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October 2006

Lost & Found

John Donovan disappeared in a high-elevation blizzard, leaving rescuers and friends stumped. But his backpack contained a miracle clue.

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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