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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.
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.”
Padgett said that once, when Donovan was hiking alone on icy snow in Poland’s Tetra Mountains, Donovan had slipped and went careening down a long, glazed slope. Two other hikers had died in the area that same day, as Donovan told it, but he’d survived because the cord on his windpants snared a bush, arresting his slide. “He called those his lucky pants,” Padgett says. “He wore them everywhere.”
In the Mojave, Donovan accidentally left his lucky pants at a motel. He soon became obsessed with the loss. “One windy night in camp, I set up my tent and got in,” Padgett says. “John was still out there struggling to set up that little tarp of his, so I yelled to him, ‘Hey, comrade, how’s that tarp treating you?'”
“The damn wind’s blowing it all over the place,” Donovan hissed, “and I don’t even have my lucky pants.”
A couple of days later, though, in the town of Warner Springs, the tables turned. Now, Padgett was frustrated. His feet were so swollen that he had to quit hiking after just 100 miles. Yet Donovan was jubilant. “Guess what, comrade,” he exclaimed, waltzing out of the post office. “The guy at the motel sent me my pants–and he paid the postage!”
The euphoria was short-lived. From there on, Donovan would hike alone, into the clutches of a powerful storm.
San Jacinto, the first major mountain that north-bound PCT thru-hikers encounter, is a cragged giant rising from the desert floor 60 miles beyond Warner Springs. Everest-bound diehards frequently train on its north face, which is among the nation’s steepest escarpments, climbing more than 10,000 feet in just 7 miles. Those mountaineers frequently mingle with ultra-runners and PCT hikers on the bald, rocky peak.
But Mt. San Jacinto also has a broader appeal. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, located just up the road from the resorts and golf courses of Palm Springs, climbs to an 8,500-foot mountain plateau in about 15 minutes, delivering tourists to two restaurants, a lounge, and a gift shop near the summit. On May 6, 2006, a warm Saturday, two young Texans were among visitors looking for a view with their cocktails. Brandon Day, 28, and Gina Allen, 24, had met on MySpace.com a few weeks before, and Day, a financial advisor from Dallas, had taken Allen along to a conference at a resort in Palm Desert.
Neither had been so high in the mountains before. In shorts and tennis shoes, holding a digital camera, they strolled to a creek and, in the giddy throes of new romance, pelted each other with snowballs. They were also a little hung-over, the aftereffects of a gala at the resort. And so they were not too sharp of mind that afternoon as they drifted down a path, away from the tram, and away from all things familiar.
By the time Donovan began climbing Mt. San Jacinto on May 2, 2005, the signs of danger were legion. Snow was 3 feet deep up high, and meteorologists were predicting a heavy storm. Many thru-hikers elected to wait out the weather in Idyllwild, accessible via an easy 2.4-mile path branching west from an intersection called Saddle Junction.
These hikers feared the storm would hit as they were climbing Fuller Ridge, a steep, rocky spine rising to 8,725 feet about 5 miles north of Saddle Junction. Around noon on May 3, when three well-equipped hikers whipped down that ridge and encountered Donovan, they warned him that they’d seen clouds sweeping in. “But we weren’t going to change his mind,” says Brian Barnhart, a Pittsburgh-based metallurgist. “He was emphatic about going up Fuller Ridge.”
Duane Steiner, a photographer from Lake Arrowhead, CA, likewise remembers Donovan as overconfident. “This guy was going to conquer the world,” says Steiner. “I said, ‘I know the area. You need to buy an ice axe to do Fuller Ridge.'” Donovan rejected the advice, a choice that wouldn’t have surprised his friends and colleagues. They recall him defiantly walking 4 miles to work even on frigid days, his face wind-burned and frozen when he arrived. As an ultralighter, he probably figured an ice axe was a heavy, extravagant tool he’d rarely use, and anyway he was too stubborn to change now.
Around 1 p.m. on May 3, Donovan likely began to have doubts. He climbed into Little Tahquitz Valley, just south of Saddle Junction, and found that the trail, partly visible until then, was now concealed by snow. The footprints amid the tall ponderosas were scattered, and the trees bore no blazes. Donovan sought help from two other hikers–a Canadian nurse named Connie Davis, 46, and her 20-year-old son, Alex, both of whom had extensive altitude experience.
Donovan had camped near the Davises the night before, and they did not hit it off. “He had no trouble speaking his mind,” Connie Davis says. “When we talked of how young men can ‘find themselves’ on the trail, he was dismissive. He said, ‘You find yourself living your life.'”
When Donovan began following the Davises through the snowfield, Connie told him, “We’re not going to take the most direct route.” He tagged along anyway as the Davises navigated with an altimeter, staying at 8,000 feet, hugging the contour line as it squiggled across both the landscape and their topo map. Donovan stayed about 30 feet behind them. He’d put on crampons, but the spikes didn’t work well with his lightweight trail runners, and he slipped and fell repeatedly.
“He was having a hard time,” says Connie. “But he seemed healthy, and it seemed to me that he was going to hike up Fuller Ridge if he wanted to. I remember thinking, he’s an adult. I won’t tell him what to do.”
The Davises kept gliding along, snapping photos and aiding their balance with trekking poles. Donovan kept falling–and cursing in frustration.
Eventually, the Davises followed a small creek uphill and turned northwest roughly half a mile south of Saddle Junction. “That’s where we saw him last,” Connie Davis later wrote in a letter to the PCT community. It was at about 8,080 feet on the afternoon of May 3. “He was very close to Saddle Junction. There was patchy snow at this point, and you could see hints of the trails.”
No one knows exactly what Donovan did next. No one ever saw him alive again.
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.”
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.
Indeed, the cryptic notes Donovan scrawled depict a man coming to terms with the bleakness of his situation. He tried to signal for help. He built a few weak fires that smoldered out, due to the winter’s copious snows. He flashed a mirror at the sky. No one saw him. A 100-foot waterfall lay directly below, and the canyon’s walls were virtually sheer. He was boxed in, and he likely knew that it would be days, maybe a week or more, before anyone noticed he was missing.
At one point on May 5, Donovan took an inventory of his supplies. He was down to 12 cheese crackers.
His friends believe Donovan would’ve remained hopeful. “He always carried a transistor radio,” says Chris Hook, “and I bet he kept turning it on, waiting to hear that people were searching for a hiker. He believed things would work out.”
Then again, Donovan was a realist. “I see him walking around, yelling, ‘John, how the hell did you get yourself into this?'” says Lynn Padgett. “Especially as he got older, when he made mistakes he was hard on himself. John didn’t believe in fairy tales. He knew nobody was going to swoop down from the sky and save him.”
Around 3 p.m., Day and Allen heard a waterfall and wandered off-course again, to take pictures of the cascade. When they tried to get back on the trail, they couldn’t find it. “I wasn’t worried,” says Day. “I have a good sense of direction. And we figured that if we missed the bus back to the resort, we could just take a taxi.”
They followed voices for a while, only to discover that, in fact, they were chasing echoes. By 5 p.m., they’d floundered back to Long Creek, which they’d seen from the overlook. They yelled for help and heard nothing but echoes, so they tried to head directly north, toward the tram. But they kept hitting dead ends. “The mountain forces you downward,” Day explains. “It was like Chinese finger cuffs: The more we tried to get out, the tighter and steeper it got.”
When dusk fell, Day scrambled ahead alone in search of alternate paths. “He went out of sight,” Allen says, “and I was shaking. I was really scared.” Allen had never spent a night outside, though she’d tried to camp out back in Iowa. “Me and my girlfriends, we’d start out,” she says, “but then my brothers would come out and make scary noises.”
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.”
Donovan’s body lay just 50 yards from Day and Allen. Though they never saw it, it was just downstream, by a 20-foot waterfall, in a pool set amid birches and mossy green rocks.
But because help, or even a recovery crew, never came for him, Donovan provided the Texas couple with a way out. In the pack, Day and Allen found matches–roughly 20 strike-anywheres preserved in a plastic bag. At once, Day set to work lighting a signal fire. He piled dry vines and leaves and set them ablaze as Allen waved an orange stuff sack they found in Donovan’s pack.
Soon, a helicopter floated over. “I was ripping branches off dead trees, frantically feeding the fire,” says Day. “Gina was jumping up and down, yelling.”
The copter drifted by, its occupants oblivious, and the next morning–the couple’s fourth day on the mountain–there were a dozen matches left. “If we’re going out,” Day told Allen, “we’re going out swinging.” He gathered 30 or so dry logs and lit them. He shredded spent matches for kindling. The flames leaped 20 feet. Suddenly, half an acre was burning. Day sprinted toward Allen, hoping that the blaze wouldn’t engulf them. “The smoke was thick,” he says, “and the trees were on fire. I’m thinking, it’s going. It’s a good signal fire.”
Rescue workers had begun looking the night before after family members reported them missing. Soon, a helicopter began circling. Allen blew kisses to the pilot and leapt in the air, shouting. Then she clung to Day, sobbing. “Thank you,” she said. “You saved my life.”
Three weeks later, rescue personnel returned on a different mission, and a voice crackled over the radio: “We’ve got a body in the water.” Donovan’s body was wrapped in his tarp, straddling a fallen branch choking the stream. Now, only one mystery lingered. Was Donovan’s final message a suicide note? Did he leap to his death, anguished, after 11 days of waiting? Or did he slip and endure a final fall? Not even his closest friends know the truth.
In the weeks that followed their rescue, Day and Allen became inseparable. “We have such a deep bond now,” Allen says. “I trust Brandon with my life.”
“I feel like I’ve looked into Gina’s core inner being,” Day says, “and found she has a lot to offer. We trusted each other.”
Day hopes to return to Long Canyon someday, with a guide. “Round one went to the mountain,” he says, “but it’s not over yet. We won’t feel complete until we conquer that mountain.”
Day, for one, doesn’t see Donovan’s tragedy as integral to his survival. “They probably would have found us anyway,” he told Allen. “They were on our trail.”
In Virginia, though, Donovan’s friends believed. They recognized his gift. On July 11, they buried him in a veterans’ cemetery in Amelia County. Eighty people filled the chapel, and a minister read from Psalm 23: “He leads me beside quiet water. He restores my soul.” A ramrod-stiff Navy officer presented Ken Baker with a flag.
Then, as the crowd spilled outside onto the lawn, bagpipers played “Amazing Grace” and Lynn Padgett moved to the grave bearing a red plastic cooler. There, he opened a Sea Breeze bottle filled with Irish whiskey and began filling up plastic cups, so everyone could take a nip.
“I think of him all the time,” Padgett says. “Sometimes as I fall asleep at night I see myself hiking by a stream and I come around a bend and there’s a tarp. There’s a yellow pack, and I yell, ‘Hey, comrade! Hey, comrade!’ But there’s no sound, just the wind and the stream, and there’s nothing there–just this green tarp and a pack and some shoes on a rock.”
Bill Donahue was on Mt. San Jacinto when John Donovan’s body was recovered.