drink?" I asked.
"I'll do a shot if you do one," he countered.
"Your choice," I replied.
Sid thoughtfully stared at the rack of bottles on the wood shelf behind him, then grabbed a bottle of jagermeister. We unceremoniously threw back our shot glasses.
"Tastes like college," he sighed.
I took the long way back to my hotel - yes, walking up my old street. I wanted to get a look at our old house. The second I turned the corner and saw the windows and the red brick wall, I burst into blubbery tears. Then I walked a little faster so I wouldn't weird anybody out.
The rest of the week flew by. We spent most of the time in my old office, listening to talks from visiting teams and hashing out big vision type of stuff. I was most excited about lunch - eating sandwiches I forgot about, or visiting some of my old favorites on the square.
After the first day, we cut work a little early to visit the zoo. Is it weird to visit the zoo without bringing any kids along? Would it be just as fun for a bunch of network engineers? Of course it was, who doesn't enjoy watching lemurs fling their little bodies around trees or a bit fat lumbering grizzly bear nibble on his dinner.
The next morning, our team went out for breakfast, then walked to the office building. We debated what was the fastest route from our location.
"Technically, the fastest route is through the capitol," Connor reminded us.
I always forget that the Madison capitol is open to general visitors. There's no security or front desk to slow you down either. You can confidently walk through the beautiful building as if you owned the place.
Towards the end of the week, our sessions felt longer. I guess the excitement of traveling had worn off, and fatigue started to creep into the meeting room. Personally, I'm a little too used to remote work, and my introvert batteries were due for a recharge. On the last night, my hotel was a sanctuary. I happily ignored a big gathering on the terrace outside my window, catching up on YouTube videos instead.
It feels good to be home. I'm back in my remote office in comfy sweatpants. In a few hours, I'll see all the same teammates on a zoom call, but it feels like I know them even better now. After all, I got to hug them, walk around the zoo together, and I even got to see the sides of everyone's heads.