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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

No one will ever be sure how John Donovan spent his last days on earth. What is nearly certain is that on May 6, 2005, as a blizzard dumped 8 inches of snow on Southern California's Mt. San Jacinto, Donovan was trapped on the flanks of the 10,834-foot peak under an ocean of blinding whiteness.

At the time, he was just 5 days shy of his 60th birthday. He had an enlarged heart, which made breathing–and often even thinking clearly–difficult at altitude. He was lost and alone. A veteran hiker who was nonetheless a notoriously bad navigator, Donovan had strayed from the Pacific Crest Trail, which he was thru-hiking. He carried no useful maps, nor a compass. He was traveling ultralight, using a tarp in lieu of a tent and socks in place of gloves, and he had few provisions. And he'd headed into the storm against the advice of altitude-savvy backpackers.

Anyone who knew Donovan would have cringed to see him in this predicament–and yet they wouldn't have been terribly surprised. Donovan, stubborn and headstrong, had spent his life confounding others with what appeared at times to be contradictory behaviors.

To those who didn't know him, Donovan often seemed gruff and ill-mannered. He swore like a sailor and burst into laughter at awkward moments. He never married, or even dated, and though he had earned a decent salary before retiring from his job as a social worker, he lived like a bum. He inhabited a succession of ravaged $300-a-month dwellings, including an abandoned, partially incinerated savings bank that had no heat. He never had a telephone, and he eschewed computers and cars, choosing instead to walk almost everywhere he went. And he was famously cheap; he never sprang for a restaurant tab.

Though his friends knew him to be a joker, Donovan was also a deep thinker and an inveterate student of history capable of waxing erudite on opera and Europe's great cathedrals. Though his living situation suggests he was a hermit, he craved companionship, striving to avoid the loneliness of his childhood, most of which he spent as an orphan. He once told a friend that his greatest fear was dying alone, as a ward of the state, in a hospital. He hiked with his pals in Virginia's Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club as many as 100 days a year, never missing the Thanksgiving and New Year's Day outings, and these friends remember him as the most generous and gentle person they ever met.

Donovan believed his mission in life was to help others, and he forswore many of the niceties of modern culture to focus on that effort. At Central State Hospital, in Petersburg, VA, where he'd often supervised "dual-diagnosis" patients (who were in wheelchairs and mentally ill), Donovan had orchestrated novel field trips. He'd take them to city parks, or hunt down free theater tickets and drive them to the plays. "He'd lug these patients around all by himself," says Sharon Loving, another social worker at Central. "He'd lift them into the hospital van one by one."

Now, though, in the swirling snow on San Jacinto, no one was there to help Donovan. And his destiny seemed plain: Here was a willful and defiant man who'd taken chances in the outdoors one time too many. Surely the mountain would snuff him out, scattering his generous spirit to the wind.

And yet, his story somehow transcends that inexorable logic. Even when the mountain was done with him, Donovan's mission seemed to gain a sort of afterlife, an ability to carry on when he couldn't. Indeed, in getting lost and facing his darkest nightmare–a solitary death–he would be doing the best thing he possibly could for two people he would never meet.

Donovan, it turns out, was no stranger to humbling situations. He was born in Pittsburgh to working-class parents, but his father left home when he was an infant. His mother died before he was 10, and he spent years bouncing between Catholic orphanages. Eventually, he moved in with an unmarried aunt who took him along to the swank hotel restaurant where she waited tables. The boy killed time in the bakery, or sold newspapers on the street. "He did grown-up things when he was young," says his friend Chris Hook. "He kind of raised himself, like Oliver Twist."

He had no siblings, not even a cousin he was close to, and there isn't a single person who can recount the entire arc of his life. Questions about how he spent his 15 years in the Navy, for instance, remain unanswered. And Donovan's legal next of kin was a stranger. "I can't remember if I ever actually met him," says cousin Chris Davenport, of Monrovia, CA. "But he kept in touch–Christmas cards and so on."

Donovan looked to his ancestral past for a sense of rootedness. He saw Irish Catholics as his tribe. On the trail, he packed a little whiskey and carried it, per his trademark, in a recycled bottle that bore a Sea Breeze astringent label (providing him with his trail name). At parties, he often slipped into a full-on fake Irish brogue as he made cracks about the harsh discipline imposed by nuns at the orphanages.

He wasn't a churchgoer, but he was keenly aware of religious history. Donovan could expound on the actions of long-ago popes and the church's pantheon of saints. So it was characteristic that, on April 21, 2005, just before hitting the PCT trailhead in Campo, Donovan stood in a small alcove at San Diego de Alcala Mission and lit two candles. One was to honor St. Christopher, patron of travelers. The second flame paid tribute to St. Anthony, patron saint of the lost.

Donovan needed these saints' help. He'd taken up hiking in his 40s, to lose weight, but he still walked slowly, sometimes trudging into camp 2 or 3 hours behind his pals. Though he trekked 4,000 miles a year, he was in some ways an amateur. He got lost often. Once, on Vermont's Long Trail, he detoured to take in a vista–and then, returning to the path, hiked 3 miles back the way he'd come, not stopping until he hit a road and saw a car that looked vaguely familiar.

Donovan had originally planned to hike the PCT with Ken Baker, a good friend from the Old Dominion ATC. Baker, 60, is a retired mechanical engineer and lifelong bachelor who lives in an old farmhouse outside Richmond. A methodical man who speaks with a soft Southern drawl, he spends 3 or 4 months a year backpacking and is known for the easy, loping stride that helps him whip through 20-plus miles a day.

Baker had taken roughly 100 hiking trips with Donovan since they met through the ATC in the late '90s, and though the two men were contemporaries, Baker regarded his friend with an elder's fond dismay. "John was kind of clumsy," he says, "and he wasn't mechanically inclined. Sometimes he'd step on his glasses and I'd have to fix them for him."

Baker introduced Donovan to ultralight backpacking, retrofitting his buddy's gear by, say, removing a pack's metal stays and replacing them with light, thin dowels of wood. In 2004, as Donovan cast about for a place to spend his retirement, Baker spruced up an outbuilding on his farm, erecting particleboard walls and installing a primitive bathroom. He offered Donovan a sweet deal: $200 a month, utilities gratis.

In spring 2005, Baker told Donovan he wanted to postpone the start of their PCT trip by 3 weeks. "I'd looked at the weather data," Baker explains, "and Southern California had just had its snowiest winter in 30 or 40 years." But Donovan couldn't be dissuaded from the original plan. "I asked, 'What if you get lost?'" Baker recalls. "He just said, 'The crowds up ahead will blaze a trail through the snow. I'll be all right.'"

That was Donovan's style. His buds called him "El Burro" for the way he plowed through icy creeks and windstorms and meandered off course for 2 days and still finished his trek. Though Donovan never made it look easy, he'd bagged the 500-mile Colorado Trail and the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail, which he section-hiked over the course of a decade.

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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.

NYC gal
Feb 14, 2011

Just saw this on Oprah's OWN network tonight, although this show is typically on the Animal Planet. I was totally floored by the couple finding Donovan's campsite and, supposedly his body (although someone states above that was inaccurately portrayed by the program). I had to google his name and found this article that provides many more interesting details about Donovan. The article really gives such a good portrayal of his eccentric character, which at times parallels that of my father's. I am glad his remains were found, and that he received a proper burial. John, may you continue to help lost hikers along that trail and out of that gorge. Rest in Peace.

Dec 22, 2010

God bless your soul John. Rest in peace.

patrick john o donavan
Sep 18, 2010

wife and watched tv show it waz great rip john donavan xxkim and pat xx

Jul 28, 2010

I watch that show , and it's good, but are we supposed to feel sorry for those people that suffer before they're rescued ? If they wouldn't have done something so stupid as to go running alone with one bottle of water in the Moab desert in Utah,up high on a rocky, loose trail on the side of a mountain, then they wouldn't have fallen 60 ft, adn broke their pelvis.Because of her foolishness, this person called into play many hours of and money for the rescue equipment adn personel. And she made her family worry themselves to death. ANd her little fiasco caused her to be off work almost a year.

Ed Beales
Jul 12, 2010

John Joseph Donovan is my friend. I know John since our Navy days in Rhode Island and VA. My childhood life was the subject of his thesis for both his BS and Masters when he attended Norfolk State University. I have been searching for John for the past few years. Not until yesterday when I placed his name on google search did I learn what happened to him. May John rest in peace. You can contact me at for more information. Thanks, Ed Beales

Jul 08, 2010

It was not prayer or god that allowed these people to live longer, it was human willpower and a box of matches.

John Donovan had no close friends or family. I liken him to John Locke of Lost. It's actually pretty darn strange if you compare the two.

Faith is an amazing thing.

Marvin Thomas
Jul 08, 2010

Alot of people keep asking why did John no light a match and start a fire. Uh-Umm, MAYBE BECAUSE HE HAD TAKEN A FALL AND WAS INJURED ON TOP OF BEING IN A BLIZZARD AND IN 8 INCHES OF SNOW!!!!

Jun 20, 2010

Rest in peace John- I am sorry that you had to leave this way.

rixk allen
Jun 16, 2010

to ozzy B good...just by how you judge that you will be judge the same way when you see those pearlie gates

John Charles
May 08, 2010

@ozzy B

I believe you have a problem with your personality. I know that with the words you say, you often think about yourself with another girl other than your wife. You are also the kind of person who has problems approaching women at the bar. This is what i believe and this is what it is.

It is NOT your nor anyone's job to judge people regardless of how bad they seem like. You don't know mr day, so shut it. You're shy, timid and angry with men that you actually pretend to be like. What i know that there is good in you yet jealousy may often cloud your perception of things.

I believe that when Mr day and miss allen were rescued, that last thing in their mind so tell the pilot to tell the pilot that there's a dead man below, let alone carry the body along with them. However, i think that they told the rescuers about john donovan when they began to realize that their tribulation is over.

Let's just all be happy that both allen and day live to this day and tell the story. I just don't see why you vilify mr. day... big problem with you right there.

Rick Logan
Apr 10, 2010

I was amazed that the story ended with no information about the recovery of John Donovan's body or other information about him.

Mar 06, 2010

To: Ozzy B. Proud son of a Navy veteran. It appears to me that you, as well as the rest of us who watched that show were touched by Mr. Donovan's story and the impact he, while no longer with us, had in saving the lives of the young couple. However, it seems to me you got carried away in expressing your misplaced anger and used it against this young man, blaming him and passing judgment when you have no idea of the facts. What you don't realize is that the show has to be edited and while editing, the facts of the story gets edited as well. One of the things edited was that the body of the deceased was found. Facts: not necessarily by the young man, but it was found, not at the river, but it was found. But, because the show runs actually in less than sixty minutes they must tell the story with as much detail as possible.
By the way, NO, I don't know these young kids profiled in the show. Yes, that young man you go as far as to call callous! Imagine that! Its just awful that someone can put a young man down the way YOU did without knowledge of facts.
In the future, Ozzie B. Proud Son of Navy Veteran, get your FACTS FIRST. I wouldn't be so "Proud" of making such remarks regarding a young man you don't even know regarding a story you don't know have all the FACTS about either. That speaks volumes about YOU!!! I'm sure that wouldn't make your Dad Proud, would it now?

Feb 28, 2010

I know one of the team members who rescued the two lost hikers. According to the rescuers, Mr. Day did not find remains of Mr. Donvan. The rescue team went back to the area as soon as the appropriate provisions and support could be obtained to search for Mr. Donovan. The location is extremely mountainous and recoverly could only occur via air support. The recovery team made their way on foot to the area where Mr. Donovan's camp was discovered and ultimately found Mr. Donovan's remains further down the canyon. Recovery was made via helcopter.

Kari Bear
Feb 27, 2010

I was really touched by this story. I believe John saved those two hikers, and God had his hand in all of this. God bless the friends and family of John Donovan.

Jan 28, 2010

I suspect they are Shortening Long Valley Creek to read just Long Creek. That Long Valley Creek drains into Hidden Fork Canyon then into the steep Tahquitz Canyon on the east slope of the San Jacinto Mountains.

Ozzy B.
Jan 28, 2010

My wife and I enjoy watching "I shouldn't be alive ", in this particular episode of two hikers lost when the two left the trail, eventually fnding a lost ( and sadly deceased veteran ) one Mr.John Donovan, after being lost for four days their selves ,both my wife and I were in total disbelief, shocked that Mr.Day had such little regard for the deceased veteran, as not to have IMMEDIATELY ,upon being found ,tell their rescuers that he had found Mr. John Donovan's remains, and his location, so as to reunite his family members with his body so that his ( Mr. Donovan ) family, or next of kin could have the peace of mind that his ultimate and final days, though a full year later,... was their saving grace. Were it NOT for his abandoned camp site and the few provisions, namely the matches, I believe with all my heart,that they two would most certainly have also died considering the facts that Mr. Day and his companion were without shelter or food of any kind. The show stated at the end, that Mr. Day and his girlfriend separated after two years,....You go girl! !! The callousness of that individual, Mr.Day himself displayed that day is surely accurate of a shallow human being that in NO WAY deserves a lady such as the we watched narrating the events of finding the patron saint of travelers and praying as the days went by. May you find peace. As for Mr.Donovan's family, we hope that you have found some level of comfort knowing that his last words and writings
lead to the rescue of the " lost hikers ". Mr. Day,.....shame on you,may the good lord above forgive your calloused indifference. ... for some may not, Mr. Take charge. .... some may not. ..... Signed Ozzy B. Proud son of a Navy veteran.

robert "lucky 2b alive"york
Jan 27, 2010

I also have an incredible story of survival but cannot,for the life left in me,find how to share it with the makers of this program.I am legally in the process of changing my middle name to LUCKY as a direct result of what happened to me.I also have a $5mil.lawsuit pending which is in default due to the numerous witnesses that just stood back and watched this happened to me and now are willing to help me after the fact. if you'd like to hear more that could possibly help you,my e-mail is I agree, this story is incredible.

Jan 27, 2010

Where does "Long Canyon" exit at its base? I can't see it on maps. But I did see a photo of the mountain from below in Palm Springs and wow, it is steep. I could see where someone would encounter themselves at the top of a cliff with nowhere to go sideways.

Jan 27, 2010

The Episode of 'I Shouldn't Be Alive" featuring this story is airing again on Animal Planet. Get details here: <a href=""></a>

Jan 27, 2010

The Episode of 'I Shouldn't Be Alive" featuring this story is airing again on Animal Planet. Get details here:

Darryl Clemmons
Jan 25, 2010

The show said that John was injured. Either way he was trapped. He simply wasn't fit enough to go back and the way down was impossible without good equipment. Long canyon is very teacherous. Nothing like the AT. Ironically he was only four miles from Palm Springs.

Jan 25, 2010

I meant to say, "To answer Don's question." Sorry.

Jan 25, 2010

I also watched this show this past evening. To answer Kim on why it took so long to locate John's body, I've spent the last hour reading all of the couple's interviews that occurred in the days that followed their rescue. Not once did they mention finding the body, and each interviewer stated that the body had yet to be found. All of us who saw the show just assumed that they had. If the show is correct, Day apparently withheld this until days or weeks later, or even until recently when they were interviewed for the ISBA show, meaning that the authorities either found the body on their own, or were directed by Day a week or two after rescue. If either is correct, we can only guess at why Day withheld this. If the show is correct, my guess is he felt confused that he may have done something wrong by not even approaching the body (as shown on the ISBA show). The longer he waited, the harder it would be for him to bring it up; and probably didn't even tell his GF in the hour prior to rescue, for obvious reasons if you saw the show.

Jan 23, 2010

I saw the show. I was so pleased that it was actually stated that the girl prayed. That's what the world needs so much more of, in order to produce miracles most needed.

Jan 23, 2010

I could be wrong, but John was lost during a blizzard and I don't think he could've gotten a blaze going like the one that saved that young couple.

Jan 23, 2010

I just saw this episode "I shouldn't be alive", where John Donovan's body was discovered in a creek exactly one year after he was missing by these lost hikers. They found a map that said "no way out" and his wallet and a box of matches in his backpack. The lost hikers set a fire on some trees which sent a lot of smoke in the air. A helicopter spotted them and picked them up. I wonder why John Donovan did not think of this. They went back for John's body 3 weeks later (Wonder why it took them that long). To his family, sorry for your loss. May John rest in peace in backpacking heaven. This story was so interesting that I had to comment on this.

Hiker D
Jan 22, 2010

I just watched a film on this tonight but the focus was actually on the two young hikers who found his remains. They were lost, also, and exactly one year after Donovan went missing. The film on TV that covered this was an episode called, "I shouldn't be alive."

Interesting story. It involves the very well known (among hikers) Pacific Crest Trail or PCT. Most people view it as simply a long haul. This story demonstrates that, yes, it can kill you, too.

Desert Man Drew
Jan 03, 2009

Interesting disturbing character. I'm sorry he's gone. I hope he found his way to Hiker Heaven. The celestial one, not the one ib Aqua Dulce CA!


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