Last year Holly Ward left Whanganui to take her chances in the US wilderness walk known as the Appalachian Trail.
The trail is 3500 kilometres of diverse terrain from Georgia to Maine in the eastern US.
She flew to New York where she caught up with a friend, looked around and sorted out her gear for the walk. She was there for two weeks before taking a 23-hour Greyhound bus trip to Georgia.
At the start of the trail she was registered and given a few tips, including how to hang a food bag away from black bears.
"Bears are a risk along the trail," she says. "I did encounter a few of them, which was really cool."
Holly arrived at the start at about 2pm and planned to stop the night before starting the hike the following morning, but a group set off at about 3pm and Holly tagged along before separating from them and going on her own.
"Most people were out there solo."
She says a common sight were "tramilies" or trail families, meeting at the start and sticking together for a good part of the trail.
"On my third day I met two guys who were best mates from Massachusetts … I ended up walking with them the next day and decided to stick with their plan because I didn't really have one.
"I stayed with them through the whole trail. We met up with another guy a couple of days later and the four of us became a 'tramily' and stuck together."
She says it was "bonding".
"You get really close with people really quickly because you're all in that weird situation, and you're all the type of person who would go into it voluntarily."
Most people earn a trail name — Holly became "Sunshine". It could have been because of an unusual yellow outfit she picked up along the way, or it could have been her personality.
People were surprised she had come all the way from New Zealand.
"The trail is a great unifier and it's an explicit rule that you don't talk about politics. It didn't matter where you were from or your beliefs in anything: everybody's out there for the same reason."
Holly says the trail was a mix of the most incredible experiences, the most amazing people.
"It was also the most painful thing I've ever done. It tested my will to the absolute limit, but it was also beautiful and inspiring and fulfilling in every way."
She got to see bears, snakes, including almost stepping on a rattlesnake, raccoons and gophers. She says she loved fireflies, although her companions took them for granted. She saw and heard woodpeckers, saw beautiful red cardinals and the occasional vulture.
"The first couple of days I was really nervous, wondering what the hell I was doing, what have I got myself into, but I'm here now …
"On the third day there was a tornado warning and a horrible storm and I'm in the middle of the woods."
She weighed up her options — to head to a road and get a lift to somewhere safe or walk on to a shelter. She chose to walk on to the next shelter, where she caught up with the two guys she had met earlier.
"I managed to get there but there were tree branches falling around me. We heard reports of tornadoes in the area and we wondered how we survived it."
About two weeks into the trail it started snowing.
Holly carried a tent but there are shelters along the trail, every 10 miles (16km) or so. They are three walled with an open front, with no furniture, beds, or running water, although they usually have a privy (a long drop).
"They are nothing like a DoC hut."
From there they watched the snow fall in front of them.
The next day was to be a Zero (miles) Day with a break in the nearest town, but they walked the wrong way in the snow, away from their intended destination.
Once every two weeks or so they would leave the trail and stay in a hostel or cheap accommodation, where they would enjoy a shower, a meal and a real bed before heading back out into the woods.
She says there were so many hospitable places where hikers could stop, hang out, and maybe use washing machines.
"One of the coolest things was trail angels and trail magic."
Trail angels leave food and drink for hikers to help themselves or will start a barbecue and wait for hikers to join them and share their meal. They would offer rides into town and other forms of hospitality.
"They were so incredibly kind. We saw the best of the US."
Holly went through four pairs of shoes on the walk.
"You keep them until they wear out."
Most people wore light sports shoes because they dried easily and allowed faster movement.
"In some places the trail is quite smooth, but in other places you are climbing up rocks and ladders, sometimes there are tree roots and rocks everywhere, sometimes there are boardwalks … it's a bit of everything."
Fresh water was sourced from creeks: Holly carried a water filter. Bathing was not a priority but everyone was in a similar state.
Holly was on the trail for about four months, and then … "I had some trouble with tendonitis and it was really painful to walk. We'd got to Massachusetts, where my two friends came from … then one day something happened to my hip, nothing specific, but it just went and I couldn't walk."
At the time they were staying at the home of one of her companions and walking set distances before being picked up and taken back to the house. But that was the end of Holly's Appalachian Trail walk.
"It was so bad; eventually I went to a hospital and saw a doctor … it was my hip flexor, an injury that usually happens to sprinters. I stayed at my friend's dad's house for about six weeks, hoping I could get better and he could drop me back on the trail and I could join my friends."
It did not get better and Holly could hardly walk. They continued the walk without her, but she took over the driving, taking her friends to points along the track and picking them up at the end of the day.
"I just followed them up in the car, which was really interesting.
"At first, when I was injured, it was really hard, because I had set out with this goal of doing the whole thing."
Many people had left the trail before her, giving up for a number of reasons, but Holly kept going.
"I can do this; I'd gotten over a lot of mental and physical hurdles … but then this one thing happened, and although it was out of my control it was hard to accept."
She says it took a while before she could see what she had actually achieved, but she still aspires to finish the trail.
Holly arrived back in New Zealand on September 25, her 24th birthday.