When Nita Maddux returned to Missoula earlier this year, she wanted to relax and reconnect with friends and family. She’d been living and working in Maui, on the property of spiritual teacher Ram Dass, and doing humanitarian work in Asia, where she contracted malaria.
“I just wanted to come home and rest for a moment,” Maddux says.
“To me, it just seems like, oh my gosh, [Missoula] is the perfect place for that,” she says. “The culture is right for it. The downtown people will totally get it. The culture I exist in here—this will be so much fun. And it’s holding a container for a moment that’s, like, it feels really good to strip away the illusions and just be authentic and say, ‘You know what? This is it. Things sag. We all have cellulite. Who the heck cares?'”
Instead of receiving a welcome reception, the Bare as You Dare bike ride has become a lightning rod for criticism—and Maddux has found herself overloaded with stress, at the center of a storm of controversy and the object of numerous graphic death threats, she says. When the city of Missoula gave Maddux a permit for the ride, criticism spread to Mayor John Engen and others in city government, who were charged with endorsing and encouraging an immoral and illegal event that could jeopardize the safety and well-being of locals and visitors. According to City Communications Director Ginny Merriam, the mayor and his office received some 98 emails and 25-30 phone calls from opponents of the ride between July 7 and Aug. 7.
“It is many, many calls that are very hateful, as in full of hatred and hate speech, as you would probably define it,” Merriam says. “And it’s been challenging because lots of the callers do not wish to listen to anything we have to say.”
In both personal responses and a form statement, Mayor Engen has been telling people that the permit should not be construed as an endorsement of the bike ride but should be seen as a prudent means of keeping the event safe, predictable and contained.
“They don’t need to have a permit to ride bikes on the street,” Merriam says. “The mayor thought it would be better to grant the permit they requested for a couple of reasons. One being that it would be discriminatory to say, ‘No, we’re not going to give you a permit because you’ll be naked,’ because there is nothing illegal about being naked. But also, if we permit it, we know when it’s happening and we have the described route and a designated starting time and a designated ending time, so we can warn citizens who don’t want to be around when it occurs, and so that we can have law enforcement and public safety staff present for whatever happens.”
Despite this explanation, criticism has continued. More than 35 people spoke against the ride during the public comment period of an Aug. 4 council meeting, even though the council had no role in approving the permit. Because Mayor Engen was unable to attend the meeting, Merriam read aloud a statement from him. An audience member tried to shout over her as she did so.
“A lot of people are being quite abusive to the local government officials,” city attorney Jim Nugent says. “In a way, it’s a sad commentary, because intimidations and pressures like that are not what our constitution is based on.”
Maddux, who is originally from Whitefish and raised her children in Missoula, believes those opposed to the ride are outsiders attempting to impose their own narrow mores on the local population.
“There is a whole side that is coming out to oppose this, and this is the real story: Who are those people?” she says. “Where is that hate coming from? And why do a whole lot of people who only recently moved to the area feel that they know what the climate and temperament of Montana is? … People have a mythology about Montana that is not necessarily Montana.”
John McFarland, a financial advisor, says his family has lived in Missoula for five generations. McFarland has emailed the mayor several times to express his opposition to the ride, and he was among those who spoke at the council meeting. So did his 12-year-old daughter. McFarland says he has been civil and respectful in expressing his opposition, but he urgently wants the city to revoke the permit for an event that, he claims, “erodes our community values,” relies on taxpayer dollars, opens the door to sex crimes and effectively closes downtown to those who don’t want to view public nudity. McFarland says he’s working to organize lawsuits against Maddux and the city to stop the event.
“There is also my right to free speech and my right to be on public property,” McFarland says. “And for those that say, ‘Well, if you’re just not interested, don’t go,’ that’s infringing on my rights to be at a public area at a certain time. That’s illegal. So she’s discriminating against me because of my beliefs.”
Like Maddux, McFarland says the heart of the matter is the corruption of Montana values by outside forces.
“She’s obviously an activist for her cause and seems to have come here just to do that, where those of us that have lived here, raised our families here, work here, we’re against it,” McFarland says. “And so I have a hard time with people coming from Portland trying to get what’s acceptable in Portland to be acceptable here.”
With so much acrimony and contention leading up to the ride, there is concern about what will happen when an estimated 300 nude and partially nude cyclists pedal along the river and through downtown at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 17. McFarland hopes to pursue his legal options without attending the event, but says if complaints of indecent exposure must be filed in person “some of us, I guess, will take that route.” Maddux says that while she’s considered stopping the ride due to the controversy, she “cannot give in to hate stuff.”
“Nobody’s stepping off,” Maddux says. “If I ride all by myself, it’s happening.”