A Connecticut Text on the Nude Volleyball Court
Getting Naked To Uncover What All The Fuss Is About
A valid driver's license and a towel, he tells me.
"That's it?" I ask the voice on the other end of the line.
That's about all you'll need, confirms the man in the registration office of Solair Recreation League, a family-oriented nudist resort -- New England's oldest -- tucked in the lush woods of northeastern Connecticut.
I inform my sister, Donna, of this abbreviated packing list.
"Oh, man," she sighs. "Seriously?"
I had recruited my reluctant partner in nudism after reading an Associated Press story earlier this summer about the plight of such resorts as Solair, hurting for younger members. The story reported Solair's median age as 55, with the American Association for Nude Recreation estimating that more than 90 percent of its 50,000 members across the country are over 35.
Among their outreach efforts, the story said, some resorts are mounting promotional days for college students and offering sliding, age-based fees. Solair, for example, charges $25 for a first-time visit and $500 for an annual membership. For the under-40 set, that drops to $17.50 for a first-timer, and $300 for the year.
But the age gap didn't completely make sense to me. What of the supposed youthful abandon of those in their 20s and 30s? What about all the spring-break resorts teeming with tight-and-toned young things just a sneeze away from being naked anyway?
I'm about to turn 30, and I wanted to see for myself what these clubs have to offer my generation, find out exactly what kind of fun we might be missing out on.
"You know you are the only person I'd do this for, right?" Donna, 32, says, breaking the long pause after I asked her to tag along for moral support.
Why are we both so skittish? We mull it over on the leafy drive into Woodstock. I had gone topless at a nude beach in New Jersey on a pair of occasions in college. Donna went the full monty at one during a summer trip to Poland. Together we took regular visits to a Russian bath house in New York's East Village, where, on Lady's Day, clothing was an option we never chose.
We felt comfortable enough in our skin to flash it on other occasions. So why were we, and our demographic, so hesitant to strip down to our socks and sandals at a nude resort? We knew nudism wasn't about sex but about clothes-free relaxation and body acceptance. We knew Solair, according to its website (www.solairrl.com), was "celebrating 70 years of family nudism."
As we turn left on Ide Perrin Road, my stomach in knots, the best answer we can come up with was the anxiety of the unknown, and maybe our ingrained image - right or wrong - of such places as campy playgrounds for free-wheeling hippie throwbacks.
We arrive at the electric gate. As I push the buzzer, I see a flier on the adjacent notice board announcing the morning's pancake breakfast for kids. Pancakes! Kids! I can't image a more non-threatening combination. I ease a bit.
"Wait," my sister says. "When exactly are we supposed to get naked? Do you think we're supposed to show up without our clothes on?"
"Yeah, Donna - they're gonna make us strip right here and leave our clothes at the gate."
"I don't know. I'm just sayin'."
The gate opens. I park beside the registration building. As we shuffle up the wooden stairs, I catch my first glimpse of naked flesh through the office window.
Time and money. These things, not body insecurities or misconceptions about nudism, is what keeps the youngsters away, says Steve Vickers, a spokesman for the American Association for Nude Recreation.
He should know. He's 26. But then, he was raised a nudist.
"I just know that our generation is a lot more wrapped up with a lot more things - school, work, starting a family," says Vickers. Becoming a member of any club has become a harder sell, he says, citing Robert Putnam's 1995 book on the subject of civic disengagement, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital." Consider that most nude-resort memberships hover around several hundred dollars, and the pitch becomes that much more difficult.
"Besides my membership to AANR, I don't have a membership to anything," he says. "No one even joins the library anymore. And that's free."
As such, many resorts aren't upping their marketing efforts to the demographic, he says, knowing they're more likely to reach them a little later in life.
But at Caliente Resorts, a luxury, clothing-optional resort just north of Tampa Bay, a targeted marketing push in just the last year has proven successful in pulling in younger faces, says Terra Boddy, marketing director. Aiming for a broader audience, the resort switched from nude to clothing optional at the start of the year. Caliente went from a 70 percent membership over the age of 50 as a nude resort, to 70 percent between the ages of 25 and 45 as a clothing-optional resort.
Nude On The Block
She wears nothing but a yellow baseball cap, sneakers and a reassuring smile.
"You guys nervous?" the Solair tour guide asks as she hops off the golf cart and introduces herself to me and Donna, standing outside the main office after we hadpaid and registered for the day.
"Yes," we say in unison.
"Don't be," says the woman, who I guess is in her 40s. We're in good hands, she explains, in a resort that screens its membership and leans heavily to multi-generational families. This isn't the type of place where men will leer or make advances. If they do, she says, report it, and the staff will take care of it.
We get back in the car and follow her golf cart to an enclosed, wooded parking lot.
"Well, there's never any other way to say it," the woman smiles. She instructs us to "get comfortable" and then meet her a few yards away, back at her golf cart.
"You mean - right here?" I stammer. There's no better time or place, she says.
And so we duck into the car, clothes scattering to the floor. Towel deliberately bunched between my crossed arms, I scurry back to the cart, a little startled when I get a flash of my naked self in the reflection of my car window. Our guide explains the ground rules, chief among them that we'll need our towel to sit on wherever we go - golf cart, picnic table, canoe.
"It's one of the hardest things to remember," she says. Donna and I later agree - we're pretty sure it's the easiest thing to remember.
Our guide gives us a tour of the grounds - of the lodging, the volleyball and tennis courts, the pool and recreation room, sauna and canteen, and finally the beach. It all has a kitschy campground feel, rustic and woodsy but clean and comfortable. After a routine Q&A to find out more about us, she leaves us to our day.
This is really not a big deal, Donna and I agree, surrounded by flesh of all colors and shapes, as we head to the beach. As we scan the lounge chairs, we see seniors reading their beach books, chatting in groups, even see a gaggle of teenagers - boys and girls - splashing in the water. It all feels rather European, really.
But we've done this part before. It's the nude-recreation part that will be new to us. So we decide an activity is in order. We rule out tennis and volleyball, agreeing that nothing that induces so much bounce should be done sans athletic support. Shuffleboard it is.
Only, we've never played. After Donna and I stare quizzically at the board for a few minutes, a trio of older, grayer gentleman come over to help us out. I tense up - my first real nudie interaction. But after handshakes and introductions, it becomes clear it's all harmless.
"Good to see some new faces," says one. "Especially young ones."
They explain the rules, but I'm having trouble concentrating, especially when a breeze kicks up, and I am reminded: Oh, my God. I'm playing shuffleboard . Naked. This, and the sight of my nude sister high-fiving her nude, crisply tanned partner, is all I could think of.
Our new acquaintances, however, seem much more enthralled with the game.
"Nice 8, Leo," cheers one. "Nice 8."
Any preconceived notions are certainly shattered in the span of a Sunday afternoon. The people we meet are retirees, blue-collar and white. Women and men.
Still, I'm not convinced. It is all fine enough for an afternoon, but I can't picture myself coming every weekend, as most members do. Lounging poolside in the nude? Fantastic. Chatting with strangers or leaping to spike a volleyball while nude? I have to say, it feels kind of weird. I don't know if that's about age or if that's just me.
What's The Big Deal?
So what is the allure? That is the question I kept asking the gaggle of members we talk with by the pool.
Some say it is the ultimate freedom - relaxing from life's everyday constraints, including clothes. Some say they delight in the naturalism of it all, of accepting themselves and others for exactly how God made them. One man explains that so much of class and identity gets wrapped up in the clothes we wear - business suits, construction pants - that to shed oneself of those material things puts everyone on the same level.
"We're all just people," he says, adding later, "I'm telling you, when you leave here, when you have to put your clothes back on? You're going to feel depressed."
We excuse ourselves for a stroll in the woods, batting at bugs and pondering the whole scenario. Donna wraps her towel around her chest. I look at her strangely. "What?" she says. "I just feel like, you know, they've been out for so long. I just need to pull 'em back up for a bit."
We agree, there comes a point when it's time to put your clothes back on. This is our time.
As I dress, the sensation of clothing does feel strange - heavy, even. We pull out of the gates, both quiet and processing our thoughts.
"So," Donna says. "Do you feel depressed, now that you have your clothes back on?"
"Me neither. I like my clothes."
Reach Joann Klimkiewicz at email@example.com.