Garrison student gives rave review of East Coast trip




Garrison Middle School English teachers Heather Abajian and Audra Cummings posed a question to students in fall 2009. Would any of them be interested in a whirlwind tour of Washington, D.C., Gettysburg, Philadelphia, Boston, Salem and New York City in summer 2010?

"When the students of Garrison were first offered this trip, barely anyone signed up because it cost so much," said Abbie Chacon, who will be in eighth grade this fall.

"But a few days later, we received news that another tour company was offering the same trip (and more and charging) much less. That was when I decided that I was going on the trip. Period. I didn't care what I had to do to get there, I was going."

Abbie describes herself as shy, so going door-to-door to raise her share of the expenses was a challenge and she got off to a slow start.

"But a few very generous people from my church allowed me to work for them, and I finally raised enough money to go."

The 51-member group Abbie traveled with included parents, students and teachers from school. They agreed to go on a tour that took them to Washington, D.C., Gettysburg, Philadelphia, Boston, Salem and New York City.

"We were the ones that agreed to get up every morning at 6:30 on less than 8 hours of sleep and brave 95-plus-degree heat and 94-plus-percent humidity," she recalled.

Day 1 was a major traveling day, Abbie said. They flew from Seattle to Newark, N.J., where they met tour guide and Staten Island native Joel Nessim.

A tour bus then hauled the group from Newark the 31/2 hours south to the Washington, D.C., area.

They explored such historical places as Arlington National Cemetery, the exterior of the White House, the Vietnam War Memorial and other sights on the National Mall.

"My favorite part was the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Its tragic history was put into an elaborate display that was different from any other museums we went to."

They capped the day by going to the top of the Washington Monument.

"This was one of the things that I did not like because I am afraid of heights, and we were 555 feet in the air!"

On the third day they traveled to Gettysburg, Pa., where a famous Civil War battle was waged and Lincoln's address was made. Seeing the Gettysburg Battlefield "was a little creepy, since that was where so many soldiers died," Abbie said.

With a crammed schedule, they went to the City Of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. "We didn't have much time to see everything, but we did manage to stop at the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

"Also noteworthy: I had my first Philly Cheese Steak. Let's just say I need to try one a few more times before I acquire a taste … "

Fueled by cheese steaks, the group was "whisked off once again for the longest bus ride of the trip. A 71/2-hour haul from Philadelphia to Boston."

They walked Boston's Freedom Trail, following a red line that guides tourists to popular destinations, such as Quincy Market, The State House, Granary Burial Ground, Mike's Bakery ("which isn't technically a part of the trail, but they have delicious gelato!") the U.S.S. Constitution, Bunker Hill and Faneuil Hall. All of these sights were packed into two days.

"At the end of the trail, we got to see one more attraction in Salem, Mass., where the infamous Salem Witch Trials took place," Abbie said. "Supposedly, this is one of the most haunted towns in America, and we were lucky enough to take an evening ‘ghost tour' and visit Salem's ‘most haunted' destinations. Unfortunately, it wasn't that scary. But it was still fun to be there."

They wrapped up the tour in their final destination of New York City - Abbie's personal favorite.

First on the list was heading to the top of the Empire State Building. "The view was fantastic, and although it was windy up there, seeing the Big Apple from so high up was probably the highlight of my trip."

"From there, the day just got better. We toured Rockefeller Center, Central Park and Times Square. To end the day, we all went to see ‘Phantom of the Opera' on Broadway. The next day was also super busy, with the likes of Ground Zero (just a construction site), Wall Street, Federal Hall, Soho, Chinatown, Little Italy and a subway ride to the Mariners vs. Yankees game at Yankee Stadium. They culminated their travels with a visit to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

"I think it was a really good way to end the trip, even though we didn't get to go inside of the statue, or else we'd miss our ferry. All in all, this was an experience that I'll never forget, even if it was one of the craziest, most tiring weeks of my life. If I were asked, ‘would you do it again?' the answer would be yes, and I hope that I will someday, maybe even have a better time."

Abbie is the daughter of Victor and Judy Chacon of Walla Walla. She hopes to attend University of Iowa or Columbia University and major in English or teaching. She plays violin in Garrison's orchestra and volunteers at Blue Mountain Humane Society.

  • Generally speaking, spring is the thing for a population explosion at Pioneer Park Aviary. That's when chicks, ducklings and goslings pop out of their shells, explore their new world and learn how to fly, said Joanna Lanning, aviary caretaker with the Walla Walla Parks Department. "As summer wanes, the spring hatching season generally comes to a close, but this year some of the hens had other ideas.

Three new batches of peachicks have hatched in the last two weeks," she said.

One of the white peahens delivered five fluffy yellow chicks on July 27.

A week before, two of the Indian Blue peahens hatched their chicks on the same day - a first, Joanna said. The older dominant hen had five chicks, while the younger hen had three. But the next day the hen with five had seven chicks, while the younger hen was left with one.

"Since that time they have been playing musical chicks. Sometimes the old gal will have all eight chicks, leaving the younger wife with none. Most days however, the young hen has at least one or two chicks. Come see these darling babies frolicking in netted pond enclosures at the aviary."

Joanna said the chicks, ducklings and goslings often form odd friendships as they don't care if their companions are of the same species as them or not.

Someone pleading for help brought in a tiny abandoned California Quail chick in late June.

"We were close to the end of our artificial hatching season, so we didn't have any pheasant chicks young enough to put with ‘Little Orphan Annie,' as we call her, so a stuffed animal became her companion.

‘Two days after her arrival our last two ducklings hatched so the three youngsters became roommates. The trio thrived and are inseparable.

"It's heartwarming to see them sleeping together, with Annie usually sandwiched between the ducks who now tower above her."

The willing hands of volunteers have blessed the aviary recently, Joanna said. Members of Michelle Coleman's Girl Scout Troop 1355 raked leaves and picked up errant sticks in the lower pond one late spring afternoon.

This summer, Parnell Ballard, who attends Walla Walla University and Emily Coba, a Whitman College student, have been generously donating their time and labor.

"This help is very much appreciated and their efforts make the aviary even more lovely for visitors to enjoy," Joanna said.

  • Once Matt Miller's grand-uncle and -aunt Jim and Joyce Aylward of Walla Walla read an account of his harrowing recovery from injuries received in a climbing accident, they felt it was worth sharing with readers here.

"We didn't realize how much he went through," Jim remarked.

Matt suffered severe frostbite on his hands and the doctors "tried to save his fingers, but there was so much pain, they finally cut the fingers off. Then he was addicted to the pain-killing drugs," Jim added.

It's a remarkable story about a young man with strong internal fortitude.

Matt's life forever altered after he and his father, both injured in a dramatic plunge, were left overnight on the slopes of Mexico's Pico de Orizaba, the third highest peak in North America. It was 2 a.m. on Nov. 22, 2002, when his party of six set out for the summit.

Matt and his dad, Dennis Miller, made it to just 100 yards from the summit, according to the spring-summer story in Texas Magazine, "The Fall and Rise of Matt Miller."

Then Dennis slipped and fell. Also the son of Jeanie Lou Marks Miller, a Walla Walla High School alumna, Matt dove after his father, grabbed hold of his coat and pinned him to the mountain with his ice ax.

Dennis lost consciousness and struggled with altitude sickness, which can impair one's mental and physical capacity.

They got to a ledge and decided once the color returned to Dennis' face to try again. But when Dennis stood up, his eyes rolled back, he again lost consciousness and rapidly slid down the glacier.

Matt went after him. Somewhere during the 3,000-foot descent, Matt's ice ax hit something hard, smacked him in the forehead and knocked him out.

No one knows what stopped the pair, but Matt had broken ribs, his nose was ripped off, his right ear was barely attached, both eyes were swollen shut and his head had ballooned to the size of a basketball.

Their climbing partners descended, following a trail of blood. They radioed for help and their guide stayed to care for them.

Dennis had leg bones snap in half and with Matt's injuries, their only hope was an air evacuation. The first helicopter turned back as the elevation was too high.

Their guide also departed leaving the injured pair bundled in heavy-duty sleeping bags, warm boots and extra gloves.

"It was the worst kind of quiet I've ever heard," Matt recalled.

During the night, delirious with hypothermia and mind-altering pulmonary edema, he removed his gloves and boots, exposing his hands and feet to the bitter cold.

The next morning an American military helicopter was dispatched through a contact at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City.

When they found Matt, he had suffered severe frostbite in the 40-mile-an-hour freezing wind overnight.

Dennis suffered a broken leg, but no other serious injuries or frostbite.

Nearly a week after the accident, they flew home to Phoenix, but doctors there weren't practiced in treating frostbite. Matt and his parents flew to Dallas a few days after Christmas and met with Dr. Greg Anigian, who had operated on Beck Weathers, a survivor of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster about which climber Jon Krakauer wrote in "Into Thin Air." Beck was on hand to give Matt advice.

But walking into the doctor's office, Matt said "When I saw his eyes, I knew that something was really bad." The 22-year-old had a black scab for a nose, a severely windburned face and marble-white fingers, the bones suffocating from loss of circulation and frostbite.

Undergoing immediate surgery for gangrene, he ultimately lost all eight fingers.

He had 10 surgeries in the next two years, lost eight toes, suffered staph infections, received antibiotics intravenously for a year via a catheter and developed an addiction to the painkiller OxyContin.

Using just his thumbs, he had to relearn to button his shirt, a three-week ordeal. Connecting with a friend, Quinn, who lost his feet and all his fingers while being stranded for 16 days during a mountain-climbing accident changed Matt's perception of himself.

He was upset after he had startled a girl when he went to shake hands.

"I called Quinn, and he told me, ‘Every single person around you has scars, just as bad as you and I for the most part. But ours are just on the outside.'"

When Matt went off OxyContin, he said nothing he'd been through compared to the experience of stopping the drug. He started to run for its mind-clearing and soul-cleansing properties, the physical exertion and fresh air.

He returned to work at his father's investment firm in 2003 and labored at getting dressed, writing, typing, getting coffee and answering the phone, all without fingers.

He moved to Los Angeles in 2005 when he was offered a dream job with the investment firm Dimensional Fund Advisors.

He'd gained confidence in his abilities and bonded with employees and in 2006 opened an office for DFA in Austin, Texas.

Enlisting a career coach helped him look past his accident and forge a new path that involved enrolling in a Texas evening MBA program.

Rituals are part of what gets him past his physical limitations, he said. Running every day, despite bleeding feet, is one. His aim is to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

He's a regional director with DFA now. His approachability is an asset with clients.

"People see my scars so they think they can share with me their scars. So it's this incredibly powerful conversation where we haven't even talked about investments."

"If you absorb something like this and you learn from it, you realize you've gained as much as you've lost. I thought I was a little happier then, but maybe that really wasn't happiness like it is now," he said.

Matt is the grandson of Jean Aylward Marks of Mesa, Ariz., and the late Stan Marks, longtime readers of the U-B and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employees.

Stan and several other Corps employees died in an airplane crash at the Walla Walla Airport in the mid- to late 1970s. Jean is a 1939 graduate of Wa-Hi.

Etcetera appears in daily and Sunday editions. Annie Charnley Eveland can be reached at or 526-8313.


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