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 college student I would go skinny-dipping at a clothing-optional swimming hole in Cummington, Massachusetts. My friends and I would strip down and swim under the summer sun with the hippies, German immigrants, and other free spirits. I’ve visited Little Beach in Maui and jumped naked through rings of fire under the full moon. But those were momentary thrills, adventures in the altogether. I would drop trou and immediately run for the modesty of deep water. I was a duffer in the buff.
When the humorously-named CMEN (‘California Men Enjoying Naturism‘) announced last spring that they were holding their first ever northern California gathering, I quickly signed up. I also convinced Dan and Bobby to go with me, and though they were considerably dubious they have a willing sense of adventure that I can always count upon. My friend José first told me about the group, and he has been attending their gatherings in Tennessee and Malibu for years. He was going to this gathering too, and his company was a bulwark against our fears.
Note: there will be male nudity in this post, down towards the bottom (that is a pun, which you will appreciate later). If you feel that viewing a penis or two will irreparably harm you or if your boss is looking over your shoulder, stop reading now.
It’s August, and our car is slowly climbing up into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, loaded literally to the roof. I would never have imagined that I would bring more stuff to a nudist gathering than I would bring to Burning Man, but here I am. Amongst other things in the car are:
- Our 12 x 20′ photo studio. Both Bobby and I intend to run portrait projects during the week.
- A muslin backdrop & lighting equipment.
- A step ladder, for assembling the taller parts of the photo studio.
- Five folding chairs and a folding table.
- Three full camera kits. Bobby’s, mine, and a Sony α7r that I borrowed to test drive.
- Sheets and blankets. Because who knows what the cabin sheets will be like?
- At least six hats. A top-hat, cowboy hat, a crown of gold, and several sun hats. There will be costume contests, and apparently hats don’t count as ‘clothing’.
- Three capes. I heard that the weather was recently cold and wet in the mountains.
- Numerous scarves, for carrying around and sitting upon.
- Three computers and two iPads, plus chargers galore.
- Body paints, for Bobby’s photo project.
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?
Back in the car I drive in the direction the pointed, and find Claar House just a hundred yards down the road. It is a small, slightly run-down building set amongst the pine trees. We go in and find a single man working at a folding table. “Welcome!” he says (wearing nothing but a smile) “We will open registration at 4pm.” And he returns to sorting t-shirts into piles by size. I joke that it seems ironic to have t-shirts at a nudist gathering. He looks up, seems surprised that I’m still there, and then returns to his t-shirts. Once again, it is clear that I have been dismissed.
For the next hour and a half we walk around, examining the property. We find an area of screen cabins and an outdoor kitchen, and follow some trails until we find the pool and make our way in a circle back to Claar House.
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.
There are also a lot more people wandering around naked. All of them are my age and older, and their bodies are neither hard nor sculpted. When folks come to speak to me, a panicked voice in my head screams “Don’t look at their cock, don’t look at their cock!” I imagine that I must look very intense answering their getting-to-know-you questions with unwavering and unblinking eye contact.
Up until now we’re still clothed, but we’ve been assigned a room. We unload the car to the room, then strip down and step out into the world wearing only sandals and a name badge. More and more people are arriving, and we get out of the way for a while by building our photo studio. It takes about an hour, but the evening is cool. We recruit Carlos and Ken who are parked in an RV nearby. With everyone pitching in, the studio is soon ready for use.
The first ritual of the evening comes after dark, when everyone gathers in the living room of Claar House, standing in 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 all introduce ourselves, and then John (the leader of the group) asks us a series of questions. For example, he asks “Who here has been to South America?” and if you have you cross the center of the circle and take a place on the other side. It’s a nice way to learn about other guys while at the same time mixing up the circle a little.
And then the three of us go to bed, exhausted from being tested 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.
This is the normalcy that continues through our days at camp. We hike through the woods, sweating in the 90° mid-day heat. We take moonlight night walks where the guide points out fresh bear, coyote, and cougar tracks. Guys play volleyball, frisbee, and corn hole. In all respects it’s summer camp, except that we’re all adults, and we’re not wearing clothing.
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.
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.
Occasionally I’ll get up to fill my lemonade in the dining hall and I will have a moment of panic… I’m naked! My heart will speed up and I’ll look for a place to hide. And a second later I realize it’s okay. Or I will get out of bed in the morning and starting thinking about what I’ll wear that day. And then then the answer comes… nothing. No need to make a decision.
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.
At the end of our five days in the mountains we pack the car, dress, and drive out of camp. Bobby complains that his t-shirt feels scratchy, his shorts too warm. We drive on in silence as the day grows hot, our shirts stick to our backs. I remember the evening dances, men dancing together flesh to flesh, bears and coyotes and cougars celebrating one another under the full moon.