A woman who survived the wilderness alone at just six years old says she owes it to her imaginary friend who "kept her calm".
Haley Zega, 27, got lost as a child whilst on a hike with her grandparents and friends in the Ozark Mountains, Arkansas, US.
She became separated from her grandparents - Jay and Joyce Hale - near a waterfall and took the wrong path, leaving her "immediately alone" without food, water and shelter.
Haley spent the next 52 hours trying to navigate her way out of the huge Ozark National Forest aided only by her imaginary friend, Alicia - while 1,000 people looked for her.
She trekked along the Buffalo River hoping it would lead to a bridge and eventually a town – sleeping out in the open.
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After two days without food or water, Haley was rescued by two men - William Jeff Villines and Lytle James - who carried her on the back of their mules to safety.
Haley, an actress from Fayetteville, Arkansas, US, said: "I've never really been a panicker and in extreme life or death situations I'm calm and in problem-solving mode and that's how I felt throughout. From the minute I was lost I had this imaginary friend, Alicia, who kept me calm and on task and was nothing but a positive presence for me whilst I was missing."
"There were times I didn't want to be out there and the nights were pretty difficult being alone in the dark, with nothing."
She continued: "I was not having a good time, but it never occurred to me that I wouldn't be okay. I think if I'd been any younger I would have sat down and cried and had I been older I would have known how serious the situation was and not to move.
"The place I went missing is probably the most rural area between The Appalachian Mountains and Rocky Mountains."
The group had hiked to the Whittaker Point area of the Ozark National Forest on April 29 2001, when a “tired and fussy” Haley insisted her grandparents take her down to see a waterfall she had spotted.
They refused and adopted the "classic" move of turning to leave - knowing Haley would eventually follow.
Haley did but found herself alone after taking a separate trail, thinking it would meet back up with her grandparents.
Once lost, she decided her best bet was to be near the river.
Haley said: "I was thinking that it would eventually lead to a gas station where I could call my parents. I was shouting my parents' names and their phone numbers.
"There were helicopters overhead and I started throwing sand from the riverbank into the air, but they never saw me. I was wearing a grey shirt, black shorts, so I wasn't very visible, and annoyingly I'd left a red sweatshirt in the truck.
"It was kind of a perfect storm of small bad decisions."
At night, Haley swam to an open rock in the middle of the river to sleep – believing she needed to be out in the open to get spotted – but said it was a "miracle" she didn’t drown.
Haley continued along the riverbank the next day, whilst unbeknownst to her one of the biggest organised searches in Arkansas history was taking place to locate her.
She said: "I never ate or drank anything - even though I had a supply of water I didn't know If I could drink it.
"I found out later the search party were very concerned that I could've been dragged off by a mountain lion or cougar but I never saw anything like that."
She spent a second night out in the open – finding a cave to sleep in.
Haley said: "I remembered something that my mum told me about the way the clouds look over the moon can be a sign of rain. I found a small cave and spent the second night in there.
"I was hallucinating family members in the trees and a valley of flamingos - which I think is an interesting peak into my psyche.
"We, unfortunately, do not have any flamingos in Arkansas."
Haley was eventually found by two men who'd been out searching for her, away from the main search.
She said: "They found me, said my name and told me everyone had been looking for me.
"They gave me a bottle of Diet Coke and chocolate pudding. They put me on the back of the mules and I remember I only wanted to ride on the back of the smaller one. I found out later that these two men knew the forest really well and told the official search headquarters they might be looking in the wrong place.
"They were essentially laughed off and told it would be a waste of resources looking there, so they went off on their own.
"When we came out of the woods we were at the bottom of the mountain and the police drove me to the top.
"The sheriff went and told my mum 'there's a little girl who wants her mama'."
Despite the ordeal, Haley says it didn't leave her traumatised, and she has now set up a TikTok to tell her story.
She said: "I think I have a very concrete sense of the power of community and the kindness of strangers.
"I tend to be optimistic in believing things will work out in the end.
"I genuinely believe people are willing to help and it's helped me keep a positive attitude when things haven't gone well in the past.
"I'm very adventurous - it's not stopped me from taking risks and I've had massive adventures.
"I don't let fear rule, and it's caused me to treat people with kindness.
"Whilst I would never want to go through it again and wouldn't wish it upon anyone, I would say it's had a positive impact on my life overall.
"I try to show, yes, I was a missing child, but that's not all I am, I'm not defined by it.”
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