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Backpacker Magazine – October 2006

Lost & Found

John Donovan disappeared in a high-elevation blizzard, leaving rescuers and friends stumped. His backpack contained a miracle clue. Bill Donahue investigates.

by: Bill Donahue

Another club member who was sexually abused as a child says Donovan helped him overcome the long-simmering trauma. "I've told very few people what happened to me," the man says, "but when you got around John, you'd open up. He was very comforting. He quoted statistics about what happens to victims. He said I'd beaten the odds. He said, 'You're stable. You're a good person.' And then he never shared what I'd said with anybody. I came away feeling cleansed."

When you're a reporter asking about people who are gone, you can glimpse a dead person's spirit by watching how his survivors receive your curiosity. Often, they're cagey or indifferent. But Donovan's friends were happy to talk, to tell hilarious stories about their old pal. Padgett told anecdotes for almost 3 hours in a TGI Friday's one night. He followed up with a note that said: "God rest his soul."

All of the stories painted a consistent picture: John Donovan was a little socially obtuse and eccentric, yes. But his generosity had an enduring quality, and he emitted a purity of spirit that was almost holy. Somehow, you'd always come away from time with him better for the experience.

After their snowball fight, Brandon Day and Gina Allen hiked the 1.5-mile Desert View Trail, which loops the high flats by the tramway. On a whim, they ventured off-course to a cliff atop Long Valley. Day, who has hard blue eyes and a blond buzz cut, was never a wilderness type. He wears a gold Texas Tech fraternity ring, and still talks of his football days. "In high school," the 5-foot-8, 155-pound Day says, "I played fullback, and the reason is I like to hit."

Brandon's father, Paul, later said Brandon actually played defensive back, a position better suited to slight players. But from his dad, who coached him early on in football and baseball, Day inherited an old-school code of manhood. He describes himself as a take-charge type possessed of a "can-do attitude." And he is invariably courtly. "I'm the kind of guy," he says, "who always holds the door open for ladies."

Day was drawn to Allen's profile because she, too, had football in her past. She was an all-American cheerleader as a teen and then a roving cheerleading instructor. After earning a degree in family-resource management from Iowa State, she moved to Dallas to live with her sister.

On their first date, Day took Allen to a Moroccan-themed lounge called the Velvet Hookah. "There were pillows all over the floor," Allen recalls, "and people were lying on them with their shoes off. It was a very chill place. It was different." It wasn't the last unusual place Allen would go with Day.

California authorities now know that Donovan checked his bravado after parting company with the Davises on May 3, and tried to detour west down into Idyllwild. But with no way to navigate, he became disoriented. In a journal written in the margins of photocopied guidebook pages, Donovan scribbled, "Couldn't find the trail to Idyllwild."

So instead he cut away from Idyllwild, drawn by the lights of much larger Palm Springs. Traveling about 3 miles northeast from the Saddle Junction area that night, he traversed skinny Willow Creek, then climbed a small ridge and plunged down into a steep gash called Hidden Valley. As he dipped into lower, heartier climate zones, the brush became nasty and thick, the talus rife with scrub oak and manzanita.

Donovan's journal places him in Long Valley, at about 4,300 feet, the night of May 3. On May 5, still camped in the same ravine, he took a fall. How badly he was hurt is unclear; Donovan didn't elaborate. But clearly the ordeal of the past few days had landed him in trouble. He wrote that he had already become too weak to climb up out of the canyon.

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You don't have his talent
You don't have his condition
You no applause
The world is not fair?
But you have the right to dream
Let the heart become your declaration
Let the wounds become your medal
Let the world's not fair in front of you down!
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Somanath sethi
Jun 25, 2012

John j. Donovan was a true marine. Rest in peace john

Jun 03, 2012

it still hurts...

May 17, 2012

Rest in Peace John Joseph Donovan. You are missed by so many, and will live on in the hearts and memories of those of us who knew, or knew of you.

Apr 04, 2012

ya I agree I also dont understand why if John donavan was such A big part of them surviving,why he didnt get recognized more,He evidently went through way more than mutt and jeff did.stay on the path dumby,thats what its for.

Apr 04, 2012

ya I agree I also dont understand why if John donavan was such A big part of them surviving,why he didnt get recognized more,He evidently went through way more than mutt and jeff did.stay on the path dumby,thats what its for.

Jan 12, 2012

Saw him on date from hell I shouldn't be alive

Nov 14, 2011

this is a very touching story.
im glad to have encountered it

Nov 06, 2011

The more hikers I meet, the more I am astonished to learn that many cannot read a topo map well, or even read that compass that they carry.

Yet they chant their misinformed, wrong headed, opinions that the PCT is "too well marked" for hikers to get into trouble.

If you don't know how to navigate, start practicing. Learning to use a compass is actually pretty easy once you wrap your thoughts around it.

A compass is considered the FIRST tool of navigation. The gps is considered the SECOND, or plan B, tool to use.

In a white out blizzard, you can't see. But you can use that compass (or gps) to find your way to some sort of safety such as a hut, or tool shed, or descending trail so that you don't have to bushwhack and die like Mr. Donovan.

Don't run your mouth and be the fool. If you can't navigate, great, but don't chant to others that they should risk their safety to satisfy your own foolish lack of skills.

Sean Jenk
Sep 27, 2011

Ozzy B. are you serious? Your funny! You said, "you go girl!" in response to hearing they broke up? It was two years later you moron! I almost think your comments were more shocking than that incredible story. My Gosh you suck.

Sean Jenk
Sep 27, 2011

Ozzy B. are you serious? Your funny! You said, "you go girl!" in response to hearing they broke up? It was two years later you moron! I almost think your comments were more shocking than that incredible story. My Gosh you suck.

Aug 04, 2011

This is the stupidest episode yet. Gina Allen was worried about her bad breath?! This is simply natural selection at play.

Apr 13, 2011

I watched that episode of "shouldn't be alive", and i have to concur. they should call that installment "almost to dumb to survive".

Apr 13, 2011

"Though he trekked 4,000 miles a year, he was in some ways an amateur."

Is there such a thing as a proffesional "Hiker"?

Feb 28, 2011

Very interesting and intriguing story. Jon Krakauer, where are you? There is a book to be written here.

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