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Lost & Found

John Donovan disappeared in a high-elevation blizzard, leaving rescuers and friends stumped. His backpack contained a miracle clue. Bill Donahue investigates.

Another club member who was sexually abused as a child says Donovan helped him overcome the long-simmering trauma. “I’ve told very few people what happened to me,” the man says, “but when you got around John, you’d open up. He was very comforting. He quoted statistics about what happens to victims. He said I’d beaten the odds. He said, ‘You’re stable. You’re a good person.’ And then he never shared what I’d said with anybody. I came away feeling cleansed.”

When you’re a reporter asking about people who are gone, you can glimpse a dead person’s spirit by watching how his survivors receive your curiosity. Often, they’re cagey or indifferent. But Donovan’s friends were happy to talk, to tell hilarious stories about their old pal. Padgett told anecdotes for almost 3 hours in a TGI Friday’s one night. He followed up with a note that said: “God rest his soul.”

All of the stories painted a consistent picture: John Donovan was a little socially obtuse and eccentric, yes. But his generosity had an enduring quality, and he emitted a purity of spirit that was almost holy. Somehow, you’d always come away from time with him better for the experience.

After their snowball fight, Brandon Day and Gina Allen hiked the 1.5-mile Desert View Trail, which loops the high flats by the tramway. On a whim, they ventured off-course to a cliff atop Long Valley. Day, who has hard blue eyes and a blond buzz cut, was never a wilderness type. He wears a gold Texas Tech fraternity ring, and still talks of his football days. “In high school,” the 5-foot-8, 155-pound Day says, “I played fullback, and the reason is I like to hit.”

Brandon’s father, Paul, later said Brandon actually played defensive back, a position better suited to slight players. But from his dad, who coached him early on in football and baseball, Day inherited an old-school code of manhood. He describes himself as a take-charge type possessed of a “can-do attitude.” And he is invariably courtly. “I’m the kind of guy,” he says, “who always holds the door open for ladies.”

Day was drawn to Allen’s MySpace.com profile because she, too, had football in her past. She was an all-American cheerleader as a teen and then a roving cheerleading instructor. After earning a degree in family-resource management from Iowa State, she moved to Dallas to live with her sister.

On their first date, Day took Allen to a Moroccan-themed lounge called the Velvet Hookah. “There were pillows all over the floor,” Allen recalls, “and people were lying on them with their shoes off. It was a very chill place. It was different.”
It wasn’t the last unusual place Allen would go with Day.

California authorities now know that Donovan checked his bravado after parting company with the Davises on May 3, and tried to detour west down into Idyllwild. But with no way to navigate, he became disoriented. In a journal written in the margins of photocopied guidebook pages, Donovan scribbled, “Couldn’t find the trail to Idyllwild.”

So instead he cut away from Idyllwild, drawn by the lights of much larger Palm Springs. Traveling about 3 miles northeast from the Saddle Junction area that night, he traversed skinny Willow Creek, then climbed a small ridge and plunged down into a steep gash called Hidden Valley. As he dipped into lower, heartier climate zones, the brush became nasty and thick, the talus rife with scrub oak and manzanita.

Donovan’s journal places him in Long Valley, at about 4,300 feet, the night of May 3. On May 5, still camped in the same ravine, he took a fall. How badly he was hurt is unclear; Donovan didn’t elaborate. But clearly the ordeal of the past few days had landed him in trouble. He wrote that he had already become too weak to climb up out of the canyon.

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