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.