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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow D.C. by wheelchair

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D.C. by wheelchair

Calesta Markgraf and her sister-in-law, Diana Downing, read a pamphlet at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia. Markgraf suffered a serious back injury in October, but had recovered enough to fulfill a planned mother-daughter trip to the Washington, D.C., region with Bill Mitchell's tour group during spring break. (Photo by Jay Lohner).
Calesta Markgraf and her sister-in-law, Diana Downing, read a pamphlet at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia. Markgraf suffered a serious back injury in October, but had recovered enough to fulfill a planned mother-daughter trip to the Washington, D.C., region with Bill Mitchell's tour group during spring break. (Photo by Jay Lohner).

By CHRIS COLLINS

Of the Baker City Herald

Wheelchair travel bumped Calesta Markgraf into more pat-down searches in airports, but also allowed her some special privileges during a spring break visit to the nation's capital — including a private meeting with Barney, President Bush's Scottish terrier.

She and tour coordinator Bill Mitchell met the dog on a detour through the kitchen to accommodate her wheelchair during their tour of the White House.

Markgraf and her 13-year-old daughter, Nicole, were among 15 Baker City adults and 31 teens in Grades 7-9 to join Mitchell's every-other-year tour of Washington, D.C., and other historical sites. The group left Baker City March 17 and returned home March 23.

Markgraf's spinal cord was injured in an October horseback riding accident in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Nevertheless she was determined to recover sufficiently to make the seven-day trip with her daughter. She traveled by wheelchair part of the time on the tour and was able to use forearm crutches to ease access to some areas.

This was the fifth trip for Mitchell, a Baker Middle School history teacher who began offering the tours in 1996 through EF Explore America, the nation's largest student tour company. He's already making plans for the next trip in the spring of 2006.

In an effort to make the most of the short tour time, Mitchell plans a fast-paced, exhausting tour schedule.

For Markgraf to join the tour at this stage of her recovery was an act of bravery, he said.

"She didn't miss a beat," he said. "It was just inspiring to have Calesta along."

The trip was made easier by Markgraf's sister-in-law, Diana Downing, who also is her physical therapist. Downing and her son, Danny, joined the tour along with a niece, Alyssa Jacobs.

As usual, the students were complimented on their behavior everywhere they went, Mitchell said.

"They make Baker County and Baker City and Baker School District very proud because of their conduct," he said.

Calesta's husband, Bill, and their 17-year-old son, Eugene, were on the tour four years ago. This was to be the year for the mother-daughter trip — until the accident.

Although Calesta was determined to join her daughter on the tour, it wasn't until about mid-February that it began to look like she would be able to make it.

She underwent a second back surgery after the first of the year and endured a long, hard month while adjusting to new pain medication.

"I took it one day at a time and went from there," she said. "I did the best I could to get back on my feet. I didn't think about the trip."

The Markgrafs had planned to send their daughter without Calesta if necessary, but Nicole was just as determined not to go without her.

"I hated to not see her be able to go with a lot of her friends," Calesta said.

Both were pleased that their plans were not disrupted.

This year's trip included a tour of Washington, D.C., including the monuments and the Smithsonian Institution. The travelers toured the Capitol and Arlington National Cemetery, attended a play at the Kennedy Center and toured Ford's Theatre where President Lincoln was assassinated. They also traveled to George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, Va., and visited the homes of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison at Charlottesville, Va.

In addition, the tour included visits to Williamsburg and Jamestown, Va., and to Baltimore for a tour of Fort McHenry, where Francis Scott Key was inspired to write "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"We had a good trip," Calesta said, but she added, "I was ready to be home."

As her recovery continues, she has regained some independence, including her ability to drive. Only time will tell how complete her healing will be as her bones and spinal cord continue to mend.

"Time will take care of it," she said. "It will take two years to know the extent of the nerve damage. It's a matter of which nerves regenerate and which were permanently damaged and whether or not the spinal cord will heal."

The family continues to benefit from community support.

"I want to thank the community for all their help and generosity and everything they've done for us," she said.

Meanwhile, she is kept busy following her children and their activities.

She traveled with her family to the state wrestling tournament in Portland earlier this year where Eugene wrestled in five matches. And this spring, the family will be on the sidelines rooting for Nicole at middle school track meets.

Next, they'll gear up for livestock shows and summer 4-H fairs.

Calesta, who describes herself as more of an outdoor person, said her patience with her recovery only goes so far. She has promised her doctor that she won't try to get on a horse again for at least a year.

"I'm biding my time," she said. "I was doing pretty good until the warm weather came around."

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