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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.

Now she was up above 7,000 feet, in a tank top and a windbreaker. Day returned after his unsuccessful reconnaissance mission, and the two sat and waited. “It made perfect sense to us,” he says, “that rangers were out looking for us with flashlights and bullhorns.”

At a spot several miles down-hill from them, exactly one year earlier, Donovan had less confidence. In his journal, he conceded that Ken Baker had been “the smart one.” He regretted not heeding his advice about waiting, and told Baker he wanted to be buried in a Navy cemetery. On May 11, he celebrated his 60th birthday by eating two of his crackers.

In his last entry, dated May 14, he scribbled that he was going down to Long Creek for water. “Goodbye and love you all,” he wrote.

The rangers never showed up, so in the morning, after shivering all night in the 45°F chill, Day and Allen decided to climb up San Jacinto to be more visible. The two made it almost to the summit, Day says, around noon. But they saw no one, and after yelling in vain for help, they made a snap decision. “We couldn’t sleep there, up high, in the cold,” says Day.

Riverside County SAR veteran Pete Carlson says Day and Allen should have followed a ridgeline down. “They’d be visible,” he says, “and the descent would be gradual.” Instead, they thrashed deeper into Long Valley, encountering an increasingly steep slope marred with gravel, weeds, and impassable boulders. Day, a chess player, tried to think “five moves ahead.” But the mountain kept vexing them. At one point, he says, “We were going down this steep, gravelly slope, and I got to a 10-foot dropoff. I’m hanging onto a vine to ease down, and then I see this boulder tumbling at me. I swung out over the cliff, holding the vine, and the rock tumbled by.”

They feared Long Creek was filled with microbes, but in time they drank from it to avoid dehydration. But they were famished. “By the third night,” Day says, “we were running out of bullets.”

Allen prayed. Raised Catholic, she prayed to St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, and to St. Anthony, the patron saint of the lost.

John Donovan would not likely have shrugged off this uncanny coincidence. He was not, at his core, a logical or technical person, and he saw the world as shaped by forces beyond reason. It’s no surprise, really, that a man who was orphaned as a boy believed in the power of random luck, both good and bad, and in saints and the karmic value of doing good unto others. He also likely adhered to the notion of “trail magic”–a term thru-hikers use to explain the unexplainable good things that happen on a trail.

But Donovan also clearly figured out that good things don’t just happen; you make them happen. And maybe some lingering thread of his generous spirit occupied Long Valley that day when Brandon Day spied a yellow backpack down below. The pair went to look. Inside, along with some clothes, was Donovan’s journal, with an entry dated May 8. Allen was ecstatic. “He’s got to be nearby,” she said. “That’s today!”

“But the entry was dated May 8, 2005,” says Day. “Exactly a year before. It sank in that somebody died there. Mr. Donovan was prepared and he had supplies. But still, he didn’t survive.”

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