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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


Photos of Donovan finishing the AT show him picking his way past lichen-speckled boulders, climbing Maine's Mt. Katahdin. There he is, pivoting over a rock obstacle, and then, finally, standing atop the fog-shrouded, 5,268-foot finish line, beaming in the wind as he flashes victory signs. The pictures, taken by Baker, are glorious. They show an unsung citizen realizing a dream after years of struggles.

Donovan was desperate to notch more moments like these, quickly, before he became too old and weak. "There was a lot he wanted to get done in his first few years of retirement," says Baker. "He wanted to go to China and Russia and Australia. He was going to travel 6 months a year."

But first and foremost was hiking the PCT, which Donovan spent a year planning. On a manual typewriter, he tapped out a 6-page itinerary that reflects a hunger to impose order on a big and unwieldy adventure. He stipulated, down to the half-ounce, how much coffee he'd need, and he encouraged friends to send gifts, "but nothing that has to be carried past the post office. I am just too old & lighter is better."

Donovan wasn't about to wait for Baker, or the melting snow. He took off on April 19, the day he retired. "They had a party for him that morning at work," says Chris Hook. "And at 12:30 I called to wish him luck. He was already gone."

At the start of his thru-hike, at least, Donovan was not alone. He headed north from the Mexican border with his friend Lynn Padgett, laboring through the hot, undulating Mojave Desert that surrounds the PCT's first 100 miles. Padgett, 48, is a burly tool salesman with a bushy red beard and a warm, Falstaffian manner. He had thru-hiked the AT in 1997, but in the years since he'd drifted out of the hiking club's inner circle and put on a good deal of weight.

Donovan didn't care; he'd always relished Padgett's boisterous company. The two men called each other "comrade," in exaggerated deference to Donovan's left-leaning politics, and they shared a propensity for bumbling adventures. One Christmas Eve, they hiked to a cabin in Shenandoah National Park, then lit the woodstove. At around 10 p.m., Padgett said, "Hey, comrade, what do you say we hike out to my car and go get some beer and cigarettes?"

"Yeah, a beer would be good right now," Donovan said.

The trip out was 4.5 miles, one way, amid a chaos of trees felled by a recent storm. "So we're cranking over these trees," Padgett says, "and it's cold, and we had nothing–no water, no packs. Finally, John sits down on a log and says, 'Comrade, I can't see one blaze.' We turned back–and only the next morning did we realize we could've gotten lost and frozen out there. We were lucky. John had the luck of the Irish."



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Somanath sethi
Jun 25, 2012

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

Anonymous
Jun 03, 2012

it still hurts...

audra
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.

k
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.

k
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.

Chris
Jan 12, 2012

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

tarnish
Nov 14, 2011

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

Hiker2011
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.

mel
Aug 04, 2011

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

marc
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".

marc
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"?

Scott
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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