Thursday, May 07, 2009

Naked Ambition

Having scrunched my underwear up next to my car keys in an elementary-school style cubby, I exited the changing room at Harbin Hot Springs, a clothing-optional resort in Lake County, CA. My body was tightly wrapped with a stone blue organic hemp towel I had purchased only moments beforehand at the resort’s patchouli-scented gift shop after realizing mine was still back at the Bed & Breakfast in Calistoga where I was staying. “Oh, I love that book!” a fully clothed woman holding a small child said to me upon my immediate exit from the building. Other than my new earth-friendly towel, the only thing I had on me was a copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Pretty soon, I would ditch the towel and join the many other towel-free individuals visiting the resort that afternoon. Can you blame me for wanting a prop? “Yeah, I can’t put it down,” I replied, carefully ignoring the naked bodies moving singly or in small herds on either side of us.

That exchange felt normal enough. Once the clothes come off, however, conversation takes on a new kind of delicacy. For me anyways, au natural isn’t entirely natural. I have lots of questions. For instance, when talking to a naked stranger, how close should you be? Where do you look? Do you acknowledge your mutual nakedness, if applicable? Do these guidelines change when just one person is naked? It’s hard to know how to interact in the buff.



Earlier in the week, I dropped in for a glass or two with a friend at a Castro wine bar called Blush!. As Anna and I were settling our bill, a lanky Adonis of a man wearing nothing but a scruffy beanie and red, Hot Cookie underpants pulled up for a beer a few seats down from us. He proceeded to tuck into his beverage like any other businessman who had come in that evening for a glass of Pinot or Syrah. And why shouldn’t he? Nudists probably appreciate happy hour just as much as the next guy.

Outside the bar, Anna and I shared an apr├Ęs-drink cigarette (a rarity for me, not so much for Anna), directly across the sidewalk from Mr. Hot Cookie himself, who had retained his hat but somehow lost his underwear. Staring at our friend (and his friend), Anna began giggling nervously and I knew immediately that she was mustering up the courage to do something silly. “I want to tell him he has a nice body!” she shouted into my ear. I think he was already on to us by this point. “Well, you might as well do it, then” I advised patiently. I held onto the last of our cigarette while Anna approached this man nearly twice her height with a Prince Albert piercing like a five-year-old attempting to ask a Disney character for an autograph. I’m not sure what I was expecting out of the situation, but the man appeared pleased with Anna, and soon I was being motioned over to place my hand on a sensuous stomach and smile for a photograph – his, not ours. Whatever his ultimate intention, this man had stumbled upon a great conversation starter.

At Harbin, on the other hand, conversation seems to be generally discouraged. Signs posted around each of the pools warn guests to “Refrain from loud conversation or sexual activity.” A reasonable request, I suppose.

Aside from its obvious associations, Harbin is also famous for its natural spring pools. One is super cold, one is super hot (up to 115 degrees – yowsah!), and one is just right. This pool – the “warm pool” – is approximately the temperature of amniotic fluid. It’s Harbin’s most popular and, despite being the largest, also the pool with the highest per capita of naked bodies. When I first entered this particular pool, there were only a handful of people: two couples spinning in slow, aimless circles in each other’s arms (unsexually, of course) and a few meditating wallflowers. The edge of the pool was lined with half-empty water bottles and well-thumbed books (I got one thing right, at least). I placed my own book down, gingerly lowered my towel and, thankfully, found a spot against the side of the pool within a matter of seconds.

Have you ever sat in a small waiting room with a handful of other people and no magazines to read or Top 40 radio to blot out the silence? Sitting in Harbin’s warm pool is a little like that, but with water and lots of skin. A couple on the wall to my left sounded like they might have been breaking the "No Horseplay" rule, but a quick sidelong glance revealed them to be in some deep meditative ecstasy and enjoying whatever subdued, throaty utterances came along with it. In my own space, I alternated between playing with the tiny bubbles that formed on my arms, watching small bits of unmistakably organic human matter float past me, and pretending to meditate in order to keep myself from accidentally staring at someone’s genitals.


Note: This is not me.

Entering the pool was surprisingly easy – few people are willing to stare at you while you face them directly. Exiting the pool is a different matter. Since I had initially doggy-paddled my way to the side of the pool, the space had filled up considerably and there would be no departure without an audience. Does this sound conceited? Well, for a pool full of naked people who can’t converse or canoodle (or play marco polo, for that matter), an ascending rump is as exciting as it gets. No doubt, I turned to peek with all the rest of them. I saw all shapes and sizes of light, dark, bruised, dimpled, pimpled, wrinkled, swollen and stunning bums. I was truly “swimming in the gene pool,” as my mother has often said in crowded metropolitan places (though not nearly as appropriately as she would have on this occasion). The range of bodies was indeed reassuring to my own feeling of vulnerability. Still, I decided to wait for more pool-goers to leave before I inevitably shared my own bare bottom with a pool full of curious onlookers.

More people entered the pool, my fingers pruned, and I finally decided it was time to get out. I rose up the pool steps amid thunderous applause and chaotic splashing – no, only kidding. I stepped up, felt a slight breeze, and within seconds the coarse fibers of my organic towel were pressed tightly to my skin again. It wasn’t a big deal at all. 

With a few hours still left on my resort day pass, I decided to leave. If someone had told me earlier in the week that I would get bored at a clothing-optional resort, I would have laughed. Yet, au natural had suddenly become too natural and the thrill was gone. I had become just another peaceful body wandering a small chunk of the Earth that honors less clothing. The novelty of being naked with other naked people had been replaced by the sort of calm that the resort promised all along. 

Perhaps next time I'll join Mr. Hot Cookie in the Castro instead.  A nude wine bar outing sounds more my style anyways.

1 comment:

Miss Lucille said...

"Thunderous applause and chaotic splashing..." Perfect! :>)