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From Issue #23 August 15, 2013

What Lies Beneath

Dwindling nudist colonies have trouble finding new members.

By Alison Hallett Twitter icon 

Dave Bush.

The first thing you notice, when meeting a nudist in his natural habitat, is that he’s naked.

There’s no way around it. No matter how open-minded you think you are, when you meet your first nudist you’ll probably find yourself making unusually good eye contact to avoid sneaking untoward glances at the myriad bits on display.

But what’s really surprising — more surprising than the sight of bright sun on the bare flesh of a man old enough to be your father — is how quickly that self-consciousness melts away.

In the August 7, 1938, edition of the Oregonian, columnist Virgil Smith described a trip to Camp Hesperia, a nudist camp outside Estacada, Oregon:

Your correspondent was shocked when he entered Camp Hesperia and saw men, women, and children strolling about in nothing but shoes — shocked that he was not shocked. Another shock came with the realization of self-consciousness, even embarrassment in clothes. And a third shock that should he shed his own clothes he would not be embarrassed or ill at ease.

(Smith went on to diplomatically conclude that while he found nudists to be a friendly, egalitarian bunch, “People are more inspiring as companions when at least the worst of their physical imperfections are shielded from view.”)

Smith’s observation conforms precisely to my own experience, 75 years later, at Squaw Mountain Ranch, the same camp visited by Smith in 1938. (They would, admittedly, benefit from another name change, as the name and Indian princess logo are decidedly problematic.)

I first visited the camp in 2010 with a friend who was writing about Squaw Mountain’s attempt to beat the world skinny-dipping record. At 51 participants, they didn’t succeed — the world record is 729 — but I was taken by how cheerful and earnest everyone was. The nudists I met were just like anyone else with a geeky pastime that the rest of the world doesn’t understand: friendly, welcoming, and eager to explain their lifestyle to the uninitiated.

Live nude grandpas

If you have any preconceived notions about what kind of person takes up nudism, five minutes talking to Squaw Mountain groundskeeper Ron Coyle will quickly dispel them. He’s serious, thoughtful, down-to-earth. “I’m a country boy,” he says when I ask him why he became a nudist. “This is about as country as I can be and still have people around.”

Squaw Mountain was founded in 1933, just two years after national organization the American Association for Nude Recreation was born. It’s the second-oldest nudist camp in the country, and the oldest west of the Mississippi (a distinction we westerners are often abashedly forced to claim), occupying just under 20 acres.

This is timber territory, as a freshly clear-cut expanse bordering the camp attests. Roadside stands sell strawberries, and if you dawdle on the road that winds through forests and farmland toward the camp, SUVs will impatiently hug your bumper. After a rumble down a bumpy gravel road, the camp emerges from the woods, and any expectations of seediness or salaciousness are immediately dispelled. Flower-lined paths surround tidy cabins; there’s a small bandstand, a volleyball net, a shuffleboard court.

Squaw Mountain’s fortunes have risen and fallen over the years, Ron explains. Gas shortages threatened the camp with closure during World War II, and it fell into disrepair and disuse again in the 1980s. When Ron joined Squaw Mountain in 1990, the camp was nearly abandoned, back taxes were owed, and most of the cabins were rundown and uninhabitable. Today it’s neat and well maintained, and Ron estimates that current membership hovers around 70 people. (He’s seen it as low as 50 and as high as 120.)

The atmosphere is, in a word, wholesome. It’s summer camp for naked grown-ups.

Ron Coyle with his dog, Annie.

In the flesh

The word “family” comes up a lot among Squaw Mountain’s residents, and they mean it both figuratively and literally. Tattooed, friendly Terri, Ron’s daughter, tells me about the first time she reluctantly came to visit her dad at Squaw Mountain. “I really didn’t want to see my dad naked,” she confesses. “And then we get up here, and who should lead us to our spot but my naked dad! Four days later, I was asking to be a member.”

Her children learned to swim at the camp; her son-in-law, who initially feared that Squaw Mountain would be a “perv cave” and refused to let his children visit, relented after Terri brought him for a visit to see how innocuous and kid-friendly it really is. Now Terri’s grandchildren are regulars too, making Ron the stoic patriarch of four generations of Squaw Mountain campers.

The campground he presides over looks like the setting of a Meatballs-esque ’80s movie. On a sunny day in August, Ron and his fellow camper Dave take me on a tour as a manic dachshund named Annie makes wild circles underfoot. (It was my second visit to Squaw Mountain, and the only moment my composure threatened to dissolve was when I heard myself say “wiener dog.”)

Squaw Mountain boasts 15 cabins as well as RV hookups and space for tent camping. The cabins were brought in in the 1950s, salvaged from a nearby logging camp, and they’ve all been upgraded and customized over the years. Today they’re cheerful and colorful and personalized with bits of kitsch, like a small neon arrow reading “Live Nudes!”

A few people play shuffleboard, wearing hats to shield at least their heads from the sun, and more sit in camp chairs in front of tents or RVs — like campers anywhere, except not wearing pants. There’s a rec room, with ping pong and foosball, and a small gift store that sells nudist clothing, which sounds like an oxymoron until you see the mesh ensembles for sale inside. (And as more than one person pointed out to me: Nudists might enjoy being naked, but they’re not stupid. In the winter, everyone wears clothes.)

A trail leads down to the man-made Lake Opal. It’s named for one of the camp’s original founders, whose photo is pasted into a collaged poster of historical photographs in the camp’s dining hall.

Other photos in the poster — a blonde nude reclining in a classic pinup pose; a muscular young man with two grinning girls hanging from his arms — hint at Squaw Mountain’s more youthful past.

Ron Coyle.

Naked ambition

Today’s members are more likely to have 20-year-olds of their own than to be 20-year-olds, which is something of a problem.

“We’re having trouble attracting younger people,” says Ron, acknowledging that the club tends to draw an older crowd. “Most people who come up [are retired], their kids are all gone, they’re at loose ends, looking for something to do,” he explains. “A lot of people’s kids don’t even know what their parents are up to.” (Think about that next time your parents take a vacation.)

Squaw Mountain has made bids to attract a younger crowd — a music festival in August, a Spring Break week in the spring — that parallel the efforts of nudist organizations nationwide, which have seen declining numbers in recent years.

“A lot of young people just aren’t joiners,” says American Association for Nude Recreation spokesperson Tom Mulhall. “Doesn’t matter whether it’s nudists’ resorts, gyms, or bowling leagues. Doesn’t matter; they just don’t join. Nudists resorts that are not membership-driven have a much younger membership.”

Mulhall says young people are much more likely to spend a day at an outdoor nude recreation site, like a beach, or visit a non-membership resort (like the one he owns in Palm Springs) than they are to pay $150 to $200 a year for a membership to a place like Squaw Mountain.

Though their ideas about the ideal setting for nude recreation might vary, Mulhall and the Squaw Mountain campers express many of the same values in talking about why they were drawn to the nudist lifestyle: Freedom. Acceptance. The ability to really get to know someone, without obvious markers of class and status getting in the way. A resistance to what they see as a pervasive cultural fallacy that there is something inherently sexual about nakedness. (“Nude, not lewd” is a common refrain.)

Squaw Mountain’s version of nudism isn’t sexy or glamorous. Instead of big-breasted women playing volleyball in slow motion, there are senior citizens playing shuffleboard (in slow motion). It’s not the body-painted bacchanal of Burning Man. It’s closer to the earnest industriousness of urban homesteading, of people who get really excited about making their own soap.

Whether Squaw Mountain succeeds in its efforts to attract new members or not, there’s something undeniably endearing about the fact that in a little camp in the middle of the wilderness, four generations of nudists are keeping a family tradition alive.

Photos by Pat Moran.1


  1. Pat Moran is a photographer from Portland, Oregon, whose work can be seen at patmoran.tumblr.com. He is also an actor, producer, and company member at Action/Adventure Theater

Alison Hallett is the arts editor of The Portland Mercury, an alt weekly in Portland, Oregon, as well as the co-founder of Comics Underground, a quarterly reading series that showcases Portland's thriving comic book scene.

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