Two pregnancies, 24 months of nursing, one knee surgery, and six months of physical therapy all separate me from my last hike of over a thousand miles.

Time has passed, seasons have changed, and somewhere amid the transition, I lost my top gear. Most days I don’t have a desire or need to hike quickly but there’s still a sense of loss when I realize that I’m not as fast as I used to be.

My body also takes longer to recover. I used to stare in bewilderment at the hikers who started their day with stretches and groans. Now, when I wake up, my achilles feel like taut elastic and my quads are as stiff as mud on a cold day. I have to do a sigh-filled sun salutation just to make it to the toilet.

When I have a couple of hours to catch up on e-mail and write a blog, I can’t help but notice that Google’s banner ads have targeted me as a prime candidate for cellulite treatments and crepey skin solutions. Before my first baby, my hiking legs showcased veins bulging on the back on my protruding calf muscles; after my second pregnancy, the most visible blood vessels are varicose veins. I’m not sure which is more off-putting, the fact that I have I have “mom legs” or the fact that Google knows about it.

My journey across the state on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail has been humbling. I have had to accept that I am not the same athlete or person that I was six years ago. At the same time, I have had the joy of revisiting the emboldening realizations that I experienced as a 21-year-old hiking the Appalachian Trail:

1. I am not separate or removed from nature; I am part of it.

When you feel connected to the forest, the landscape, the wildflowers, the wild animals — you feel beautiful. 

2. My reflection is best viewed through interactions with others.

If you want to know how other people perceive you, don’t spend your time looking in mirrors or capturing the perfect selfie. Instead, treat people with kindness. Share a joke … or a snack … or your time. Listen. When you make someone else light up — when you make someone else smile – that makes you feel attractive

3. Self-worth should be tied to my potential, not appearance.

The simple discipline of putting one foot in front of the other and looking back to appreciate the tens, or hundreds, or thousands of miles behind you make you realize that we are all capable of going farther and doing more than we think we can.

As we travel across this state, I am slowly letting go of my vanity and rediscovering my self-worth. Yes, I am slower, I have stretch marks, and my body generally feels more worn. But, I’ve walked more than halfway across North Carolina while sharing the adventure, my love, and daily attention with my family. I’ve managed to hike more than 700 miles while overseeing book edits and a hiking company. And, I’m on my way to completing a long trail while nursing a baby — and dealing with monthly periods. It may not be as sexy or fast as other endeavors, but I have discovered something more appealing along the way: I am discovering the beauty that comes with experience and wisdom.