This story appeared in our Spring 2012 print edition. A different version of this story was published to the website in March of this year. To view the original story, click here.
The clouds part slowly, reluctant to surrender their virtually permanent position in the sky. through the gray, sunshine tumbles toward the ground where budding flowers extend their leaves and petals like outstretched arms, welcoming the warm rays of light. shadows fall in geometric patterns on a white cardboard sign at the edge of a road, obscuring a three-word message in navy blue, capital letters:
LOSE YOUR CLOTHES.
Further up Willie Lane, nestled on a densely wooded hill in Marcola, Oregon, a colorful gate stretches across the path, blocking the entry. Carved from metal and painted in various shades of yellow, orange, and green, the gate depicts three ethereal figures floating peacefully around a central sun. Glowing in the daylight, the figures pierce through the shadows of the forest. Together they welcome both newcomers and longtime members to the Willamettans Family Nudist Resort.
“This is what nudists live for,” says Sue Ott, current president of the Willamettans. “There’s gonna be yards of grassy fields and white flesh. And at the end of the day, there’s gonna be a lot of happy, sunburned nudists.”
On the other side of the multi-hued gate, past the main office and through a neighbor- hood of weathered mobile homes, five club members have staked claim to the tennis courts. Four are playing pickleball while one keeps score. They take turns on the court and on the sidelines, giving everyone a chance to play and to pause for water. The heat of the sun bounces off the court—much like the pickleballs themselves—and radiates back onto the bare skin of the players. All five are wearing athletic shoes; two are wearing shirts, and only one is wearing underwear. The rhythmic thwap! thwap! of paddles volleying pickleballs over a droopy net is drowned out by the deafening roar of an industrial lawn mower. Among the bits of flying grass sits the rider, a fellow Willamettans member who maintains the grounds as part of his member- ship. Smiling and naked, he calmly directs the yellow machine back and forth in a continuous pattern of parallel lines.
Before starting the tally for the next game, Kim Lanier lays out a blue and red-striped towel on a sun-bleached plastic chair. Settling into the soft seat, she sighs and stretches out her bare legs.
“Some are scared to death, some are looky-loos trying to find some sexual, deviant component—and let me tell you right now, there is none,” says Lanier of the type of people she sees at the Willamettans. “Some have an image in their minds of old cartoons, with people looking over the fence or hiding their bits be- hind bushes. Most of them come here simply to enjoy the beauty of it.”
Located on a forty-acre parcel of land, the Willamettans is registered with the state as an RV park. While members are allowed to bring camping supplies such as tents and trailers onto the grounds during weekends and vacations, the group cannot build new cabins on the land. The few cabins that currently exist on the Willamettans’ grounds were “grandfathered in through past zoning laws,” says John Kinman, who previously served as the president of the American Association for Nudist Recreation (AANR) and the Willamettans Resort.
Lanier is among the few who live on the grounds permanently. Before the move she and her ex-husband worked in Salem and Roseburg, respectively.
“We were already members here, we loved it here, we saw a for-sale sign, and it just seemed like the best option,” she says. “It was purely geographical.”
Longtime member Jackie Smith also lives on the grounds. After nine years as a Willamettans resident, Smith says she can’t imagine a life without nudism. But that wasn’t always the case.
“It kind of creeped me out at first, thinking about getting naked in front of other people,” says Smith, who became interested in nudism after talking with a member of the Willamettans while tending bar. “So I would always be fully clothed when I came out of my trailer. Some days I would tell myself that I could take off my top, until one day I actually did it. I thought I would never be able to take my pants off, but three weeks later, I did that too.”
Ed Sullivan, on the other hand, had no qualms about stripping down. Since he was a child growing up in Chicago, Sullivan knew he was a nudist at heart.
“When I was in high school, I would sneak downtown to watch the burlesque shows,” he says. “The girls would do their dance, which was all fine and dandy, but during the intermission they’d show film from nudist resorts. And that’s when I knew, when I grew up, I wanted to play volleyball with naked ladies.”
Since joining the Willamettans five years ago, Sullivan has taken on the tasks of pool cleaning and maintenance, which he usually does nude or in a bathrobe. “Except when working with muriatic acid—I won’t mess with that stuff,” says Sullivan, who also acts as second vice president on the governing board of the club.
The club is overseen by a nine-member board consisting of a president, first and second vice presidents, a recording secretary, a corresponding secretary, a certifying officer, two members at large, and a treasurer.
“Together, they do the same business any other club would do,” says Kinman. “Like any other organization, we have to abide by Oregon insurance and tax laws, OLCC (Oregon Liquor Control Commission) regulations, and health department inspections,” Kinman says. “There’s nothing particularly special about our club except that we’re naked.”
But that element alone is reason enough to develop a strict screening process for new members. Prospective members must complete an application, an in-person interview, and a thorough background check before current members vote on admittance. If an applicant has a record of inappropriate behavior at other nudist organizations, the action is recorded in an AANR database to be referenced during future applications. With such a stain on his or her record, the applicant has little to no chance of being accepted into the club.
Nudist resorts take measures to prevent inappropriate behavior by following the general rules of etiquette established through the AANR, as well as the rules established by each individual club.
“The rules are really just common courtesy,” Kinman says.
These general guidelines forbid taking photographs without a person’s explicit permission, promotion of “swinger” behavior, and behaving in such a way that could be construed as overtly sexual.
That last rule is one that frequently worries first-time nudists.
“The first question every man asks when he calls about the club is, ‘What do I do if I become physically excited?’” Kinman says. “But that just doesn’t happen. Around here, it’s relaxing, not stimulating.”
Children’s participation in nudist culture is also a common point of concern, but according to the AANR website, “Children are natural nudists.”
“I think kids raised in a nudist environment are less likely to ask awkward questions because it’s all so natural to them,” says Kinman, who has practiced nudism since he was a child.
Evelyn Clements, who frequents the Willamettans club with her husband, James, and 11-year-old son, Kaleb, agrees that communication is key when practicing nudism as a family. “It’s very important for us to talk,” she says. “We want to make sure that Kaleb knows people come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re all beautiful.”
Kaleb says he was nervous at first, but started to feel more comfortable once he began making friends with other young members.
“I don’t care what people say—it’s awesome here,” he says.
To an outside observer accustomed to wearing clothes for every occasion, the practice may seem bizarre.
“It’s funny how we fear our own modesty,” says Willamettans member Quentin Smith, who experienced nudism for the first time after purchasing a pass to a nudist resort at a church auction. “We don’t like how much it inhibits us, but we’re afraid of what we’d do without it.”
But at the Willamettans, both fear and modesty are unwelcome guests. In their place are enjoyment and self-assuredness.
“I don’t know whether to use the word ‘relaxation’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘confidence,’” Kinman says. “Being a nudist is about being yourself and openly experiencing the world. I want to be able to wake up, grab my cup of coffee, and walk out on to the deck with nothing on and greet the morning sun.”
Not far from the tennis courts, a cluster of nudists greets the afternoon sun. Following a winding dirt and gravel path up a steep hill, five nudists sunbathe during the first hot day in months. A stereo system has been set up on the wooden railing near the pool. Songs by The Black Eyed Peas filter through the speakers. Sunscreen is nowhere to be found. As their bare bottoms turn pink in the sun, men and women turn over to face the sky, exposing themselves to the treetops and the few remaining clouds.
One of them, Don Dery, turns to his wife to kiss her. Today is their twenty-seventh wedding anniversary. The two were planning to go to Mexico in search of sunnier weather, but changed their plans when they saw the weekend forecast.
Looking into his wife’s eyes, Dery smiles and asks, “If not here, where else are you going to find body peace?”