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Undercover Story: An intrepid reporter bares all at a Vermont nudist camp 

click to enlarge PAULA ROUTLY
  • Paula Routly

Clothing designer Coco Chanel was on to something when she observed “A woman is closest to being naked when she is well dressed.” But a woman is even closer to being naked when she is not dressed at all. So why not skip the shopping entirely and let it all hang out?

That’s the guiding fashion philosophy at Maple Glen Campground in Sheldon Springs, where the summer residents opt to wear birthday suits over bathing ones. Not to be confused with Maple Corners, with its “Full Vermonty” pinup calendar, the campground attracts about 20 regular “naturist” families who like to buff it while the weather is warm. Their shared vision transcends barriers of language, politics and religion. If you’re there, you’re bare.

Unless, of course, it’s too cold, which was the case two weeks ago when I drove up for Maple Glen’s annual naked volleyball championship. I passed through the gate expecting “northern exposure” and was mildly disappointed to discover almost everyone was milling around in long T-shirts. At least initially, they looked like typical Vermont vacationers with campers, lawn chairs and ATVs in tow. Until the middle-aged guy presiding over the roasting pig had occasion to bend over. Then I became acutely aware that I was the only one in the place wearing pants.

My invitation to Maple Glen came from a certain “Willy” as part of a local public-relations effort to beef up the campground’s membership. It was a two-page letter that made the distinction between naturism and “life stylers who seek to swap partners at every opportunity.” The hometown pitch was backed by national statistics suggesting an increasing number of Americans are getting into going without.

That’s how I wound up looking for Willy amongst the boxer-free barbecuers on a dreary Saturday morning in Franklin County. A guy in a golf cart directed me to a neatly manicured mobile home appointed with gardens, a little fountain and a sign on the porch identifying “Willy and Sue” — no last names in a nudist camp. Clutching my clipboard, I got out of the car just as Willy appeared on the porch. From the neck up, he looked like an insurance salesman: fifties, heavy-set, with square glasses. But from the shoulders down, well, he had a different policy. We shook hands and headed inside, where his wife Sue was baking in the buff.

Notwithstanding the hosts, the otherwise all-American interior yielded other subtle signs of an alternative lifestyle: issues of Naturist magazine scattered about; corks harvested from bottles of Naked Mountain Chardonnay — Willy and Sue made a special trip to that Virginia vineyard to stock up on “Drink Naked” bumper stickers.

It was hard to pick the couple out of a framed photo from a Caribbean cruise they took last winter with 1500 fellow nudists, including a recently retired Secret Service agent who had worked on the “Presidential detail.” “I’m the guy in the white hat,” Willy said helpfully, pointing to an otherwise undressed man on the upper deck of the Carnival ship.

Naked recreation is fast becoming big business in the travel industry. Demand for nude cruises increased fourfold between 1992 and 1997.

I took a seat in the living room, and quickly noted all the chairs were draped with towels. It’s an etiquette thing. At Maple Glen, virtually every surface on which you could potentially put your butt is protected by clean terrycloth. Willy and Sue went over the other rules — no pointing, no photographs — while a couple of casseroles cooked up in the oven.

You’ve heard about Naked Lunch. Well, I was just about to experience Naked Breakfast. It seemed only polite to dress, er, undress the part. Resolved, I headed for the bathroom to strip. The only way to experience the unique democracy of nudism, I reasoned, was to join the body politic.

It was not as easy as I imagined. Despite years of skinnydipping and lounging naked around the house, I had to coax myself into taking it all off. The rain and the Mozart didn’t help, but a little sign in the bathroom urged me on: Instead of “Home Sweet Home,” it ordered, “Go braless. It pulls the wrinkles from your face.”

I surrendered my youthful jeans and underwire bra with the deliberateness of a martyr preparing to die. With nothing to hide — or hide behind — I stepped into the narrow hall and immediately ran into Willy, who acknowledged the transformation with a perfect combination of enthusiasm and nonchalance. On the way to the table, I stashed my clothes in the guest bedroom, which Willy and Sue often rent out for the weekend. Instead of “Do Not Disturb,” the door hanger instructed, “Come In. Relax. Take Your Clothes Off.” No mention of naked volleyball or sweating mammaries.

The warm season is short for Vermont nudists, so they tend to make the most of it. Threaten a favorite spot and see how quickly solitary skinnydippers band together to protect their turf. A group called the Naturist Action Committee recently formed in Hartland to protest an anti-nudity ordinance designed to drive a topless nightclub out of business.

A magazine, Vermont Unveiled, lists the state’s clothing-optional swimming holes. Publisher Jim Cunningham also puts out an illustrated glossy called Naturist Life International every six months. His anti-porn philosophy of “finding God through nature” argues for nudism in every aspect of life, not just in protected campgrounds.

But Cunningham’s 150-acre Carnell Family Retreat in Troy is one of three organized areas in the state. The other two — Maple Glen Campground and Coven-try Club and Resort in Milton — are within streaking distance of Burlington. Willy and Sue were first exposed to the nudist lifestyle at Coventry, a 46-year-old lakeside community formerly known as Forest City.

“The kids were gone. It was time to do something different,” Willy recalled, noting his wife was not crazy about the idea of spending a weekend rubbing elbows with naked strangers. Both of them thought it would be a one-time thing. But they loved the experience, particularly when a retired unclothed cop invited them out for a cruise on Lake Champlain. They became devoted “members” of Forest City until the property changed hands.

That precipitated the move to Maple Glen, which Willy describes as cheaper, quieter and more family-oriented than Coventry. A $400 membership buys you access to the 300-acre spread, with its community pool and clubhouse. Another four bills buys a place to park the RV, with plenty of land around it. Day rates run $16 per couple. Plans for a sauna and hot tub are in the works.

A five-member board of directors runs Maple Glen Incorporated, a privately held company that owns the property. You don’t have to be a shareholder to have a site, but Willy and Sue are. Membership is open to anyone, “but we do have a singles policy that is not unlike a lot of other clubs,” Willy explained. “We really scrutinize the single males.” As for drop-in use, “we usually allow only two on a given day.”

Both Maple Glen and Coventry are listed with the American Association for Nude Recreation, a national organization that claims its membership has increased by 76 percent in the past 10 years. It seeks to “promote, enhance and protect in appropriate settings, nude recreation and nude living in the Americas.” The NAFTA-esque wording is intentional. About 70 percent of the Maple Glen crew hails from Quebec, where recreating sans culottes was banned for years on account of the Catholic Church.

Among the camp’s original founders in 1967 was Ernest, a Scottish Montréaler who is now in his eighties. After visiting nudist retreats all over the world, he still chooses to hang his hat at Maple Glen. “Many, many clubs can only get a few acres together and put a fence around it,” he noted. “This is special.” The campground’s tagline is “Vermont’s best kept secret.”

Ernest agreed Maple Glen would be better off if a few more people knew about it. For the sake of public relations, and sound finances, he and everyone else at the campground suited up two weeks ago for an open house. “We want to grow a little, but we don’t want to get too big,” Willy said of efforts to recruit new members from Vermont. Regulars kept their clothes on for four hours to chat with prospective members. Anyone who wanted a clearer picture of the place stayed and stripped.

C.J. and his wife Anna joined on the spot. Although the Enosburg couple are self-described “nudists at heart,” neither knew about Maple Glen until C.J. saw an ad for the open house in the local paper. Being bare with other people appealed to both of them. “We wanted to go someplace we could run around without clothes and still be social,” said C.J. “These people are very good at having fun — they just do it without clothes.”

New recruits aside, naked camping is a tough sell — demographically speaking, there’s no such thing as a typical nudist. Willy and Sue lounge in lawn chairs alongside pilots, contractors, teachers, lawyers and Harley riders. Most of the Maple Gleners are in their forties, fifties and sixties, but plenty of children are around, too. One nudist family at the campground represents three generations.

Living down the negative stereotypes associated with nudism — promiscuity and pedophilia — is the greater challenge in attracting the right kind of members to Maple Glen. Nine out of an average 10 inquiries per week come from single men. Misconceptions stigmatize working naturists like Willy and Sue, who are still in the closet about their weekend activities. “We tell people we have a camp over by St. Albans,” said Willy, noting one of two sons is aware of his parents’ predilection. “My mother thinks it’s in New Hamp-shire.”

Some resorts are definitely wilder than others — places like Paradise Lake Resort in Florida and Berkshire Vistas Resort in Massachusetts host lingerie dances and other sexualized social events. But the silicone-free crowd at Maple Glen can only be described as wholesome. In truth, being in a crowd of naked people is a lot less arousing than being in the company of scantily clad ones. It’s no more erotic than a trip to the doctor’s office. Stretch marks, scars and insulin pumps are in full view.

Nudism rejects the notion of perfectability that is at the root of individual prudishness and societal self-consciousness. So on a personal level, it can be liberating. “You really let your guard down. You know these people are going to accept you,” Willy suggested.

The larger socio-political implications are equally heartening. At Maple Glen, neither clothing, careers nor culture comes between people. “Nudism is the common thread,” said Willy. “That’s what allows people from varying backgrounds to relate… If you’re not wearing clothes, everyone is the same.”

In the eyes of God, maybe. But from my vantage point by the volleyball courts, it was a veritable variety show — “much more interesting than your typical American games of football and baseball,” suggested Earnest, who had parked his golf cart next to the action. The senior citizen confirmed that V-ball is the preferred sports among active nudists, but he couldn’t really explain why.

After a half hour, I had a theory. And it had nothing to do with being cheap, fast-paced or entertaining. Circumsized or un, jumping, diving and rolling, the buff Canadian lads out on the A-team court gave new meaning to the term “watching the ball.” A couple of uninhibited women added a little gender equity. Before long, even their inadvertent gynecological displays became ho-hum.

“The first five minutes you notice the bouncing,” said Rachel, a 50-year-old grandmother of four. “After that you watch the game.”

The B-team court was definitely beckoning, but I couldn’t quite shake my anti-volleyball bias. Good old gravity kept me, and my middle-aged breasts, down. But I didn’t resist when Willy, Susan, C.J. and Anna drafted me for a game of pétanque, the French-Canadian version of bocce that appeals to older nudists. It was easy enough to maintain my dignity tossing metal balls down a sandy strip in a non-aerobic activity that was a combination of bowling and croquet. And when Willy and Sue brought out a pitcher of gin-and-tonics, I was sold for a few blissful, sunscreen-free hours. “It’s nice on a sunny day when you feel the heat on your whole body,” Willy said.

After a while, I stopped noticing we were all naked. It seemed perfectly normal to be standing around wiping the sweat from beneath my boobs. Then, in an episode of reverse perversity, I started picturing my teammates in clothes: the tatooed Harley woman covered in black leather; the flaccid French-Canadian guy clad in geeky new denim. C.J. in a three-piece suit. Sue wearing an Indian-print frock. I started dressing the whole group with my eyes. Was this some kind of weird rebellion? Or an attempt to salvage a little mystery in a sea of skin?

Willy had warned me that it wouldn’t be easy putting my own pants back on. The day had warmed up considerably, and my stretchy jeans felt like a wet suit. When I stopped back at the clubhouse to say goodbye, I felt more conspicuous clothed than I had stark naked. Two days later, Willy e-mailed that I’d forgotten my sweater in Sheldon Springs. Did I want to come back and get it one of these weekends?

Maybe I would. At least next time I’ll know what to pack.

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About The Author

Paula Routly

Paula Routly

Paula Routly is the cofounder, publisher and coeditor of Seven Days.


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