As fall approaches, I can’t help but marvel at the sights, sounds and stories I experienced this summer at a local, clothing-optional stretch of the water’s edge that the LGBTQ community calls our own.
Look at The Swimming Hole by Thomas Eakins: you’ll find six beautifully crafted men enjoying a day by the water without a suit in sight. Though bathing in the buff was commonplace at the time it was painted – before the advent of mixed-gender swimming, there is something inherently sexy about this group of guys frolicking nude on the beach. Some art historians call the painting a flaunting of homoerotic desire, and this may be reinforced by the fact that Eakins actually included himself as one of the figures in the painting — swimming toward the group of men. If that doesn’t say you’re into dudes, what does?
Today, many decades of swimwear and repression later, most Americans find public nudity shameful, including my mother. “I didn’t raise you to go naked,” she gasped on the phone. “Not in public!” But – in part because we’ve been taught that it’s naughty – there’s something truly liberating about nude beaches. The feeling of the water, cool against your skin; the uninterrupted sun erasing tan lines; the breeze caressing all of you. It makes for a sumptuous experience.
Near Portland we have one such special beach at Rooster Rock State Park. (It was once called “Cock Rock,” though a few decades ago that was changed – presumably to protect certain delicate sensibilities.) Though it’s less than 50 minutes from downtown, the place – nestled along the banks of the Columbia River – feels worlds away. Technically, it’s almost in the next state, as you could swim across the water to Washington State. But why would you bother? They have sales tax.
Habitues of nude beaches are always on the lookout for the “shy” — those who remain clothed or wear swimsuits (though I’ve clocked suits small enough to render actual nudity less sexually charged). There are also those who sport backless underwear or jockstraps, which are also arguably more suggestive than full nudity — depending on your personal preferences. You’ll find people from all across the gender-identity spectrum — adorned with sarongs, hats, boas, fans, sometimes even shaded by paper umbrellas. But mostly, they’re wearing nothing but tattoos and jewelry.
You might come upon a literary-minded couple, nakedly reading aloud to each other from library books or copies of The New Yorker. They are utterly unphased by a passing parade of twinks following like ducks in a row behind their muscled, commanding sugar daddy — his rank indicated by the fact that he’s wearing a Speedo.
Though we tend to think of it as “our beach,” it is a state park, and occasionally the world reminds us of that. Once, the shuttle dropped us farther from the path than we expected. We were still wondering why when we got a visual clue: the sight of hundreds of women wearing headscarves and long skirts, carrying food. As we passed through the throng, we asked what was going on. A teenage girl explained it was an outing from the local Romanian Baptist church. The water was to be their River Jordan for the afternoon, assembled as they were for a group baptism. Had they any idea about the nude gay beach party not two miles away?
Down at the beach we discovered a boat, decked with pride flags, blasting decidedly gay music. The vessel was approached the nude beach from the other end, where the 1200 or so Romanians were going about their ceremony. Did they know what the rainbow flags meant? Would any that did dare explain it to the rest? But in a classic live-and-live situation, they gays went on partying and the Baptists went on baptizing.
Occasionally, one can hear the chimes of Grindr or Scruff along the shoreline, however what most people come for is a sense of escape from all that. There’s much actual in-person flirtation, and – as with most gay gatherings – plenty of witty repartee and gossip. News from the outside world is frowned upon. We’re two miles from the clothes-wearing world. Who cares about Kellyanne Conway? There’s also a sense of tranquility; you may frequently catch yourself saying and overhearing other say: “It’s so beautiful.”
During one such tranquil moment, I was walking along a trail, wearing nothing but sunglasses. I heard a rustling. A bear had been making eye candy of me earlier, and I wondered if it was him. It also briefly occurred to me that it could be the rustling of an actual, woods-dwelling bear. I removed my Ray Bans to see, about eight feet away from me, a doe, standing, eating leaves. It was early summer, and she looked pregnant. I’m not sure which of us was more surprised. Maybe she hadn’t read the sign forewarning public nudity.
We beheld each other, hearing the sounds of birds overhead, breathing the same air. I held the moment. I smiled and, for some reason cooed — not knowing what sounds a deer makes. Hearing others approaching, she ran off into the horsetail stalks behind her.
Back at our “camp” I shared this peaceful moment with my friends. “It was just beautiful. We were both naked – human and beast. Like Equus,” I said, “just without the sex!”
“You stood there,” my friend asked, “just staring at a deer?”
“We had a special moment! She knew I meant no harm,” I explained. “Besides, she was pregnant. I’m sure she wouldn’t have endangered her unborn fawns by approaching me.” Someone explained to me that pregnant deer are, in fact, so protective of her unborn that they have been known to charge approaching humans. Oops.
Recently, we decided to say farewell to summer with one last visit on what we suspected might be the last nude-beachworthy day of the season. Taking a final stroll, I encountered a group of guys refreshingly not playing Top 40. Instead, we heard the exquisite sound of Nat King Cole crooning “What a Wonderful World.” And, as the sun touched its golden fingertips to our naked bodies – bidding us goodbye until next year – it did feel like a wonderful world indeed.
Enjoy spending time in the great outdoors with Sebastian? Go campaign with him and see what happens.
Last modified: September 27, 2018