A relentless pattern; a relentless panting. Thump. Thump. Back and forth. Thrust and groan.
The wind caressed our naked bodies.
Sweat ran down our sun-kissed skin.
Leah heaved. Yuvie squealed. He hit hard.
Jennifer watched from the sidelines.
We were playing tennis.
Just three college students looking to blow off some steam. And we’d found a surprising sanctuary out in the Connecticut boondocks: Sun Ridge Nudist Resort in Sterling, Conn.
* * *
We took a collective deep breath as our borrowed black Ford inched up the hill to the resort. The easy banter of the drive waned to a heavy silence, in which the lyrics of a Jim Croce ballad became painfully audible: “I was so afraid to touch you/ Thought you were too young, you know/ So I just watched you sleeping.” We giggled awkwardly. We were about to come face to face with nakedness — our own, and that of others.
While we had assured each other that there would be no funny business at this camp, each of us secretly wondered if that would really be the case. When we reached the climax of the hill, would we find only promiscuity or sexual abnormality? Would the people we’d meet be perverts? Was taking our clothes off in front of each other and these strangers, going bare in the unrelenting sunlight on this nippy day, something we really wanted to do? Were we prepared for the parade of pudenda and penis?
At first we could only see some buildings, a small clearing and the pool area. A fully clothed woman, tanned to a crisp, told us where to leave our car, and motioned to the check-in cabin. As we walked up the steps, we spotted our first bare butt-cheeks under a sign that decreed “Party Naked.” Lydia, Sun Ridge’s owner and founder, gave us copies of the ground rules.
“There’ll be a chowder bake at 4 — you should come!” she said, waving as we headed for the bathrooms.
* * *
Yuval and Leah went first. They had said they were going to change, but it was into their birthday suits. Walking out into the sun in only her neon salmon Nikes, Leah briefly panicked about the gazes that would soon fall on her exposed body. Then she saw Yuvie, as comfortable nude as he had been in clothes. She was there among friends, and as she looked at the visitors passing by, nobody seemed to fulfill her fears. Together, she, Yuvie and a still-clothed Jennifer walked through the campground.
And it was by herself, some time after we had gotten our bearings, that Jennifer chose to strip in a field far removed from the main campground. First went her shirt: an oatmeal-colored tee she had worn in an attempt to blend in. Then: a camisole with elastic bands that at first entangled her in its straps; shorts, whose clasp she turned in her hand like she would a key; underwear, sliding abashedly onto the grass; shoes, kicked off; socks, pared from her feet; ponytail, unbridled.
The first sight anyone has of an infant is of it alone, naked. But then it is quickly swaddled in blankets, and it permanently joins the ranks of the covered. To wear clothes is not only this infant’s right, but also a societal mandate. After the exposure the infant experiences in birth, being nude among others becomes a privilege that it is unlikely to take.
Most who do lay claim to this privilege, like those at Sun Ridge, do so in groups. It is easier to be naked alone — take a shower, and look at yourself as you scrub. You will probably not look for long, but even a glimpse is enough to confirm that everything is in its place. You know what you are seeing, yet in public you cannot be sure of how you appear; the eyes of others reflect poorly. If you slam your eyes shut in the shower and then quickly don a robe as though your bare skin had never touched water, then what you look like will be a mystery even to you. You are a house whose furniture you know well, though your exterior is entirely unfamiliar.
Awkwardly at first, Jennifer sat cross-legged on a towel, reading “The Canterbury Tales.” For her, nudity among others, even so far away from them, was a pilgrimage to a wilderness she had known only at birth. Small sounds disturbed her; then, less so. Within minutes, her hyperawareness had quieted.
Thoreau, it is said, took daily walks in the nude he called “air walks.” No evidence exists that Emerson did the same, but he could have been won over to the practice — he did expound upon seeing everything in nature, after all. Free should the scholar be, and brave; “Know thyself” and “Study nature” become at last one fused maxim, espoused by this Girl Thinking.
The American scholar will discover herself outdoors. In the middle of the woods, Jennifer entertained the possibility that she was doing Yale right.
* * *
Jennifer dressed and headed back to the swimming pool, where she spoke with Lisa. Lisa had grown up with nudism.
“My dad was a hippie,” Lisa said. “[Going nude] feels natural.”
Waving a hand over the floral place mats set out for the afternoon chowder bake, she said, “Out there, I work for corporate America. But here … here, I’m Momma Lisa. You need food, someone to talk to, whatever, you come to me. My door’s always open. My husband, Mike, he’s the camp DJ — he probably has any song you want.”
It was chilly despite the sun, and Lisa was wearing pink terry sweatpants, but no shoes. No shirt, either.
“Clothing … it puts a label on you. Be this, be that.” Scowling, Lisa described her preparations for the daily grind: “I have to fix my hair. Then I have to one by one do up my shirt buttons.” She mimed the action, her fingers inching up her bare stomach and breasts like a spider weaving its web. “It’s just so complicated. … Here, you can be what you want to be, do what you want to do. Wear clothes, or don’t wear clothes, whatever you want.”
To get to Sun Ridge, you must wait at the bottom of the hill and call the office to inform them of your impending arrival. According to Lisa, the resort’s unofficial motto is “Leave your stress at the bottom of the hill.” On the weekends, Lisa leaves her corporate persona behind for her trailer (“the one with the Christmas lights”) at Sun Ridge, where she says she has made friends who live all along the Eastern Seaboard.
Lisa has mentioned her weekly jaunts to her co-workers. Some of her Sun Ridge friends, however, have chosen to keep quiet about their pastime — what Lydia, the owner, calls the “fastest growing social sport.” If camp visitors, mostly in their 40s and 50s, choose not to disclose their activities, it is often not out of shame but an unwillingness to defend themselves from public ignorance. Lisa spoke of a couple, both ultra-conservative Catholics, that have declined to tell even their children of their weekend whereabouts. They haven’t even mentioned Sun Ridge’s location to their emergency contacts.
What Sun Ridge is not is a voyeurs’ or hedonists’ haven. As in the clothed world, staring or ogling is a breach of etiquette. Visitors to Sun Ridge engage in activities like tennis, tanning, swimming and cooking; the facility is not a space to indulge wanton sexual fantasies.
“If it was the orgy everyone thought it would be, I wouldn’t need counseling,” Lisa said dryly.
If we are surprised by anything, it should be not the content of our physicality, but rather how little it matters to Sun Ridge’s patrons. They are just human beings, but humans being — what? Beyond the borders of Sun Ridge, who are they actually, and who are they supposed to be? The patrons, when at Sun Ridge, aren’t looking for the answer. For them, it is sufficient that humans simply be.
* * *
At Sun Ridge, people play tennis. So, when in Rome, right? We walked down to the courts. A woman in a golf cart pulled up to offer us tennis balls. We struggled to balance the balls in our arms before dropping them, finally, all over the concrete. After flailing about for several minutes, we abandoned the effort.
“Giving up so soon?” a large lobster-red man asked.
“Maybe another time,” we promised.
We had come to Sun Ridge with high expectations. They weren’t met — instead, they were subverted. The debauchery that we feared and longed for did not exist in the community we joined for the day. Rather, we watched people come together in their natural state to find some respite.
* * *
Yom Kippur fell on the Saturday we drove up. Do the math: three Jews, skipping synagogue for a nudist resort on the holiest day on the Jewish calendar — the day when most of us apologize for skipping synagogue the rest of the year, for all the sick and nasty things we do in the nude. We reconsidered the trip. On Yom Kippur, Jews beat their chests and name their sins before God. We’d be beating our chests, too, but more in the Neanderthalic tradition.
It’s a day of abstinence, Yom Kippur — from food and drink, work, leather, washing, sex. Free of desire and shallow self-regard, it’s a day to dwell sincerely on oneself. And our itinerary didn’t jive with that. As gonzo journalists, however amateur, our task would be to live the lives of others: nudists, serial nudists, people who can’t get enough of airing their privates. That wasn’t us we’d be writing about.
Frankly, it felt like we missed the train to heaven. It wasn’t even a close shave. We were too busy chasing other gods, naked. We took on the project for its sensationalism. We thought it would be cool to write about our brush with that subculture. So very Swedish of us. God probably loves Sweden, but he doesn’t care much about cool. Especially not on Yom Kippur.
We rationalized. Yuval ran to his rabbi to seek encouragement. The fasting would just be sexual. Imagine forsaking that deli of naked bodies, he said; having to not get a public erection — that’s hyperfasting right there. The rabbi wasn’t buying it. She wondered if the clientele at the resort wasn’t a bit old for his taste, anyways.
There’s an old libel that the Jews run Hollywood. True or not, it’s often the case that synagogue feels like a feature film. “Who shall live and who shall die,” the rabbi intones on Yom Kippur, “who by fire and who by water.” The Jewish God’s all about lightning-bolt theatrics, and while Leah’s driving certainly forced us to reckon with mortality, so did getting naked with a bunch of pensioners. Staring at shriveled testicles is one way of staring death in the face. Nudity testifies to gravity’s slow, sad conquests.
It’s an Enlightenment project, really — things come to light with nudism. Truth triumphs. It was a cold day in upstate Connecticut, and there was a temptation to cover up with a towel on the pretext of the chill. At some point, we cut that bullshit: We knew the towel was an excuse to not expose ourselves. In stripping, we got honest with ourselves. That’s what Yom Kippur’s all about. If you’re so inclined, you could say we stood naked before God that Saturday.
Hopefully God recognized our newly tanned bottoms.