On the morning we left for our 100 day road trip, I stole away moments to straighten my hair. Between trips outside to help pack our Honda Civic – the one our little family of three chose to live out of over the next three months – I was running off to the bathroom to pretty up. Making sure I felt more like myself.
Turns out, I would only get halfway there. There wasn’t enough time to do it all, so my hair remained half down and straightened, half up and tousled. I lingered in the mirror for an extra beat. I liked the edge of my new do, even if it was mostly accidental. But kind of like my hair, I was caught between two states – half happy with my natural self and half feeling the constant need to look ready for the world.
It was clearly illogical to pack beauty supplies on a long-term camping trip. Where on Earth would I be doing my hair? Plus where was the room? Yet there I was packing my clunky blow dryer, half broken curling iron and beloved straightener in that little Civic. Our precious space made that much smaller by my security blankets.
After that pause in the mirror, we took this family portrait. It was moments before rolling out of my in-laws driveway. The inaugural picture as we headed off into the relative unknown. Toward one of the greatest adventures we’d ever undertaken.
I truly love this photo. Not just because it is great – we are all smiling and snuggled in close! I have the look of an edgy, full-time traveling mom! (whatever I think that means) – or that it captured us at a time of overwhelming anticipation not knowing what was to come. But, now sixty days removed, I love it most because we captured ourselves before a trip that would undoubtedly change us. There was no way of knowing exactly how we would come out different on the other side. But a mere two months later, a little more than halfway through our trip, that change is palpable. It’s a presence. Like the mirror I don’t actually have the chance to look in much these days.
I am different, those beauty products long having collected dust in the furthest corner of the trunk. Feeling more like myself now means being happy skin deep. My natural state. Which leaves me makeup free and hair askew, well, hair everywhere – making a run at competing with my husband for who has longer leg hair.
Not that the things we do to groom and pretty ourselves are a sign of lacking self-love. Let’s face it, we’re not all marching toward the end goal of looking like a Wildling from beyond the Wall. But I realized I was putting too much weight on how I looked. I wasn’t happy unless I was done up. No matter how much my husband would say, I like your hair better curly, or my daughter would say, I like you better without makeup, I doubted them. I doubted myself.
Then I lived out of a tent for two months.
I went back to my roots – literally and figuratively – and found, well, I found me. Which wasn’t so much the addition of love for how I looked, but the subtraction of negative thoughts about that very same thing. Through whatever magical elixir camping provided, I was no longer weighed down by what I looked like before I presented myself to the world. I now had the ability to wake up, get out of bed and just be. Somehow free of thoughts about my appearance. (It helps, comparatively at least, that my husband insisted on wearing jorts for 3/4 of this trip.) The absence of these thoughts left room for a host of other things to think about and moments for happiness. The goods of life.
To be honest, day one of our trip I already had a head start on feeling comfortable with my appearance. It had been months since I shaved my legs. Weeks since I shaved my armpits. I was only wearing makeup in our “USA or Bust” family photograph because it was leftover from a childhood friend’s wedding the night before. Prior to that, it had been just as many months since the last time I did my face.
I never really had an ethical objection to shaving – I’ve just always really, really hated it. But I quit wearing everyday makeup about two years ago for the message it sent my daughter. At the time, my idea of feeling comfortable in my own skin meant wearing makeup, always. I couldn’t relax or even feel like myself without it on. But when my daughter, at two and a half, in her imaginative play told me, “I can’t leave the house without doing my makeup,” it shocked my system out of that mindset. In my world, that was the thing nightmares were made up of.
Not that wearing makeup is inherently evil. It’s a far cry from that. But somewhere in between rolling into my friend’s wedding looking like a human campfire and wearing makeup everyday because I’m anxious without it, was some kind of balance. Right? Right! Someway that we can live in a world with makeup, but not feel beholden to it.
Oh, what a struggle to figure out how to message imaginative play like this in a way that actually built up my daughter’s self-esteem. I eventually, after much thought, reintroduced makeup to her, realizing I was mostly reintroducing it to myself. This time, with her accessories in hand, I said:
You are always beautiful. You are just sometimes fancy.
Which meant that she herself was beautiful, always, no matter what she wore or didn’t wear. And sometimes, when she’d dress up or put on makeup or however else she wanted to adorn herself, those were the moments she was fancy. I tested it out on myself – leaving everyday makeup behind. It was a slow process, spending moments looking in the mirror at my newly naked face. Ooh, that was uncomfortable at times. But eventually, I was okay just being me.
That left my hair. Naturally curly. Naturally unruly. For the past decade and a half, it’s been in hiding. Styled straight because I truly believed I looked best like that. Even with all the strides I made with makeup, there I was, morning of our road trip sneaking off to straighten my locks.
I knew our trip would challenge this, and it has. Out here on the road, there would be no chance to easily do my hair without taking huge chunks out of my day or being greatly inconvenienced if for no other reason than basic electricity wasn’t always readily available. And more, feeling ridiculous – the only styled woman in the woods – or missing out on parts of all this traveling we came to see. Surely the day would come when I could no longer let my hair stay straight anymore.
That day came in South Dakota. We’d just returned to our campsite from the Badlands. An unworldly place. Impressionable in ways seemingly beyond words. It was also hot as hell. I sat poolside as my daughter swam asking me time and again to come in with her. I wanted to, but my hair, oh my hair! If I swam, it would mean months of curly hair. Then I looked at my daughter and shamed my vanity. Her eager eyes at odds with me like a cat clawing at the bathtub. Was I really not going to get in the pool because of my freaking hair?
It’s been curly ever since.
Much like my transition out of makeup, I found myself looking at my hair in the mirror – which is actually quite rare (because there aren’t really any) – becoming reacquainted with me. I wrote recently that a surprising benefit to camping is the idea of showing up instead of showing off. Campers, in this and many other ways, are good company to be around. There is little vanity found living in a tent. Nothing about our days involves getting fancy. No one is outwardly thinking about how we look, one way or the other.
Instead, we get up, have breakfast, make our plan for the day and off we go. Spending zero time in front of the mirror and yet feeling confident in how I present myself to the world. Living a life that feels rich and freeing – even though our home is a 10x10 piece of canvas in the woods.
And so here I am. Sixty days after my hair half done photo. In a way, that moment captured in time was truly representative. I was halfway there to being comfortable in my own skin. In two months of exploring this great big country and of connecting with folks who are doing the same, I’ve made it the rest of the way to finding that inner peace. For that alone, (although there are a million other reasons) I’m eternally grateful for this trip.
It hasn’t always been easy. I imagine it’ll be a challenge when I ultimately step out of the woods back into the rest of the world. But I hope the strongest influence yet will be that I’ve lived for a long period of time now knowing the beauty of a life without feeling self-conscious. That is about as real as happiness can get. And when I find myself dressing up, putting on makeup, straightening my hair or shaving my legs, the message I’m sending to my daughter won’t just be something I’m saying to her – it’ll now be something I genuinely believe about myself:
I am always beautiful. I am just sometimes fancy.