I stumble into a hotel, laden with my bags, my kids’ stuffed animals, eager to go to sleep.

After driving cross country, camping for several weeks, then starting back across the country, I’m excited for clean sheets, a flush toilet, and a fluffy pillow.  Simple, lovely things we take for granted. I’m ready to dive in the cozy heap and call it a night.

First I walk into the bright, sterile bathroom. A wide mirror stretches across the wall. It’s huge. I look up, and think, “Oh, that is what I look like?” and immediately think next, “Damn, I need some sleep, a haircut, etc. etc.” quickly followed by, “I’m looking old.”

But wait. You see, I hadn’t thought any of that a minute ago. In fact, I hadn’t looked in a mirror for weeks. The only time I did was when I’d tilt the rear view mirror my direction and take out my contacts before crawling into the tent. My thoughts were filled with camping dinners, day time hikes, my daughters, the magnificent wildlife and scenery, and what I was reading, not anything related to my appearance.

Like most campers, I wore only what made me warm and comfortable. Tevas with wool socks. My hooded sweatshirt with the hood up. I had no care about any of it – only that I wanted to stay warm and dry (which is no easy task in Yellowstone’s weather-finicky Lamar valley). I didn’t change clothes for days, except at night into my “non bear-y” clothes so the grizzlies didn’t come visit our tent. We took a handful of showers over the course of 3 weeks. I didn’t really miss them.

Standing in that bathroom I realized that I’d been given a gift. Not to look – really look – in one single mirror and to not think about what I was wearing. This was a true gift in our appearance driven society that focuses too much on beauty at every turn. As we get older, the pressure increases to still look a certain way. Lord knows I am getting older. We are in the middle, after all. While camping with my family all of that fell away. I was left with simply who I am, with no judgement or expectation.

I don’t normally spend a lot of time on dressing and appearance – but this moment in the hotel bathroom made me realize that I have a narrative, probably just like every American woman, that constantly plays when I look in the mirror. We look for flaws. We look for beauty. We look for an unrealistic standard that doesn’t even exist in real people.

I was able to quiet that narrative without even knowing it. This is something I want to do more often. Maybe that is why so many women love hiking, camping, and traveling. You can be yourself, inwardly, and how you look outwardly is secondary, if thought of at all. How we look is not what gives us value. Who we are is what gives us value. What we experience, what we learn, what we believe, and how we behave – these are the meaningful things that contribute to our value.

Not only was this a gift to me, but to my daughters. They saw me at first light in the tent. They saw me using the cook stove to make coffee. They jumped in rivers with me and hiked mountains. No makeup, no pressures of girlhood, no limitations or expectations. How beautiful.

Standing in the hotel bathroom, I turned away from that mirror while I brushed my teeth. The judgmental narrative will have to wait for another day. Maybe, just maybe, it’ll be a little quieter now that I know it’s there. And maybe, I can help my daughters (and students) change the story, and look more deeply at what really matters.