It was nearing twilight Saturday near Indian Valley Reservoir in Lake County when Luke Macaulay came across Daniel Thompson's rented Zipcar, all but obscured by dense brush down a hill off the roadway.
Macaulay, 32, of Berkeley, was tracking wild pigs with two friends in the chaparral and rolling hills about a mile from the reservoir when he saw the car. His first thought was that it had been junked like others he has seen on past trips.
But this was different. A newer car, the driver's door open, keys still in the ignition.
"It was clean no leaves or anything. It was 'Whoa. Was anybody around?' It was a little spooky," Macaulay said.
His girlfriend, Hannah Wood, a postdoctoral arachnologist at UC Davis, was also along for the trip. As Macaulay spotted the car's hood, Wood, driving along the U.S. Bureau of Land Management road, saw the car's tire tracks ending at the roadside.
Macaulay and Wood met in the thick brush, took a couple of quick photographs of the car and its license plate and headed back toward the road, he said.
But just before they did, Macaulay turned around. He checked the glove box. Inside were Thompson's wallet and driver's license.
"It was spooky coming up on a car that clean," Macaulay said. "We had no idea somebody was missing."
But Thompson had been missing for days and his family, colleagues and friends were growing more and more concerned.
A senior stage technician at Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, Thompson is a key member of the staff, a liaison to the university's theater and dance departments who coordinates the center's special events.
He missed an important meeting April 15, then two more days at the peak of Mondavi's busy calendar, said Herb Garman, Mondavi's director of operations.
Roommates, Garman said, could not reach Thompson on his cellphone, by email or by text.
Garman called Davis police. Pals went to social media to collect leads and post well wishes.
"There was a lot of concern. His many friends from throughout the community put out a Facebook page," Garman said. Among Thompson's Mondavi colleagues, there was "an undercurrent of disbelief."
Macaulay, Wood and their friends had no cellphone signal until Sunday morning, when they returned to the Valley. The car showed no sign that anyone was hurt, so the group decided their find could wait until morning.
That was when Wood saw Thompson's name on the driver's license. A quick Internet check revealed Thompson was missing and that friends, family and Davis authorities were seeking clues into his disappearance.
"That got us really nervous," Macaulay said. "Were we at a crime scene?"
By noon, they called Davis police and met officers at a friend's house for an interview.
As the officer was concluding his questioning, a call came over his radio, Macaulay said.
Thompson was safe.
"He said he was lost in the wilderness for seven days and could he get a ride home," Garman said. "We're very glad he's back."
Thompson, who could not be reached for comment and has denied interview requests, expects to return to work next week, Garman said.
Thompson's safety confirmation to friends came, as so much does these days, on Facebook, under the subject heading, "Status Update."
A: Tell people when you camp by yourself.
B: Drive carefully on gravel.
C: Learn edible plants in your area, because when you find yourself lost on BLM land without a car, cellphone, or kit, runoff and pine nuts make a (expletive) diet.
I love all of you. I'm very touched. I'mma go to sleep.
"Once we got the OK, it was a sigh of relief," Macaulay said, laughing softly at girlfriend Wood's reaction. "She said, 'We solved the case!' It is exciting. He's OK."
Call The Bee's Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.