On a foggy, rainy morning in April, Kelly Hays took the first steps on her latest adventure.
The 28-year-old Conway registered dietitian and outdoors vlogger set out from Dawsonville, Ga., to hike all 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a quest she'd been meticulously planning since 2018.
For five days she walked up and down mountains, making friends, soaking up the views, reveling in waterfalls and recording video of it all for her YouTube Channel, Kelly Hays Hikes.
"They were the best days of my life, and I'm not exaggerating," she says. "It's everything I love. I'm an extrovert, so meeting new people every day filled my soul, being in nature, living in the woods, waking up to the sound of the birds and the sunrise, you can't beat it."
On the morning of the sixth day, however, wracked with pain, she hiked 4½ miles with friends Grace and Stephanie to a road where she was picked up and eventually taken to a hospital.
"I was hoping the whole time I wasn't being over-dramatic," Hays says.
Hours later, she underwent emergency surgery to remove one of her ovaries, which had an eggplant-sized cyst that caused an ovarian torsion.
"I didn't cry all day until they told me I was going into emergency surgery," she says. "The first thing that popped into my mind was that that meant I was going to be off trail. That's why I started crying. It broke my heart."
Hays is fully recovered now, and guess where she is.
On the Appalachian Trail.
We spoke with the determined hiker earlier this month on her way to North Carolina to resume her trek.
"I'm getting back out there and meeting up with my trail family," she says. "I'm so ready."
She also notes that she's a bit lighter this time around, sans cyst.
"I can't believe I was walking around with that brick in my stomach for so long. I feel such a difference."
A trip to her gynecologist before the hike would likely have revealed the malady, Hays says.
"This is me being an advocate for women going to their yearly gynecologist appointment. The last time I had gone was 2017. That was a big lesson I learned through all of this, stay up to date on those appointments."
Hays, who has degrees in journalism and nutrition from the University of Central Arkansas and a master's degree from UCA in nutrition science, took up backpacking after a 12-mile hike at Petit Jean with her friends. She was soon eyeing a thru-hike of the daunting Appalachian Trail.
Though her first attempt ended in the hospital, her faith was strengthened.
"I couldn't have gotten through that day without the Lord," she says. "Even through these few weeks I've been off trail, I've grown in my faith, and I can't wait to get back out there."