The Lost Runner 

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

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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.

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