If you go down to the woods today
You’re sure of a big surprise.
If you go down to the woods today
You’d better go in disguise!
For every bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain,
Because today’s the day the
Teddy Bears have their picnic.
— Jimmy Kennedy, “Teddy Bears’ Picnic”
I am no stranger to public nudity. As a pre-teen I trekked deep into the woods that surrounded our family farm, stripped naked and ran as fast as I could through the trees, imagining myself a deer. I slalomed trees and leapt fallen branches. When I had run myself out, I would curl up in deep piles of fallen leaves, panting air that smelled of rotting wood and honey.
As a college student I would go skinny-dipping at a clothing-optional swimming hole in Cummington, Massachusetts. 1 My friends and I would strip down and swim under the summer sun with the hippies, German immigrants, and other free spirits. It was the first time I saw old people naked. “Oh,” I thought, “so that’s how it goes.”
In my 30’s, I tried to skinny-dip in the arctic ocean from the shore of Tuktoyaktuk, an island north of Canada. The water was surprisingly warm and surprisingly shallow. I had waded a hundred yards out when a group of Inuit women came walking down the beach. While they giggled at my backside, I waded a mile out into the ocean before finding water that was deep enough to provide modesty. I sat there, the wavelets tickling my navel, until they went away.
These were all momentary thrills, adventures in the altogether. I would drop trou and immediately run for the modesty of deep water. Being naked was always associated in my mind with needing to hide.
When the humorously-named CMEN (‘California Men Enjoying Naturism‘) announced last spring that they were holding their first ever northern California gathering, I was intrigued. I imagined a forest populated by beautiful men, doing manly things like chopping wood, pushing over trees, and wrestling. Would a 53-year-old geek with a gray beard, thinning hair, and round belly be welcome in this gathering of nubility? It seemed unlikely. But then I remembered the words of Saint Eleanor of Roosevelt, who tells us “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
I signed up.
I also signed up my partners Dan and Bobby. My courage had limitations, and I didn’t want to be the only middle-aged man there.
Now it’s August, and our car is slowly climbing up into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Over the last week Dan has been wrestling the demons of his midwestern Lutheran upbringing. Twice he decided that he didn’t want to go, and twice Bobby and I convinced him that he should. Now he is in the back seat, quiet and anxious. We climb in silence for a while, and then he states from the back seat “I know that whatever happens, I’ll get through it.” Then he goes silent again, preparing himself for the ordeal to come.
I have similar fears. Over the last few years middle age and overwork have taken their toll on my body. Since signing up I have told myself I would work out and lose weight. I told myself that every day for the last six months, hoping that if I wanted it bad enough it would magically happen. It didn’t.
We pass through Foresthill and continue up the side of a canyon, finally arriving at The Community of the Great Commission in the late afternoon. It’s a Christian camp, over 400 acres located on a nice flat spot 4,000 feet up at the edge of the canyon. There is no one in sight, so I go into the dining hall. There is a gnomish woman working in the kitchen amongst the pots and ovens. I hesitate a moment before asking her “Can you tell me where I might find the CMEN?”
She looks at me for a little longer than is comfortable, and I wonder whether I’m at the wrong camp. I wonder if I offended her with a rudely-pronounced acronym. I wonder if she speaks English. But then her left arm hinges straight out, and she says “At the clear house, that way.” And that said, she disappears behind the ovens, and I hear the sound of pans banging together. I take it as a dismissal.
On the way to the car I am pondering what ‘the clear house’ might mean. Does this group take their nudity so seriously that they only gather in glass houses? Do they see walls as a form of societal garment? Will the bathrooms have transparent walls?
Just a few hundred feet down the road we find a building labeled “Claar House”. It is a small, slightly run-down plywood building set amongst the pine trees. We go in and find a single man standing naked behind a folding table. He is sorting t-shirts into piles by size and color. “Welcome!” he says “We will open registration at 4pm.” I nod, pause, and then joke “It seems ironic to have so many t-shirts at a nudist camp.” He looks up, seems surprised that I’m still there, and returns to sorting. Once again, it is clear that I have been dismissed. Oh god what am I doing here?
While we’re waiting for registration to start, we unpack the car. I would never have imagined that I would bring more to a nudist gathering than I would to Burning Man, but our rented SUV is stuffed literally to the roof. We haul out our photo studio, a 12×20 foot vinyl barn that we will use as a photo studio for anyone who wants a portrait taken. We unpack lights and camera equipment and reflectors and a backdrop. We pull out a step ladder, which is useful for the barn raising. We unfold a card table and four chairs.
There are clothes. We have brought hats (for costume parties), cloaks (in case it gets cold), and a bunch of scarves and shawls (for sitting upon.) And in addition to what we’re wearing today, we each have a fresh set of clothes for our return to civilization.
It’s 4pm, and registration has begun. We are given a t-shirt and a towel, as well as a name badge to wear on a string around our necks. The badge holder has a few small pockets that can hold money, business cards, or condoms. It seems very practical. We’re given stars to attach to our name badges telling others our personal boundaries. Green stars indicate that we like hugs. A single star indicates that you like hugs a little, while three stars indicate that you’re a hug monster. A red star means that you don’t want to get photographed. (It also means that you can’t take photographs. When Bobby finds this out he reluctantly peels off his red star. Dan keeps his.) Blue stars mean that you’re open to playing around sexually. A gold star means that you’re available for a relationship.
My badge sports three green stars and three blue stars. I’m all in.
Men arrive and start to wander around naked. Most of them are my age and older, and their bodies are neither hard nor sculpted. I find this an enormous relief, combined with a little disappointment at the shortage of Adonis’s.
Everyone is extremely friendly, but I’m still adjusting. Guys walk up to introduce themselves, and a panicked voice in my head screams “Don’t look down, don’t look down!” I imagine that I must look very intense, answering their getting-to-know-you questions with unwavering and unblinking eye contact.
Dan, Bobby, and I are still clothed, but it’s time for our debut. We go to our room, strip down, and step out into the world wearing only sandals and a name badge. I am relieved that no one screams and no one faints. More and more people are arriving, and there is a little bit of ‘how do we get this party started’ awkwardness.
Just after dark we gather on the deck and John, the leader of the group, gives us a short introduction to how the week will work, the events that will occur, and when the pool will be open. He warns us about leaving food visible in our cars, lest it attract bears, and tells us to walk with a flashlight at night, lest we surprise a mountain lion.
John talks about the stars on our badges and once again asks us not to photograph anyone who has a red star. He reminds us about the various colors of stars and what they mean. He somberly explains that if you have three blue stars on your badge, it means that anyone can drag you into the woods at any time and have their way with you. I wait for him to laugh. He doesn’t. The guys in the audience don’t. I discretely peel off one of my blue stars.
John asks everyone to move into the living room of Claar House and gathers us into a circle with our arms around one another’s waists. I’ve gotten over my fear of being caught looking at another guy’s junk, and in fact I’ve stopped noticing that everyone else is naked. We go around the circle introducing ourselves. When we’re done, John asks us a series of questions. If the answer is ‘yes’, we are supposed to cross the circle to the other side. He asks “Who here has been to South America?” and a dozen guys switch sides. He asks “Who here is looking for a boyfriend” and a different set of guys walk across the circle. The questions continue and we get to know one another a little better.
Then the three of us go to bed, exhausted both physically and emotionally. I sleep very well.
The next morning at 8am we walk the short distance down the road to the dining hall, where the fully-clothed camp director is serving bacon, eggs, and french toast. He seems friendly enough, and not at all freaked out by the naked gay men who have taken over his Christian camp. We put down our towels on the chairs before sitting, and then dig in.
Every Teddy Bear who’s been good
Is sure of a treat today.
There’s lots of marvelous things to eat
And wonderful games to play.
Guys play volleyball, frisbee, and corn hole. Many guys just lounge in the shade reading or listening to music. In all respects it’s summer camp, except that we’re all adults, and we’re not wearing clothing.
We go for a hike down into the canyon, sweating in the 90° mid-day heat. We descend rapidly, our sandals kicking up red dust that coats our feet. Bobby gets scratched passing a blackberry bush. I find myself being extremely cautious pushing my way through bushes when the trail has become overgrown. Eventually the trail completely disappears in thick brambles. We never find the creek, and haul ourselves back up the mountain covered with dusty red sweat that trickles down our legs like blood.
The pool is open when the camp director is available to act as lifeguard. Camp staff refused to work during the CMEN event, with the exception of the camp director and the small elderly woman. She lives in a trailer on the camp grounds, and drives a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that says “Impeach Obama” and another one that says “Return the Constitution to the USA” She was setting up the salad bar on our first full day there. As men started marching into the dining hall, she left to her trailer and didn’t emerge for the remainder of our stay.
The camp director is named James, and he fits the gay archetype of a ‘bear’… a big, hairy bearded guy. He is in his mid-30’s and wears a dark blue polo shirt and khaki shorts every day. He sits poolside and a circle of naked guys gathers on the ground at his feet while he tells his life story. He was a teenager living on the streets of LA, addicted to drugs and without hope. A christian church took him in and sent him to one of their mountain camps until was detoxed. He has lived in church camps every since, occasionally moving from one camp to another, and gradually taking on more and more responsibility. “The church saved me” he says. When asked how he feels about all of these naked guys running around his camp, he simply replies “Who am I to judge?”
At night there are dances and costume parties. People ‘dress’ for these parties with hats, arm bands, and jewelry. Penises are adorned with ribbons, bedazzled with rhinestones, and plumped with cock-rings. There are snacks and boxed wine. We play game shows like “Name that Tune”, “The Newlywed Game”, and “Family Feud”. It’s very low-brow and very relaxing.
We take night walks under the full moon. One of the guys points out fresh bear, coyote, and cougar tracks in the dust. At one point a cute blond comes up to me in the dark and starts kissing me. It feels exciting and primal, two animals passing one another on the trail, sniffing and tasting one another.
The guys range in age from a 25-year-old graduate student from India to our 75-year-old DJ from a small town in Georgia. There are skinny guys and plump bears, smooth guys and sasquatches. There are an astounding variety of body types, and remarkably little attitude or judgement. Everyone seems happy and nice.
There are moments when the normalcy shatters. I am pouring myself a cup of lemonade in the camp dining hall when I look down and realize that I’m naked. I panic, wondering how I got here and where I can hide, but then I remember that the other 99 guys in the room are in the same state. I’m in the Sierra Nevada at a gay nudist camp, and it’s lunch time. I take a few breaths, and naked once again becomes normal. I sip my lemonade.
In the morning I get out of the shower and starting thinking about what I’ll wear that day. And then then the answer comes… nothing. It feels like a relief… no need to put on an outfit, no need to think about what message I will be sending with my clothing today. What people will see today is me, unadorned and unprotected.
These little hesitancies come throughout the five days I’m in the mountains. Most of the time I forget that I and the people around me are naked. I scratch my balls without feeling self-conscious, and bend over to pick up something from the ground without worrying if someone is standing behind me. There are rules that we learned when we counted our age on one hand, and they are deeply engrained. Yet nudity is so natural that these taboos quickly dissolve, disappear like a rock into a pond, leaving only echoes of the textile world.
See them gaily gad about
They love to play and shout,
They never have any care;
At six o’clock their Mommies and Daddies
Will take them home to bed,
Because they’re tired little Teddy Bears.
With clothing gone and an all-male environment sexuality is right on the surface. On the second day guys start walking up to me and running their hands through my fur. Some will take my cock in their hand, gently squeezing it and staring at me as if to say “Is this okay?” Erections rise and fall, and guys meet, kiss, and then lead one another off to their rooms. For the most part it’s sweet, more affection than rut, teddy bears cuddling in the woods.
Each time I’m approached affectionately, my internal reaction is always “Really?” I’m relaxing with a book one afternoon when a good-looking older guy comes up to me and says “You know, you’re the most handsome man here.” Really? Does he see my paunch? Does he see my hairy back? Does he see all of the numerous other flaws I see when I look at myself in the mirror? Apparently not, and his gentle compliment leaves me speechless. I’d prepared to be ashamed, but never to be proud.
Five days pass quickly. We pack the car, dress, and drive out of camp. Dan quietly watches the trees pass outside the window. Bobby complains that his t-shirt feels scratchy, his shorts too warm. We drive on in silence as the day grows hot, and our shirts stick to our backs.
Note: This story was rewritten from the previous version based on feedback from Tim Cahill and my fellow writing seminar participants at the Book Passage 2014 Travel Writer & Photographer’s Conference. Thanks, everyone!