Lost Va. Hiker's Point of Despair

Jim Manues, left, and Pete Carlson of the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit search through John Donovan's backpack, the contents of which helped lead to the rescue of Brandon Day and Gina Allen.
Jim Manues, left, and Pete Carlson of the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit search through John Donovan's backpack, the contents of which helped lead to the rescue of Brandon Day and Gina Allen. (By Rodrigo Pena -- Press-enterprise Via Associated Press)

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 12, 2006

The shaky handwriting in the margins of the hiking map was that of a desperate man, lost in the wilderness 2,600 miles from his Virginia home, out of energy and out of hope.

He was down to his last three crackers, he scribbled. He knew that nobody was looking for him. And he expected that here, alone in this treacherous gorge in California's San Jacinto Mountains, he was about to die.

His last entry was May 8, 2005. He packed his maps into his new orange and yellow backpack, along with his navy blue fleece and the Ziploc bag containing the Virginia driver's license that identified him as John Donovan, 60, of Petersburg. And then he vanished.

On Monday, exactly one year later, Brandon Day, 28, and his girlfriend, Gina Allen, 24, also lost, hungry and desperate, blundered into the same rugged gorge and, through John Donovan's apparent demise, found their survival.

The Dallas couple had wandered away on a nature outing and had been stumbling with no food, little sleep and flagging spirits for almost three days. They began following a stream, just as Donovan probably had the year before, and as they rounded a bend, they spotted a campsite in the distance.

They were ecstatic. Here, perhaps, was salvation. "Hello!" they called. "Is anybody here?" There was a green tarp spread over branches for shelter. There was a pair of tennis shoes and a black winter jacket on a rock. There was also an orange and yellow backpack.

But their calls were answered by silence, and as they examined the backpack, they saw that it was sodden, weathered and had been there for some time. When they looked inside, they found Donovan's journal and realized, to their dismay, that his fate might well be theirs.

But Donovan was a meticulous hiker. He shaved on the trail every day, and he had carefully stored a pack of matches in a waterproof bag. Day and Allen were rescued the next day after using his matches to start a signal fire that was spotted by rescue crews.

Yesterday, Day recounted the ordeal while friends of Donovan -- who has not been found -- recalled a joyous hiking companion whose trail name was "El Burro" because of his streak of stubbornness.

The story began last spring when Donovan, who friends said was single and a Navy veteran, turned 60 and retired as a counselor at Petersburg's Central State Hospital. A dedicated and experienced hiker, he had logged thousands of miles on the Appalachian Trail and was a longtime member of the Richmond-based Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club. He had two trail names: "Seabreeze," whose origin, one friend said, was unknown, and El Burro.

"Everybody knew him," hiking colleague Coleen Kenny said yesterday. "He had a laugh that you could hear across the room. He just had a personality that drew people in. He was single all his life, but he had more friends than anybody I knew."

His hiking friends were his family, she said.


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