by Leslie Wylie
The journalistic line of work has deposited me in some pretty precarious situations. I've trespassed in pre-avalanche coalmines with environmental activists. I've visited the scenes of grisly murders and interviewed computer hackers who, if they gave me their real names, would have to kill me. One time, I even let County Commissioner Lumpy Lambert drive me around Powell in his minivan. But I have never, repeat never , been as terrified of a story as I was last Saturday afternoon. The subject: a fieldtrip to Cherokee Lodge, Tennessee's only clothing-optional retreat.
When I returned to work on Monday, Metro Pulse 's GM replayed me the voicemail I'd left him shortly after arriving at the camp. â“Hey,â” the choked, queasy voice began. â“I'm just, um, actually I'm hiking because I'm kind of scared of the people, you know, the peopleâ.â” This was followed closely by an unfortunate string of physical descriptors, including one particularly ill-considered allusion to broiled shrimp. â“So I'm in the woods, um, trying to figure out how to handle this situation professionally. Did I mention I'm naked? Well, just thought I'd give you a call.â”
To rewind, when I originally pitched the nudist retreat story for the paper's annual Swimsuit Issue (â“Ha! The Swimsuit-less Issue! Wouldn't that be funny?â”), I didn't intend to be its author. But alas, when nobody else warmed up to the idea of stripping down for the sake of investigative journalism, I signed my own name next to it, reasoning that I couldn't let a good scoop go to waste. After all, it couldn't be that bad. I've been through worse. It's not until this moment, trotting through the wilderness in my birthday suit with a band of mosquitoes hot on my trail, that I realize just how very wrong I am.
It's not necessarily the naked hiking part that bothers me. In fact, on this muggy June day, the breeze feels kind of nice. It's the reality that everyone else on the trailâ"the 70-year-old couple out walking their Cockapoo, for instance, and the pot-bellied gentleman who appears to have just rolled off one of those rotisserie hot dog cookersâ"is letting it all hang out as well. Emphasis on hang (insert synonyms dangle , droop , sag and, last but not least, flop ). Suddenly, even the word foliage takes on a new meaning.
Eventually, though, it becomes clear that, unless I don't mind sacrificing my buttocks to the insect kingdom, I've got to head back toward civilization. I formulate a strategy: Avoid eye contact (on second thought, eyes are the least of my worries), get the story, and get out. Do not pass â“Go,â” do not collect anything other than the undergarments I'd stashed in the ladies' bathhouse upon arrival.
Of course, life never goes according to plan. After sneaking past the horseshoes pit and the unoccupied-by-the-grace-of-God volleyball court, an older gentleman calls out to me from the front porch of his weatherworn trailer.
â“Hello there,â” he says, standing up to wave. I wave back, my eyes firmly planted on the tomatoes awaiting some enviably benign fate on his grill. â“Say,â” he continues, â“feel like having a seat?â”
He gestures toward an empty chair. I suck up my nerve, suck in my stomach, and step up onto the porch's stoop, muttering some clichÃ© about the day's weather. The man introduces himself as the unofficial â“mayorâ” of Cherokee Lodge, and says he's been coming here every weekend for the last two years, since his old campground, Timberline, also in Crossville, closed down. He's been a recreational nudist, he says, since the '70s. It has nothing to do with sex, he explains, it's just a preference, a way to be. â“It just feels natural,â” he says with a shrug.
You try having a conversation with a complete stranger who's completely naked and looks an awful lot like your grandfather. It's not easy. I think back to the first nudist I encountered here today, the receptionist at the main lodge. There she was, just sitting at her desk, topless, plunking away at the computer. â“The day-pass fee is $25, and I'll need you to sign this,â” she said, sliding a clipboard, release form and pen my way.
The rules here are pretty straightforward: no overt sexual behavior (a.k.a. lap dancing or dirty dancing); body piercing must be in good taste; just because clothing is optional doesn't mean you can wear lingerie or other suggestive dress; no drugs, intoxication or firearms; and, rule No. 1 , towels must be used when sitting, for obvious reasons. I sign on the dotted line, fairly confident I'll be able to keep myself under control.
As the afternoon wears on, the initial adrenaline rush starts to wear off, replaced by the wrath of my inner liberal, who as it turns out is kind of a bully. Is poor wittle-girl reporter frightened of the big scary nudies? Oh-ho, you thought you were so open-minded. Gay, straight, black, white, doesn't matterâ"but God forbid they take their clothes off.
For the next couple hours, I wander aimlessly around the camp, pausing to appear interested in the menu at the BBQ hut, or to admire the concrete statuary in someone's yard, or to avoid being mowed over by a nudist careening past on his or her four-wheeler. Summoning my courage, I make a stop by the swimming pool, whose deck is strewn with tanned, dimpled and crinkled bodies of all shapes and sizes. I unroll my towel on an empty lawn chair, trying hard to look as though this is a normal Saturday, just me and a good book and some sunscreen and not much else, kickin' it by the pool. But it isn't long before someone blows my cover.
â“Care for a drink?â” queries a man with pepper-gray hair and a bottle of pink champagne. I spot the pallor of my farmer's tan in his mirrored sunglasses and gasp in horror. He interprets that as a yes. â“Well, all right-y then,â” he smiles, pouring me a plastic glass. â“And your name is?â”
Before I realize what's happening, I'm surrounded by nudists on all sides, each of whom seems intent on telling me all about Cherokee Lodge. I learn that over the past Memorial Day weekend, some 250 nudists set up camp here, that the campgrounds often host special groups ranging from the North American Nude Bikers to the Christian Naturism Convocation (the Lodge hosts clothing-optional church services every Sunday morning), and that the Lodge just celebrated its 15th anniversary in April.
Every weekend, there's a theme dance by the pool or in the clubhouse, though the nudists are quick to point out that they're pretty good at keeping themselves entertained. From what I can gather, they especially get a kick out of concocting a drink called â“yucca,â” of some kin to spiked lemonade, and funneling it down one another's throats. Tasty.
Meanwhile, the man with the champagne bottle keeps refilling my drink. I unconsciously drain one glass after the next, growing a little less self-conscious with each gulp. But it's more than just the pink fizzy stuff that's putting me at easeâ"it's the people. Everybody gathered around the pool this afternoon is genuinely pleasant to be around, like that bunch o f black-sheep aunts and uncles who always have more fun than anyone else at family reunions, and they seem to welcome my intrusion into their world.
â“Come back next weekend and bring your friends!â” one half of Cherokee's resident gay couple enthuses. Another guy seems bent on recruiting me for a clothing-optional cruise that leaves out of Amsterdam in July: â“It's great,â” he says. â“You just roll out of bed and go up to the breakfast buffet, butt-naked.â” A pretty brunette takes my arm and playfully whispers, â“Don't listen to a word these men tell you.â”
After a while, it doesn't even seem weird anymore that we're all just sitting around like pre-fig leaf Adams and Eves, nothing to hide, nothing to cover up, soaking up the sun and one another's company. Truth be told, I could kind of get used to thisâ"once you lose the mindset that nakedness outside the bathtub and the bedroom is wrong, it's more natural than it seems. As the saying goes, â“If we were meant to be nude, we would've been born that way.â”
When I finally get up to leave, the brunette woman gives me a friendly hug (make like a nudist and get your head out of the gutter, dear reader). The rest of the group implores me to visit again soon.
Who knows? Maybe I will.
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