A woman who survived two days alone in the wilderness without food, water and shelter when she was just six years old has revealed how an imaginary friend helped her to survive the traumatic experience.
Haley Zega, 27, from Fayetteville, Arkansas, got lost while on a hike with her grandparents and friends in the Ozark Mountains.
After she took the wrong path, she was separated from her grandparents – Jay and Joyce Hale – and found herself ‘immediately alone.’
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, who she said ‘kept her calm’- while 1,000 people looked for her.
Haley Zega , 27, from Fayetteville, Arkansas, got lost while on a hike with her grandparents and friends in the Ozark Mountains when she was six years old
She survived two days alone in the wilderness without food, water and shelter (Haley pictured with Lytle James, one of the men that rescued her, on May 1, 2001)
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.
She was completely stranded, without any food or water.
The then-six-year-old even attempted to swim to safety and get a helicopter flying above to notice her.
While was fighting to cope with the horrifying conditions, one of the biggest searches in Arkansas was taking place, with 1,000 people searching for the child.
Recalling the experience, Haley explained how she managed to maintain a cool, calm head – even at such a young age – revealing that she has never been the type of person to ‘panic’ but instead focuses her energies on problem solving.
‘I’ve never really been a panicker in extreme life or death situations,’ she said, adding of her mental state: ‘I’m calm and in problem-solving mode and that’s how I felt throughout.’
Haley also sought help from a rather unusual source: an imaginary friend who she says helped to provide her with ‘positive’ support while she was alone, even when the situation seemed at its most desperate.
‘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 while I was missing,’ she revealed.
While Haley (seen with her grandparents) tried to find help, one of the biggest searches in Arkansas was taking place, with 1,000 people searching for the child
Haley was recued by William Villines (pictured) who gave her a coke when he first found her after she had no food or water for two days
Haley (seen recently) got lost after she took a wrong path when her grandparents refused to take her down to the waterfall
‘There were times I didn’t want to be out there and the nights were pretty difficult being alone in the dark, with nothing. I was not having a good time, but it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be okay.’
Haley’s tender age made the situation all the more terrifying for those searching for her, however she says that it was actually something of a blessing that she wasn’t any older.
‘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,’ she shared.
‘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 in 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.
The quick-thinking youngster (seen with Villines) said that she followed a trail through the woodland in the hopes that it would lead her to a gas station where she could call for help
At night, Haley (seen with Villines as he gave her chocolate pudding, which was the first thing she had ate in two days) swam to a rock in the middle of the river to sleep
Haley (pictured as a child) continued along the riverbank the next day, while unbeknownst to her one of the biggest organized searches in Arkansas history was taking place to locate her
‘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, while unbeknownst to her one of the biggest organized searches in Arkansas history was taking place to locate her.
Search and rescue teams, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and Colleen Nick, the founder of the Morgan Nick Foundation, had organized a volunteer group filled with over 1,000 people are searching to find the missing child -all while Haley attempted to stay alive.
The 27-year-old, who is now pursuing a career in acting, 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 her second night in the wilderness sleeping in a cave after using survival skills her mother had taught her to ascertain that it might rain.
‘I remembered something that my mom told me about the way the clouds look over the moon can be a sign of rain,’ she explained.
‘So I found a small cave and spent the second night in there.’
The 27-year-old (pictured with her mom) 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 explained
After two days without food or water, Haley was rescued by two men – William Jeff Villines and Lytle James – and carried her on the back of their mules to safety
But she says that the physical toll of being stuck in the wilderness with no food or drink was starting to have an impact on her mental wellbeing, revealing: ‘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.’
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 was rescued on May 1, 2001.
‘They found me, said my name and told me everyone had been looking for me,’ she recalled. ‘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.
Despite the ordeal, Haley says it didn’t leave her traumatized, 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’
She added: ‘While I would never would 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’
‘When we came out the woods we were at the bottom of the mountain and the police drove me to the top.
‘The sheriff went and told my mom ‘there’s a little girl who wants her mama’.’
Despite the ordeal, Haley says it didn’t leave her traumatized, 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.
‘While I would never would 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.’