Feeling exposed 

Intrepid reporter Skylar Browning bares all to uncover the appeal of Montana's only formal nudist group

The only thing standing between me and a colony of nudists is a one-inch thick motel door and a dead-bolt lock—and I am not opening that door. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances or reward, nothing in this world can get me, naked as the day I was born, to turn the handle. That door may as well be welded shut and buttressed by a billion cinder blocks. That door could be the gateway to eternal happiness, and I still wouldn’t open it. Better stated, I can’t open it. For now, that door is shut, and I don’t even have the luxury of a peephole to spy through and measure what exactly I’ve gotten myself into.

I wish I knew more about what’s out there. All I can grasp are the basics: On the other side of the door are about a dozen early-arriving members of the Montana Naturist Organization, a group that boasts nearly 100 dues-paying nudists from throughout the state. This is their annual meeting, a weekend retreat with an agenda heavy on socializing and light on business, and it takes place in a nondescript roadside motel south of Great Falls. The motel features the particularly convenient advantage of 14 rooms surrounding a private indoor pool and Jacuzzi. The place seems clean, basic, civilized.

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At least I think it does. To be honest, I didn’t get a great look when I entered and, fully clothed following a three-hour drive, introduced myself to the return of warm smiles. It all happened too fast—a quick hello, a shaking of a hand, a nod to the larger group and the most intense concentration on eye contact I’d ever attempted. I was too nervous to thoroughly gauge the scene. All I caught was the group was mostly older, say between 50 and 70, and they were knitting at a table, flipping through magazines on a bench or lounging near the water. They looked like a city council during a meeting break or the instructors at a local high school killing time in the teachers’ lounge. They were as harmless and comfortable as the late-morning crowd at Butterfly Herbs or Bernice’s Bakery, just chewing the fat and, well, exposing it, too. I told them I’d go get changed and be right back. I turned away, noticed a sign next to the pool that warned against the use of improper swimwear (“No Cut-Off Jeans!”) and two tables of silent auction items (Harry Potter bracelets!), and calmly walked past the other rooms before I closed my door behind me.

That was 30 minutes ago.

Now I’m naked and sweating and cursing and avoiding a glance at the full-length mirror next to the door that I cannot open. This is ridiculous, I know. I tell myself it’s the same as hesitating at the door of the plane on a skydiving adventure, the same as flinching before descending from the high-dive at the swimming pool. But it’s not. This isn’t life or death; it’s bare skin or clothes. This isn’t about taking a quick leap, screaming at the top of your lungs and then landing safely, hysterical and relieved. This is about opening the door, stepping out—and then hanging out, literally and figuratively, with a group of strangers for the rest of the day. It’s a different deal all together.

All of these doubts are leaning against that door, and I’m mad. I promised myself this wouldn’t happen. When I researched nudism and its broad acceptance throughout history and widespread approval throughout much of the modern world, I figured public nakedness was no big deal. In fact, when I read David Sedaris’ popular essay, “Naked,” about him spending a week at a nudist camp, I scoffed when he spent the first three days wearing a T-shirt or hiding in his trailer. Sedaris is a wussy, I thought. But here I am, literally pacing in my room, reconsidering this whole stupid idea. And why? 

I finally look in the mirror. I look like an Ewok who needs some Rogaine, or a stocky version of one of those Geico cavemen with a better smile and slightly better facial hair. It’s not pretty. After a few minutes I convince myself that, from just the right angle, I could be mistaken for a chubby Casey Affleck with a Unabomber beard. I decide to cut the crap, flip the lock and open the door.

It’s a strange moment right then, hand on the doorknob, courage mustered, chin held high. This story is supposed to be about everyone on the other side of the door—the characters, the activities, the choice to live nude—but I’m stricken by the 40 minutes I end up spending in my motel room ruminating on more than just the humor and peculiarity of naturism. What an odd reaction. Never felt anything like it.

Then I open the door. And the first thing I see, despite my best intentions, is the most well-endowed man I’d ever witnessed in person. He’s cleaning his glasses.

•••


I’m not sure what to do with my hands. I expected problems with my eyes—it’s human nature to steal a glance at those around you, whether you’re riding the bus into town, waiting in line at the deli counter or, in this case, sitting around in lawn furniture and talking politics in the nude. But my hands are an unexpected nuisance.

I casually place them on my thigh, but it feels weird. I drape one arm over the back of the chair, but that’s too casual. I twist, squirm and then settle with the thought that being uncomfortable and rigid is better than being annoyingly shifty. I have the same awkward posture of someone sitting on a doctor’s table waiting to be examined.

“We were written up in a magazine,” says Bill, politely making conversation with me. “They did alright. There are only a few things they got wrong—like we’re not based in Corvallis. That’s just wrong. It’s our mailing address, but that’s it. We’re a state organization. And this—this here, I’m not happy about this.”

Bill points to an adult entertainment ad on the same page as the MNO story. “They didn’t have to do that. That’s not what this is about. I think we’re pretty clear about that. That shows no class.”

Bill is my main contact with MNO, a founding member who’s been a naturist for more than 30 years. He was part of an older Montana nudist organization in the 1980s called Wyrnomor, which folded when the founder passed away. Bill started up MNO in 1996 and worked to avoid the same pitfalls as Wyrnomor by establishing a democratic hierarchy; elected officers run the current group with oversight from a board of trustees. He’s 65 years old, bald on top with a clean-cut grey beard, glasses and a slim build. He’s soft spoken, but Bill can talk a lot, especially when he gets going about the etiquette of naturism.

 

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“Now, I think I told you,” Bill says, “but no last names and no cameras without written consent from all parties beforehand. Those are the rules. And you read the material I sent you before?”

A few weeks ago Bill sent me a thick envelope detailing the history of MNO and its code of conduct. The group is very strict about respecting other members. Unwanted advances, the invasion of personal space, even the use of alcohol or tobacco are all forbidden. The main point is that this isn’t, in any way, shape or form, a sexual deal. A certain level of personal hygiene is also required. For instance, you must shower before entering the hot tub or pool, and everyone is expected to carry his or her own towel to sit on. The packet also included information on the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR), which has been the nation’s leading voice for naturism since 1931 and boasts nearly 50,000 members, and The Naturist Society (TNS), another large national organization with which MNO is affiliated. I read all of it. Twice.

“I just want to make sure,” says Bill. “It’s important to us that we’re portrayed fairly. There are a lot of misconceptions about nudism. We work very hard to make this a family friendly and welcoming environment.”

And so far it is. I buy six raffle tickets to be in the running for two huge quilts knitted by the group of women stitching at the table when I arrived. I check out the silent auction, complete with handmade potholders, holiday place mats, bags of fresh vegetables from backyard gardens, the aforementioned Harry Potter bracelets and a large hand-carved wooden sign reading, “Clothing Optional.” The potholders are the hot item so far, fetching a top bid of $25.

Most of the room is older than me, and split evenly between men and women. A lot of them are inked. And shaved. And none of that really matters, I don’t imagine, to anyone but me. I don’t want it to, but during my first few minutes, I can’t help but notice the symmetry of one man’s tattoos—down both arms, both sides of his back, both thighs and across his chest—and that at least three men are uncircumcised. There’s also a Winnie the Pooh tat on one woman’s backside and another woman with a torso that reminds me of an elderly high school teacher we all thought looked like a pear. It’s uncouth to steal glances, but it’s also impossible to ignore some things. I can’t help but wonder what they’re noticing about me.

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The topics of conversation range from critiquing the new magazine article (folks are really hung up on the Corvallis bit), the rapid development in the Bitterroot and Flathead valleys, the recent Elton John concert, the fact that Lolo Hot Springs has added clothing optional nights (this is huge news) and scores of personal anecdotes about nudism. I hear how everyone first tried it, from a day at Idaho’s Jerry Johnson Hot Springs to an up-scale vacation at a nudist resort in Florida. I learn that most everyone has told their children and some friends, and the reactions are overwhelmingly positive; in one case, the children, now grown, are also nudists. I learn about “losing yourself,” which is what happens when a nudist is at home and forgets to put on clothes before they step out to grab the mail or take out the trash. I pick up on subtle terminology like “clothes-minded.”

I also hear of the challenges. Most members deal with a certain level of intolerance from friends and colleagues; some brush it off, others experience such bigotry that they’re hesitant to have even their first name mentioned in this article. Nonetheless, the majority professes to being “out of the closet,” or completely open about being a naturist. None are quite as outspoken as Andrea, who serves as sort of the social spark for the group.

“Andrea’s dangerous with a gun,” says Bill, leaning over to me but talking loud enough for everyone to hear.

“I am dangerous!” she says proudly, and she laughs loud and hard.

Andrea’s currently talking about a troupe of women who dress up in Wild West-style outfits (Andrea hand-stitches every one) and put on a shooting show on horseback. They perform all the time, she says. They even played a bar mitzvah recently. Andrea doesn’t ride in the show, but she’s heavily involved and owns a few authentic pistols.

“And we couldn’t get naked today until noon,” laments Andrea, switching the topic quickly simply because she has more stories to tell. “Check out was 11, but there was a woman and family here that were just hanging around [Andrea and her husband arrived the night before, hoping to get an early start to the weekend]. The lady, she saw all our stuff for the auction and asked what we were doing, and I said we were having our annual meeting. She said, ‘Meeting for what?’ And I said, ‘Well, we’re naturists. We’re nudists.’ And she’s like, ‘Come on. Get outta here.’ And I said, ‘Yep, we are, and you should join us!’”

Andrea laughs loud and hard again.

“Well, what’d she say then?” someone asks.

“She just—um-um-um-um,” Andrea says, laughing. “They left pretty soon after.”

“Andrea’s not shy,” Bill says to me.

There are other Andrea stories: the women from her office who purchased raffle tickets for the quilt (“Of course I told them I’m a naturist—I don’t care who knows!”), winning tickets for a Marshall Tucker Band concert over the summer, and more. As I listen Andrea’s husband passes me a photo album for the Bare-raks Boondock Ranch. It’s filled with pictures of MNO members and friends, nude, doing construction and landscaping, building up the land and then playing on it.

The Bare-raks Boondock Ranch is set on 20 acres of wilderness just east of the Continental Divide and was cultivated by two MNO members, Ron and Kay, as a free campsite for nudists. Ron and Kay don’t advertise or promote the ranch, but they’re happy to spread the word among friends and fellow naturists. Throughout the year they host MNO events, mostly during the summer. Since MNO is a non-landed, or “travel club,” having access to the land is a luxury.

“We add amenities as much as we can, when we can afford to,” says Ron.

The big news is that they added a pool this summer. In order to fill it, Ron and Kay use a fire hose to pump water from a nearby creek. It takes four hours to fill. “It’s cold, but it’s full,” says Kay.

On another page of the photo album, MNO members are hiking on National Forest land with full packs strapped to their backs, boots on their feet and nothing else. I imagine these chafe and wonder about ticks and bugs, but don’t ask about any of it.

I learn later that there are no federal rules against nudity on public lands, so hiking is popular among MNO members. The group tries to be discrete and respectful if they run into “textiles,” or clothed folk, on a trail, but as one explains, “If someone’s really bent out of shape, they need to go find a ranger and then have that ranger find us and then—if the ranger finds us—we simply need to put our clothes on. If you’re polite and talk it through at the beginning, it usually doesn’t come to that.” None of them can recall ever having a problem.

•••


Two things immediately come to mind when scanning the room: There is no young presence among the small gathering, but there is a proportionate number of women. These observations cut right to the

most pressing issues facing naturist organizations.

Age is such an issue that MNO’s latest newsletter, called In The Buff, includes a notice from AANR disputing media reports that young people no longer participate in nude recreation. “Statistical evidence shows that today’s young people are more accepting and interested in nude recreation than ever before,” the notice reads. “[But] as a group, they are less interested in joining any organization, be it fraternal, social or recreational…” It goes on to list four “key messages” or talking points for AANR members, the last of which states that a group of nudist youth ambassadors are making preparations to lecture at college campuses across the country.

That’s all well and good, but the young people aren’t at this MNO meeting.

“We usually get them at some of the outdoor events,” explains Bill. “Jerry Johnson, of course, is always popular. And Red Rock Beach—that’s always a draw [another clothing optional spot located on the Blackfoot River near Johnsrud Park]. Those are less formal events, of course, but you’ll see the younger generation there.”

Bill doesn’t distinguish whether those crowds are part of MNO or just happen to be there, but in a sense it doesn’t matter. His point, and AANR’s point in the newsletter, is that young people are open to nudism, just not organized nudism. I think about the University of Michigan’s annual “Naked Mile” run or the Burning Man Festival, and I’m not sure why those events easily draw young crowds while MNO doesn’t.

Regardless, for a long time I’m the youngest person in the room by at least 15 years. That changes when I meet Alex, a blonde-haired, cherubic one-year-old here with his mother, Claudia, and father, Jeff. We meet in the pool, with Claudia approaching me matter-of-factly asking, “So, you must have some questions for me as a woman naturist?”

Claudia is a German emigrant who grew up a naturist. Her uncle was a naturist, and still is. There was a lake in Bavaria close to the place she was raised where families always swam nude. Naturism, Claudia explains, is simply a part of her.

It makes sense. Germany is credited with creating the model for modern nudist colonies and resorts. In the early 1900s German physicians and philosophers published papers lauding the mental and physical fitness of nudism. In the 1920s, nude recreation clubs and Freikörperkultur, or “free body culture,” were so popular in Germany that they spread to the United States. The first U.S. club originated in upstate New York in 1929, started by a German-born American named Kurt Barthel. In fact, according to the book Speaking Ill of the Dead, Montana’s first nudist colony was based on the same German nudist ideals and was opened by physician Jacob “Thorky” Thorkelson in 1933 on the Butte Flatts. (Thorky, unfortunately, went on to become Montana’s most offensive congressman.) The club was open for two years.

Claudia says the biggest difference between MNO and her German naturist upbringing is that “it’s no big deal there. Here, everyone makes such a big deal. Like the children,” she continues. “Some people make a big deal of having children in a naturist environment, but it is natural. Alex, he loves to be naked. All kids love to be naked. I do not understand what is wrong with that. I grew up where families were all nude at the lake, and it was fine.”

Claudia came to the United States when Microsoft offered her a job in Seattle and handled all of her moving expenses. She promptly founded SLUGS, or Sun Lovers Under Grey Skies, which is similar to MNO and still in existence. She now splits her time between San Diego and Montana, and is exceedingly active in the naturist community, as well as an advocate for breastfeeding, stay at home moms and more. 

We talk for almost an hour before getting back to Claudia’s introduction—she made a point of introducing herself as a “woman naturist” and not just a naturist. Why such a specific distinction?

“I think it’s harder for women,” she says. “And it’s especially difficult for young women in today’s society. They feel they need to lose 10 pounds, or they need to look a certain way before they feel comfortable enough to try something like this. I think the reason we have so many older women here is they don’t care. They’re past all that. And me? I was born this way. I never cared.”

And, just out of curiosity, do you think it’s similarly difficult for young men?

“Yes,” she says. “Sure it is. Society today says we need to look a certain way to be accepted. It’s everywhere, for men and women, and it’s a shame. That is what I enjoy about being a naturist. None of that is an issue. Here we just are who we are.”

•••


One of the most ridiculous exercises I’ve ever experienced was packing for this weekend. The night before I made the drive, I stood in front of an empty suitcase looking at three bath towels and a toiletry case. What else was really necessary? Do I need pajamas? More towels? I had no idea.

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The ironic twist about MNO’s annual meeting is that dinner takes place outside the safe confines of the enclosed pool/room area. The roadside motel is split in half—the rooms and pool on one side, a bar and restaurant tailored to visiting hunters on the other. While MNO has full run of the residences, the eating area is open to the public. So at dinnertime, everyone with MNO disappears to their rooms, gets dressed and walks 20 feet to the other side of the building. 

For some reason, seeing the group dressed is more disconcerting then seeing it naked. Flannel, fleece and tie-dye are popular. No one looks very comfortable, except Andrea, who’s wearing a matching purple sweat suit.

I find myself more judgmental of their clothing than their bodies. I’m trying to read T-shirts and comprehend some of the color coordination. It occurs to me that they probably don’t give a hoot about their outfits. And why should they? The problem here is that all of a sudden the bond that brought this group together, the inherent camaraderie of being unabashedly naked is stripped away like kryptonite. This is no longer MNO—it is that City Council meeting.

Our waitress this evening is Bunny. Everyone knows Bunny from previous visits. She was working the first time MNO rented out the motel three years ago, when the entire staff was a little apprehensive and Bunny was downright bothered.

“They turned out to be great,” says Bunny, 70. She’s been an employee at the motel, off and on, since she was 16. “They’re a lot of fun and really nice folks. They’re great tippers.”

Do any of the locals know or care about the gathering?

“Oh, they hear about it,” she says. “It slips out and people laugh. The guys, you know what they say—do they need help with a light bulb over there? Most people seem just fine with it.”

Would she ever join? 

“They asked me once,” she says, blushing. “It’s not for me. Not for me. I just ain’t into that.”

Once Bunny is finished serving dinner and the plates are cleared, MNO’s official annual meeting commences. The business is pretty mundane and orderly. “It’s run like any church organization,” says one member. The liveliest conversation is whether the newsletter should contain more color printing.

As the discussion continues, patrons of the bar walk past the room where we’re situated to get to the bathroom. Every passerby looks in our direction, but nobody seems to know what’s going on. Other than the “Clothing Optional” sign from the silent auction, there’s no sign that these are nudists.

When it’s time for the election of new officers, the meeting goes from tepid to awkward. There’s essentially one nomination per position and any second nomination is declined; competition is avoided at almost all costs. I figure they all want to just get back to the pool. I actually want to get back to the pool too.

With nothing better to do, I excuse myself and hit the bathroom. While standing in the far stall a man walks in from the bar, stops at the sink and makes conversation.

“What sort of organization is that?”

Naturally, he couldn’t ask about the Southern Cal football game on the television above the bar or ask if I was in town hunting. He had to go there.

“It’s called MNO,” I say, poorly avoiding an answer.

“Is that a company?”

“Um, no,” realizing there was no way I was going to get out of an explanation. “It’s actually a nudist organization.”

“Buddhist?”

“No, no—nudist,” I repeat. “They’re nudists.”

“Oh, really?” he says. I expect a wise crack. “That’s big in Germany, you know. I’ve read about it—huge clubs and communities. Neat stuff. Well, have fun then.”

•••


There are cures for gymnophobia. That’s what they call it when you can’t stand, even by yourself, to be naked, and it can be treated, like most phobias, through therapy or hypnosis. For me, the cure was a little simpler: By the end of my time with MNO, I successfully stopped thinking about being nude.

“Everybody goes through it,” Bill says of my initial fears. “It lasts about 20 minutes. After that you realize no one’s judging you, no one’s noticing that you’re nude, and you realize, ‘What’s the big deal?’ It’s hard to explain, but it just goes away.”

After dinner and the meeting, there’s music. I open the door to my room—much easier this time around—to find a couple singing hymns as the husband plays guitar. Her voice is tailor-made for a choir and his playing is fluid and technical. I ask if he plays in a band; his son does, but he only plays at church.

They keep performing as small groups begin to form around the pool. Claudia’s breastfeeding Alex at the table, Ron from Bare-raks is swimming alone, Jerry and Shirley, a quieter older couple, sit on camping chairs in front of their room, and a larger circle is discussing the merits of the new officers’ election in the Jacuzzi. MNO just voted its first-ever woman president into office, and that has people excited.

I join the larger circle at the Jacuzzi, without even realizing that I’m no longer realizing that everyone is naked. Like Bill predicted, it’s simply not an issue anymore. The only time it dawns on me is when I need to get up from the Jacuzzi and I think, just for a second, what the most appropriate way to exit may be.

“We create these things that are acceptable in society,” says Bill. “It’s about how you’re raised and how you’re trained. If you’re raised that being nude is healthy, that being free and open to the environment is a natural way to live, then it is. If you’re not raised like that, then discovering it can be like breaking a cultural taboo. It can be hard, almost traumatic to get out of it. But once you do, you want to be surrounded by those who agree with you.”

I get it. Although MNO is about a community, it starts with the individual. Stuck in my motel room at the beginning of the weekend, I didn’t really care who was on the other side of the door. It could have been 100 nude supermodels, 100 blind men, or my wife and kid on the other side and I still would have balked. I was trained not to leave the privacy of my own home or motel room stark naked. I was told it’s not right, indecent, and in most cases illegal. I was afraid of being judged. I think we all are.

Oddly enough, the only time I was judged was when I was getting ready to head back to Missoula. I had ducked out to make a phone call at the bar and returned to the pool area in my jeans, T-shirt and baseball cap. A few of the women looked at me like I had three heads and I wondered if I had done something wrong. The exchange of glances was uncomfortable, their eyes burning right through me.

“It’s just Skylar,” said one of the women to the others, finally breaking the silence. “The reporter.”

They broke out laughing, relieved. I joined them.

“Oh my,” said another. “I had no idea who you were for a second. I swear I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.”

The Montana Naturist Organization can be found online at www.montananaturist.org.

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