The lighting at the Las Cruces Econo Lodge did not do me any favors. At 6:36am, after four or five snoozes, I felt too lazy to wash my greasy tangles. My cut was lopsided; I tried something chic and asymmetrical on my 35th birthday that just didn’t quite work, and the subsequent eight months of hair growth yielded only an awkward not-quite-bob. I had gained back 12 of the 25 pounds I’d lost (OK, fine, I gained back 18lbs…), and as I stared at myself in the dirty mirror I remembered what it felt like when I was thin and I slid into size 27 jeans. (OK, fine, I had to yank them over my hips and only bought them because I was thrilled I could get them to zip).

Basically, it was the perfect day for a photo shoot.

I made eye contact with my pitiful reflection and tried practicing all my spiritual bullshit at once. I am grateful for this road trip. I am grateful that I finally figured out how to use TurboTax instead of overpaying H&R Block. I am grateful that I am able-bodied. I am grateful that I am going to see the White Sands today. I am grateful that I made it to the International UFO Museum in Roswell before it closed yesterday. I am grateful that I have my dresses.

When my gratitude list fell short of pumping me up, I resorted to iTunes. Baby you’re a firework! Come on show ‘em what you’re worth!

As is always the case, I had to keep things moving. So I French braided the shorter side of my hair and used half a can of dry shampoo on the other side, hoping it created a sweet-but-maybe-punk-rock vibe. The elevator was broken; I hauled my suitcases through a lobby packed with members of a competitive 8th grade robotics team and loaded them into the Foxy Lady, my red Volkswagen Tiguan. We’d logged 12 days of driving through the great American southwest, blasting Chris Stapleton with the windows down. The big moment was finally upon us, whether I felt pretty or not.

Ever since the day I saw a picture of my friend Erika Johansson leaping with glee across a backdrop of sprawling sand dunes, I knew I would go to that same place. I have a thing for deserts. I wrote my novel in Palm Springs. The desert reminds me of the end of The Alchemist, when Santiago must turn himself into the wind, conjuring a sandstorm or else he will die—just as the whole universe conspires to assist him on his journey.

The two-lane road to Alamogordo, where the White Sands National Monument sprawls for miles, is long and straight. I had plenty of time while driving to think about how far I’d come on my journey. I’d had a solid 15-year career in media and politics, survived rape twice, battled with bulimia, and now I’m making 100 dresses. Learning to sew and embroider has helped to alleviate my PTSD, and I’ve turned it into a non-profit to raise awareness about sexual assault. After almost two years of toiling quietly in the obscurity of my living room, I’d road tripped from home in Southern California to give my first public speech about my dresses to the company Craftsy in Denver. I’d been nervous, but it went well. From Denver, I cruised Interstate 40-S down the entire length of New Mexico en route to conjure a sandstorm of my own. That sunny Saturday morning, I was meeting The Sweet Spot Photography to capture triumphant images of me with my dresses. When you do something risky that will take a long time to achieve, it’s important to celebrate incremental victories.

I felt reasonably embarrassed that I’d planned a photoshoot for myself, but not that bad. People my age take cheesy engagement photos in meadows to mark major milestones in their lives and post them all over Facebook; I was simply operating outside the Marriage Industrial Complex. What else can I say? I’m the kind of person who downloaded the Kimoji app the first day it was available.    

The Foxy Lady had some serious junk in her trunk: mannequins, a hanging rack, an ice chest full of Diet Coke, and 18 CDs from Frank Delaney’s audiobook Ireland strewn about the passenger seats. I wasn’t entirely surprised when the Border Patrol agent indicated for me to pull over, but I was livid when he asked me if I spoke English. Visions of Donald Trump’s America with its walls and deportations and checkpoints flashed through my mind. There are certainly more serious problems than the circumference of my thighs.

When I made it into the monument, I was enveloped in beauty. Like folds of flesh, the White Sands curve and shift. The mounds are never the same shape twice. I immediately liked Melissa the photographer, whose pink hair was legit punk rock compared to mine. We set up my clothing rack and dresses while the winds whipped around us at 30mph, threatening to topple over the moment I let go. I stood firm, planting my feet on the metal, and stretching my wingspan to hold them all in place. Fabric rippled furiously left and right, but I squinted into the sunlight and smiled.

All Images Shot By SweetSpotPhotography

I did not feel anything like Gisele in a glossy ad in Vanity Fair or Ashley Graham in a sleek Insta post. I know I am supposed to envy the former and salute the latter for all of her #empowerment as a #bodyactivist. I think I am supposed to say that I felt beautiful when Melissa narrowed her lens and started snapping, but I didn’t. I actually just felt proud I had accomplished something. I’d made it to a wonder of the world, taken it in with my own eyes. I’d envisioned, measured, cut, stitched, and zipped seven dresses. I have 93 to go. Long after Melissa drove away, I walked along the towering hills, scooping up big handfuls of sand and letting them slip through my fingers, like time passing in an hour glass. I wanted to memorize the moment. Good thing I have a few pictures.  

Maegan Carberry is the author of the novel “Do I Have To Vote For Hillary Clinton?” and the founder of Birdbrain, a project to hand make 100 dresses to raise awareness about sexual assault. In another life she was a political operative.  Instagram: @maeganac@dressbirdbrain