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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.

It would be comforting to hear that Donovan’s friends quickly learned that he was missing and summoned search-and-rescue crews. But they didn’t. The sad truth is that a surrogate family lacks the blood-thickness of a real one, and Donovan’s friends were preoccupied. They sent him mail drops and glanced at his itinerary, but Chris Hook was vacationing in Utah. Another friend, a nurse practitioner named Coleen Kenny, kept a votive candle that Donovan had asked her to light in his absence. Kenny was busy, though. The candle scarcely got lit.

Twelve days passed before anyone realized Donovan was missing. No one called for help until after Kenny discovered, on May 15, that Donovan had failed to pick up three mail drops north of Palm Springs. By then, Donovan may have already been dead.
The PCT community, bound by the Internet and by rumors floating up and down the trail, collectively shuddered. “Missing” posters appeared at trailside post offices, and theories swirled as to his fate.

Many hikers believed that Donovan headed toward Fuller Ridge and then faltered in the blizzard. Dave Koskenmaki, 61, an orienteering expert, says the conditions on the ridge on May 6 were miserable. “The visibility was about 100 feet,” he says. Steiner, the photographer, postulated that Donovan spied the lights of Idyllwild after the whiteout eased up, then began to fight his way down toward the town, muscling through brush, only to stumble off one of the myriad 30- to 50-foot dropoffs en route.

About the only thing that seemed certain was that Donovan perished on San Jacinto’s west side, near Saddle Junction. On Memorial Day weekend, 2005, Riverside County Rescue Unit personnel combed the area with dogs. After 2 fruitless days, officials called off the search for good.

Back in Virginia, Donovan’s friends could only reflect on the vacuum his absence created. Robert Duesberry recalled how he needed a friend after his wife committed suicide in January 1999. “I needed to do something,” says the 46-year-old tile installer. “I needed to stop thinking, so I called the club and said, ‘Who goes hiking in winter?'”

Donovan seemed unfazed that Duesberry hadn’t hiked in 20 years. The two men backpacked almost every weekend that winter. At night, they had long conversations. “John talked about forgiveness,” says Duesberry, who continued the winter hikes with Donovan until his friend vanished. “He said that sooner or later you’ll stop being angry and forgive her for killing herself. He listened; he helped me see a way out. He offered a breath of fresh air when I needed it most.”

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