The Lost Runner 

How a runner's obsession left him missing in the wilderness.

There was trouble in paradise on July 25, the day Josh Jacobs and eight fellow hikers set out for Angel Springs, a remote camping site in Lake County's Snow Mountain Wilderness. Once a backpacker destination tucked off a well-kept trail, Angel Springs vanished from maps of the area about ten years ago. It is now accessible via an overgrown path that meanders about two miles off the main trail, and seasoned backpackers such as Jacobs and his father are the only people who ever go there. For Jacobs, a 22-year-old raised in Berkeley, the place has sentimental value as somewhere he has camped every summer since childhood. Jacobs said his father, Ben, knows the area so well that "You could place him anywhere and he'd find his way back." But anyone else would hike there at his own peril.

The Summit Springs trailhead lies at the southern edge of Snow Mountain Wilderness, at the end of a steep dirt road that ascends about a mile from the main thoroughfare. The road branches off of a four-way intersection, where hikers sometimes park their cars if they can't make it up the final portion. On the day that Josh arrived with Ben and their companions, a silver Ford Focus sat at that intersection. Apparently, it had been neglected for seven days. Josh said they were idling at a stop sign when a police officer walked up to the car. "He was like, 'Hey, did you guys see a runner on the road?' We're like, 'No.'... Their idea was that maybe he had run out of gas and then walked back along the road to find gas."

The second ominous sign came one mile ahead at the trailhead, where Josh saw notes stuck on the windshields of all the cars. "Man Missing," one note said. "John Mintz. 5' 5", 115 lbs. Runner's build. Call Colusa County sheriff w/ info."

Snow Mountain Wilderness Area straddles three counties — Colusa, Glenn, and Lake — and includes 37,000 acres within the larger Mendocino National Forest. There are 37 miles of maintained trails and 18.5 miles of neglected trails with switchbacks and treacherous glades. John Mintz had been missing for a week. He could have been anywhere. Ben Jacobs assumed he was dead.

Unruffled, the campers hiked four miles to their secret spot, pitched their tents, camped for the night, and set out the next day to hike the peak of Snow Mountain, a round-trip journey of roughly eight miles. They took a shortcut down the mountain that wound up being a lot longer than anticipated, and briefly got lost — "but not really lost," Jacobs said. Around mid-afternoon they saw a helicopter circling the mountain in search of Mintz. By the end of the day, Jacobs and his companions were beat. They got back to camp, made dinner, and started eating at about 6:30 p.m. At dinner everyone started singing Broadway show tunes. "We're being kinda loud," Jacobs said, "and then one of the people from our group is like, 'Whoa, we heard someone shouting from the woods.'"

Everyone stood up and listened. Somewhere, just beyond their secret campsite, a man's voice was calling for help. The campers dashed toward the sound. There, coming out of the brush, was a small, thin, tanned man in running shorts, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes with no socks. John Mintz had a seven-day beard, and his legs were scratched and bloody from bushwhacking. He had lost his way the previous Saturday on his way down from the summit. Mintz had spent a week in the wilderness eating grass and bugs, trying to withstand 90-degree days and 50-degree nights in just his running shorts and T-shirt. The 43-year-old runner looked embattled.

"I'm really convinced that if we hadn't been there — I don't know how he would have been found," Jacobs said. "We found him two miles off the road. No one goes there."

Jacobs was puzzled by the story of Mintz' disappearance. Even more puzzling was the fact that he'd done it before.

John Mintz set out for Snow Mountain Wilderness on July 18, shortly after eating lunch with his wife, Melanie, at Genova Delicatessen in Walnut Creek. The two had recently separated but still saw each other frequently. It was a precarious relationship. Their divorce was supposed to be finalized the following Thursday, the day of John's 43rd birthday. Still, they had what Melanie described as "a very romantic lunch." Yet John was clearly preoccupied.

He had told his family he would be driving to Mount Lassen and began heading that way up Interstate 5. Then Mintz changed plans on a lark. He took the exit at Maxwell Road, and began heading toward Stonyford, then spent about an hour winding up dirt roads to get into the Mendocino National Forest. Mintz parked at a four-way intersection about a mile from the Summit Springs Trailhead into the Snow Mountain Wilderness. He planned to scale the two peaks of Snow Mountain, which were roughly five miles and 3,000 feet from his starting point. By then, it was about 4 p.m., and Mintz thought he had another four hours of daylight in which to complete a rather treacherous ten-mile hike. The sun was scorchingly hot — a typical July day reaches about 90 degrees at Snow Mountain — and Mintz was wearing running shorts, a T-shirt, a hat, and sneakers. He carried a map, two granola bars, a Garmin sport watch to keep track of his mileage, a description of the Snow Mountain trail cribbed from Garry Suttle's book California County Summits, and no water. He wore a Garmin device that measured distance and pace, and apparently had a rudimentary GPS feature that Mintz didn't know about.

Mintz is a small, bespectacled, soft-spoken man with a perfect runner's build: beanpole legs and long, stringy muscles. He punctuates most of his sentences with a high, tremulous laugh. He works in a mail room at the Contra Costa County Department of Employment and Human Services and runs just about every night, usually for a full hour. He's seemingly indefatigable and very insular. "It's typical of him to get so focused on things that he blocks out everything else," his wife said. She cited, for example, the video they had bought of John running the Boston Marathon. Runners who purchased a video were guaranteed to appear in it at least ten times, but the first time John and Melanie watched it together, they couldn't spot John even once. "He was so hard to find because he was looking down while he was running," Melanie said. "The minute he crossed finishing, he stops, looks down, puts his hand to his forehead, and starts figuring out his time. I said, 'John, that's you!' I immediately knew because that's a mannerism he does all the time."

Having grown up in suburban Santa Clara, John didn't have a ton experience hiking or backpacking. He'd never been to Snow Mountain Wilderness before. In fact, he'd only been introduced to the outdoors about six years ago, shortly before he started running races. What he did have was an obsessive personality and utter determination. Since he began running competitively in 2002, Mintz had completed more than 200 races total, including six marathons, eighteen thirty-mile runs, three fifty-mile endurance runs, and a twelve-hour distance run during which he ran 74 miles. He had planned to run the San Francisco Marathon on July 26, the day after Jacobs' party found him.

Long-distance runners are a notoriously self-disciplined breed, and Mintz goes to greater extremes than most. After completing a race, he'll never repeat it, although he will go back and redo a race if he didn't manage to finish the first time. He's hiked 300 to 400 parks, all within a few hours of the Bay Area, usually taking the trails one by one and finding a new place to hike once he's conquered all of them. He's compiled an alphabetical list of 3,000 completed trails with their respective counties, and saved it on his computer. Every time he hikes a new one, it gets added to the list. He prefers to take one route in and a different route back so he can cover more ground. He sometimes gets caught trying to finish trails after dark, and a couple of times he's even been fined by park rangers. Nonetheless, Mintz remains poised and steadfast. He always hikes alone. His obsessions are what propel him. They're also his undoing.

A few years ago, Mintz set himself the project of climbing the tallest peak in every county in California: 58 counties, 56 peaks (a couple of counties share peaks). This goal presented all sorts of challenges, given that a few of the peaks lie on private property. Mintz found that out the hard way back in 2006 when he ducked under an electric fence to jog the Long Ridge peak in San Mateo. When he got to the top, he spied a house roughly thirty feet away. A man emerged from the house with a shotgun and began shooting at Mintz. Then he forced Mintz into the house and telephoned the local sheriffs, saying he'd caught a trespasser on his property. The man said that if law enforcement didn't arrive soon, things could get ugly. For half an hour Mintz cowered on the floor with a gun pointed at his head, waiting for the sheriffs to arrive. Mintz escaped charges. John and Melanie later wrote a letter to the San Mateo police department to complain about the man's behavior, but nothing ever came of it.

But Mintz soldiered on with his project, and by time he reached Snow Mountain on July 18, he'd already bagged sixteen peaks. Snow Mountain is the high point of both Colusa and Lake Counties, and tackling it meant another checkmark on John's list.

Mintz started the journey up Snow Mountain in late afternoon, passed a campground and a meadow, and eventually reached a marshy area. "I had a little hesitation there about where the trail was going," he said. Mintz slogged up one side of the marsh toward what he thought was a small, narrow trail. Then he heard a hissing sound. "That was one of the first omens of the trip," he said. "I see this snake. It could have been a rattler. It had its tongue out."

So Mintz turned around and went the other way, which was apparently the right way, since he quickly found a trail sign. Down the trail a ways, he came to a weathered signpost, which appeared to be pointing to the peak in two different directions. (According to Jacobs, this sign originally pointed one way to the peak and the other way to Angel Springs.) Mintz was confused. "First I went on one side, and it didn't seem to go where I wanted to go ... it seemed to kind of fade out," he said. "Then I went on the other side, and that one seemed a little more clear. I just kind of followed it up." By then, Mintz figured he was within a mile of the peak. Eventually the trail got rocky and Mintz scrambled up to the top. He eventually came to a point with two mounds — the east and west peaks — and figured he'd gone close enough to check it off his list. "I never found a piece of paper that said 'peak' or anything, but I went to the top of a couple places."

It was after 6 p.m. by the time he started his descent. "At that point I wasn't extremely apprehensive," he said. "But I know when you come down from the peak it's not clear where to go exactly. You have to get back to the point where you were a quarter mile ago. It seems easy, but in actuality it can get dicey." Mintz tried to retrace his steps. He followed what he perceived to be the original path to the intersection a quarter mile down. "That's where things became problematic. I don't know, I just never found that intersection. ... One bad turn and you can be in a little bit of a quandary." Mintz came to a meadow, but it looked different from the one he had passed on the way up. "There seemed to be sort of a log that went across the meadow. But I hadn't encountered anything like that before. I was getting a little bit concerned."

Roughly an hour had passed since he started his descent. It was getting cold. He had run out of food and had carried no water to begin with. At that point he heard a creek downstream from the meadow, so he went down to get a drink. Then he began following the creek down into a canyon, thinking that it would eventually lead him back to civilization. That was a huge mistake. "Normally, following water is a smart idea," Jacobs said. "But it's really bad at Snow Mountain. It will lead you to a drop."

Mintz kept descending and eventually reached another stream. By then it was getting dark, and the woods had become a labyrinth. Any sign of a trail was long gone, and Mintz was trying to follow the water. "I knew at that time that I wasn't going to make it back," he said. "At that time I said 'I'm just gonna have to spend the night in the wilderness again.' I had done it on three other occasions. Unfortunately, it's a bad pattern. I knew it was going to be a long night. It usually is."

When John didn't show up to work on Monday morning, Melanie sensed that something fishy was going on. She had presumed that John drove to Santa Clara after their lunch on Friday to stay at his parents' house. John's parents, meanwhile, had presumed John went to Lassen and then gone back to Concord to stay with Melanie. "In this case his mom thought he was with me," Melanie said. "I thought he was with his mom."

But John's mother, Gloria, got a call that Monday from her son's office. He hadn't shown up to work. In fact, he had been missing for two days. "When his mom called me, I immediately thought he was dead," Melanie said.

John and Melanie met on an Internet dating site in 2001 and married in 2002, right around the time John started running trails. Before they started dating, John had gone through a similarly compulsive phase with rock concerts. Growing up, Melanie said, John didn't get out of the house much. But in 2000, after attending his first rock concert — a show by the Who at Mountain View's Shoreline Amphitheatre — he started attending them more than once a month, clocking about fifteen the following year. Then, in 2003, he launched a mission to visit all the public libraries in California. He's perused the shelves of more than 500 thus far.

All of these hobbies struck Melanie as a little bizarre, but for the most part innocuous. It was the trail-running thing that worried her. By time John departed for Snow Mountain, he had already been lost several times. The first time occurred in 2002, at Black Diamond Mines outside of Antioch. It was Halloween, so the sun had set around 6 p.m. Mintz had set off late in the day and couldn't find the trail after dark. He called Melanie, who told him to follow the lights back to civilization. Mintz was lucky that time. A local found him at the side of the road and drove him back to the trailhead. "I got all excited and worried," Melanie said. "When he got home, I said, 'I want you to write down ten things you could have done differently so this won't happen any more.' I wrote down: 1) Take a flashlight. 2) Take a cell phone. He couldn't think of anything."

A few months later, John got lost in Briones Regional Park. That time he dialed 911 for help, and eventually a police officer came and rescued him. Then, in August of 2006, he got lost while running to the top of Smith Peak in Yosemite. He started that journey at about 4 p.m., and it took longer than expected. As dusk settled in, Mintz couldn't find the trail anymore, so he decided to plop down and spend the night there. He did it again that November, while jogging in the Millerton Lake State Recreation Area near Fresno. Once again, he set out late in the afternoon on a long, winding trail that enfolded a giant reservoir. Within a couple of hours the area was pitch black, and he couldn't find his way back.

His third night alone in the wilderness happened in 2007 on the day before Christmas Eve. That night, he had decided to conquer the Blue Ridge Trail in Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, on the border of Yolo County. He set off at 4 p.m. and promised Melanie he would be home by 8 p.m. The two of them had planned to eat and wrap gifts together. "He didn't show up," said Melanie. "At 9 p.m., I put away the food and started wrapping gifts by myself. At 1 a.m., I went to sleep. ... That's when I did a lot of praying." Mintz called his wife at seven o'clock the next morning. He'd gotten lost in a thicket after dark and spent the whole night bushwhacking. Melanie was beside herself. "I said, 'Let's talk about this later. I'm calling you in late to work.'"

But the July trip was different. This time, it really did seem as though Mintz' luck had run out. "When I would try to pray I felt like the prayers weren't going anywhere," Melanie said.

That Monday, John's parents, Robert and Gloria Mintz, filed a missing-person report with the Santa Clara Police Department, which, Melanie said "did the routine thing, which was to send out a bulletin." The police seemed cagey around Melanie. "They weren't concerned about him being missing because apparently it's common because of the foreclosure crisis — people are just abandoning houses and disappearing by choice," she continued. "I said, 'There's no mortgage problem for us, I don't know anything in particular he'd be running from.' I'm a very candid person. I was telling them all this stuff so we could find him."

In fact, Melanie got the impression that the Santa Clara police were treating the case as a homicide, and that she was a suspect. "They asked me all these strange questions about John," said Melanie, who was puzzled by the police department's request for the name of Mintz' dentist, lest a body turn up somewhere. "They were also asking questions about me to see if I was participating in foul play or something," Melanie said. On Thursday, she went into Bank of America to find out if any activity had occurred on Mintz' bank account. She was denied access to the account. It turned out that the police had already frozen the account, and the teller said there were specific instructions not to give any information to Melanie Mintz.

Detective Dan Moreno demurs. "In my mind, she was never a person of interest. They were getting divorced on his birthday. It was beginning to look like he was depressed and he maybe wasn't coming back or didn't want to be found. The reason his bank account was closed was because I was calling to see if there was any activity on it. I think that may have frozen his account." Moreno said the dentist question is a "check-the-box thing." He continued: "There's nothing that led me to believe there was any kind of foul play. It got weird because of the whole divorce. He was depressed. He was potentially suicidal because of the circumstances." After filing the missing-person report, Moreno put together a flyer containing Mintz' picture and a description of the case. He sent it to agencies throughout Contra Costa County, Santa Clara County, and Shasta County — home of Mintz' original destination, Mount Lassen.

Meanwhile, Mintz' parents were going down another rabbit hole. On Monday, they called the rangers at Lassen, who said they had no record of John or his car ever being there. John's father Robert drove up to Lassen with a friend on Wednesday and realized, when he got there, that there are actually two different park service entities: Lassen National Forest and Lassen Volcanic National Park. "We were talking to one group of rangers on the phone, and thinking we were talking to everybody," Robert said. "When I got up there they didn't know anything about him being lost. ... They didn't even know who he was. They said they'd keep their eyes open, but at the end we found out he wasn't even there." That afternoon he told Melanie, "My God, I've lost my son. There were so many things I didn't get to say to him."

It was Melanie who decided, on a hunch, to go search Colusa County. She and John had been there the previous year for John's 42nd birthday, when he decided to visit all the libraries in Colusa to celebrate. That Wednesday — the day before his 43rd birthday — Melanie remembered a conversation they'd had. "He said, 'I'm coming here next year, and I'm gonna hike to the highest peak.'"

On Wednesday night, Melanie drove to Yuba City to stay with her 26-year-old niece Juley, and the two of them began brainstorming every possible thing they could do to advance the search effort. They woke early the next morning and started working. They called CalTrans. They cut-and-pasted a flyer to pass out to local merchants. They called AT&T to ensure that John's cell phone hadn't made or received calls for the past week. They went to Bank of America and found out about the blocked account. They e-mailed friends and newspaper reporters, and called local station News 10, who, Juley later wrote, "refused to do anything without the cops contacting them first." They posted a missing-person notice on Craigslist.

That afternoon, they drove to the Colusa County Sheriff's Office to file a second missing-person report. The two women met with Deputy Teresa Torres of Colusa County. "I thought it was a bit weird," Torres said. "I thought maybe he was suffering from a depression problem. ... His birthday was the day his divorce was final. I thought 'Man, if I had all these things slammed against me, I'd want to get away, too.'" As for the homicide angle: "That did cross my mind, but I never thought that of her. ... If she was a suspect, I don't think the suspect would be contacting as many resources as she did."

Torres took the initial report, then went in the squad room to brief night sergeant Joe Garofalo. "I said this guy is missing in Beat 5, and I showed the picture. I asked, 'Have you seen him?'" Torres said she was joking around, but Garofalo glanced at the picture and thought he'd actually seen Mintz walking around Colusa County that week, looking "grungy." It was a fortuitous case of mistaken identity. "John said he was in the wilderness the whole time," Melanie said. "And it's not easy for me to say that a deputy, who to me should have very keen powers of observation, is wrong. But if the deputy hadn't said that, we might not have found John. Because boy, were we excited."

Torres wired Deputy Karl Rudolf in Beat 5, which is up in the mountains. On Friday morning he checked the trailhead registers to see if Mintz had signed in. He hadn't, but that didn't matter because Rudolf found his silver Ford Focus almost immediately. He ordered a helicopter from the California Highway Patrol. He notified Sergeant Gary Basor in Lake County, where Mintz or his body was probably located. Basor took up the case that Saturday, following a limited trail search by Colusa County officials, which ended with Rudolf circling the area in a CHP helicopter. Basor filed a third missing-person report.

By then Mintz had been lost for almost a week. The case looked grim. Nonetheless, his search party tried to remain optimistic that Mintz had not died. "That thought never crosses my mind with lost people," Rudolf said.

Mintz spent his first night in Snow Mountain lying on a dead tree, right next to the stream. The next day he tried to ascend the ridge he had come down the day before, not realizing how far he had descended or how steep it was to go back uphill. In fact, the incline was precipitous. By then he had gotten pretty far off trail. To get out of the canyon he would have to climb through thorny briars and trees with thick, webby branches. "You go up, you're gonna get scratched," Mintz said. "I was bleeding a couple times." He didn't have a watch, so he never quite knew what time it was. That threw him off. After roughly an hour of plowing through the brush he was covered with bruises, and still not anywhere near the top of the ridge. "I knew that I had really gone down a lot further than I thought I did," he said. "That concerned me." On top of that, his portable Garmin GPS device had drained its batteries, so he could no longer measure his speed or distance. "This was another bad omen," he said. "It really took a toll on me."

It was Sunday, and Mintz figured a lot of campers and hikers would be wandering the trails above him. He tried calling out, but heard no one. "It just didn't happen," he said. "It's not a very well-populated area." By mid-morning the sun was scorching hot, and he needed water. So he climbed back down to the stream and — for the first time in his life — spent a second night in the wilderness.

The next day, he adopted a different strategy, thinking that if he followed the stream down to the bottom of the gully, it might lead him out of the woods. "It was a very extreme thing," he later recalled. He had begun his descent from the peak at about 7,000 feet of elevation, and by that time he thought he'd dropped to about 3,000 feet. (His car was parked at 4,000 feet.) As he followed the stream, the path became more and more treacherous. At times he was hopping stones and wading through the stream. The stream's current accelerated as the drops got steeper and steeper. In some places, the water level was deep enough to swim. Finally, Mintz reached a vertical slope that shot down about fifteen feet. "I was almost tempted to go down," he recalled. "Then I saw how dangerous it was." Had Mintz fallen down the cliff, he could have incurred a major injury — or worse — with no one around to help him. "It was kind of a point where I really got scared. ... I almost saw my life pass there."

So he gave up. He climbed back up the cliff and tried to retrace his steps. But he felt straitjacketed and began to despair. "I'm down in the canyon and I gotta climb one, two, maybe three thousand feet up just to get to one ridge. But then I find out there's another ridge. And another ridge. And then there's plenty of ridges all over. I'm off trail, and the ridges are all there. There's no guarantee I'm gonna find anything anywhere. So you can try to go one place or another, but it just got kinda bleak."

In the days that followed, his chances of escape only got slimmer. Few hikers and backpackers come on the weekdays, so there wasn't much use calling for help. He didn't have any food. He started eating dead ants and blades of grass for sustenance. (Humans can't actually digest grass, but Mintz said he didn't eat enough to upset his stomach.) He drank water from the stream. He lost his socks. The nights got colder — so cold, in fact, that he had to get up every fifteen minutes or so and do jumping jacks to get his blood circulating. The days were unbearably hot. "Feel somewhat resigned where I may have to play waiting game and just hope I am found, or be a Robinson Crusoe," he later wrote in a diary entry recounting the ordeal. By Thursday, he was disconsolate. "Reach age 43," he wrote, "and not a single happy moment except surviving the day and night."

On Saturday, though, he had a change of heart. It was the weekend again, and more hikers would be out in the woods. He ascended the ridge once more but ran into a wild dog somewhere near the top. The dog growled, and Mintz picked up a big stick to scare it away. Frightened, Mintz scrambled back down to the stream, thinking there might be a pack of dogs lurking somewhere nearby. Then he saw Rudolf's helicopter.

By this time, Sergeant Basor had taken over the case, and he had called Kathie Krebser of the Lake County Search and Rescue Association to help amass resources. "At 11:30 hrs, 21 searchers responded to the sheriff's main office to be briefed on the search," Basor wrote in the incident report. Sixteen of those searchers were members of the Lake County K-CORPS (Kelseyville Community Organization for Rescue and Public Service), a program that trains high-school students in tracking, wilderness survival, and technical rope rescue. Basor deployed four teams of searchers to scout the roads and the trail at Summit Springs. He called CHP Air Operations and reserved an H14 helicopter to fly in the event that any new information came in. ("H14 had flown earlier that day for Colusa County and was changing flight crews," Basor wrote in his report.) He planned on requesting search dogs and ground searchers to continue the following day.

At 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, Basor received a call from Ben Jacobs announcing that John Mintz had been found. Josh and Ben had hiked four miles back to the trailhead from Angel Springs in order to get cell phone reception and call 911. (By then, one of Josh's shoes had fallen apart, and he was using a string to hold the sole in place.) Basor assembled his ground team — including the sixteen high-school students and two medics — and began the hike back to Angel Springs, with Josh and Ben in the lead.

"So then, their whole crew comes up — like twenty high-school kids from the K-CORPS, which I made fun of to no end," said Josh. "So they all come with their orange matching outfits and their backpacks and their headlamps and all that shit. So me and my dad were hella tired, and have just hiked up the mountain and down, and back out, start leading this group of twenty people — mostly high school kids and a couple adults — back up the trail at ten at night." Luckily, Josh managed to find some duct tape for his shoe. When they got in, Mintz had eaten dinner and was sound asleep in Josh's sleeping bag, clutching a bag of gorp. The rescuers woke him up, examined him, and decided to sleep there and lead him back out in the morning.

"I'm trying to be all rugged, so I'm like, 'I have a coat, I'm gonna be fine.' Fuckin' John Mintz was in a T-shirt," said Josh, who decided to sleep on a tarp outside. "Halfway through, I have to go sleep with my sister because it's really freakin' cold," he said. "Like, I'm in long pants, three layers on top, and I'm freezing my butt off. Like it is cold. I feel for John."

The next morning Mintz hiked back out with the search-and-rescue team at around seven. "The last thing we saw of him was him walking out on his own two feet, holding the gorp, and waving to us," said Josh.

Cases like Mintz' are extremely rare, said Lieutenant Shane Maxey of the Colusa County Police Department. Occasionally, motorcycle riders get lost because they get started on one trail and wind up on another, and don't know how to read a map or a GPS. Sometimes they'll start heading west instead of northeast and eventually run out of gas, said Maxey, but usually they'll run into a ranger station in Beat 5, and someone will help them out or give them fuel. Maxey said the search-and-rescue team usually operates two to three weekends a month from October to December. He can remember one instance in the last couple of years when a hiker got lost, but that person had a cell phone and was able to give the police a GPS heading.

Mintz got lost in an area with no bicycles or motorcycles. He was following a trail that's marked only with so-called ducks, small piles of stacked rocks, or blazes cut into the bark of adjacent trees. Some of the blazes were overgrown, and not visible to the untrained eye. "Sometimes there's no trail to Angel Springs," Ben Jacobs said, "and you're just going from duck to duck." A runner wouldn't be able to see those small landmarks, Josh said, noting that Mintz was further imperiled by his lack of trail knowledge and all the other things on his mind.

John probably wound up costing the state at least $1,700 in search-and-rescue efforts — mostly for the helicopter, which contracts for $850 an hour, and was out for about two hours. He still runs a new trail every night at dusk. "I just sort of have a roaming spirit," he said.

A couple of weeks after the Snow Mountain imbroglio, Mintz was running at Whiskeytown Lake in Redding, right off of State Route 299. He set off around 8 or 9 p.m., which means the sun had already set by the beginning of his run. Mintz admitted he didn't know the area. "There was a trail," he said, "But if I would have kept going ..." His voice trailed off. "I guess some people just like to play with fire a little bit."

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