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Kathleen Falk 3
Kathleen Falk, Dane County executive.

When Kathleen Falk was growing up in Milwaukee, she read a novel for young readers titled “Misty of Chincoteague.”

Written by Marguerite Henry, it told the fictional story, based on fact, of a wild pony living on an island off the coast of Virginia.

The novel so moved the young Falk she resolved to be a veterinarian, at least until an established vet told her girls couldn’t be veterinarians.

That misguided advice didn’t exactly hold Falk back — her distinguished career includes 14 years as Dane County executive, a run Falk ended in April — but she never forgot the pony or the story. Recently, Falk added a personal footnote to the tale.

It all started with Falk’s decision to leave her executive post mid-term two months ago. Her stated rationale was it was simply time. “There is no ulterior motive,” Falk, who will turn 60 later this month, said when she announced her decision in October, adding she was “healthy” and “happily married.”

Recalling the announcement this week, Falk said that almost immediately after deciding to step down, she began thinking about “a big adventure” that might help her “break the ties” to the office she held since 1997.

Her husband, former state Rep. Peter Bock, is an avid bicyclist who once crossed the country by bike. Falk describes herself as more of “a weekend warrior,” though she, too, loves biking. When the couple settled on their big adventure, no surprise it was a bicycle trip, embarking from Jacksonville, Fla., heading up the east coast and ending in New York City. A day or two after Falk’s last day in office — April 18 — the couple flew to Jacksonville, having shipped their bikes down ahead of time.

In preparation, Falk read a 2010 University of Wisconsin Press book, “Across America By Bicycle: Alice and Bobbi’s Summer on Wheels,” co-authored by Madisonian Alice Honeywell. Honeywell’s advice on what to take and what not to take proved invaluable.

“There was nothing we needed and didn’t take,” Falk, back in Madison, said this week, “and nothing we took that we didn’t use.”

The trip took 20 days of biking, with a few more days or half-days given to sightseeing, including a memorable visit to Savannah. They averaged 60 miles on the biking days. They sustained no injuries.

“Nothing hurt except our butts,” Falk said. “Our butts hurt all the time.”

They navigated by a combination of maps and an iPad they consulted nightly to plot the next day’s route. They tried to avoid freeways and mixed their nights between camping (Kathleen’s preference) and hotels (Peter’s).

Despite the best planning, of course, they hit a few potholes. “We wound up on roads that our mothers would not have approved,” Falk said.

Yet without fail, when they had a problem — if they need a motorized lift or a bike needed fixing — someone materialized to help. Falk and Bock came to call these strangers “our road angels.” It may have been the best part of the trip. When people learned they were from Madison, many wanted to know about the new governor and all the political controversy. You can be sure Falk, no Scott Walker fan, was quick to inform them.

In New York City, Falk and Bock were greeted by old friends Frank and Barbara Tuerkheimer. Frank teaches law in Madison and New York, and is an avid bicycle enthusiast. The day after Falk and Bock landed — having biked more than 1,000 miles — Tuerkheimer suggested a bicycle tour of New York. They agreed — and then they took the train home.

The trip may have yielded no better day than the one in Virginia when Falk realized they were just a bridge away from two islands, Chincoteague and Assateague, and a national wildlife preserve on which some 150 wild ponies — the ones that inspired Henry’s famous novel — still live. Some believe the ponies first arrived after a Spanish shipwreck centuries ago.

They were tired but Peter said, “You’ve always wanted to see them.”

So they rode across the bridge. There was no guarantee they’d see the ponies, but Kathleen, out of the corner of her eye, saw a flash of white — a pony and a foal. “I was thrilled,” she said.

Then, just before the bridge on their way back to the mainland, they approached an open space and there, grazing, were a dozen of the ponies.

“They were gorgeous,” she said. “It was magical.”

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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