Scattered clouds threw dappled shadows on the Wisconsin River and the green bluffs beyond. It was mid-afternoon on an August Monday; I’d just arrived at the beach and was settling in for a late lunch when a young man on his way out stopped, tentatively, and asked if I hadn’t been in Madison trying to find a hotel room during the nasty thunderstorm on Saturday night. Indeed I had, and he had been the desk clerk with the bad news that there were no rooms to be had anywhere in the area–I’d ended up sleeping on a roll-away in a conference room in the Ramada Inn in Janesville, halfway back to Chicago.

Mike, who appeared to be in his early 20s, told me this was only his second day on a nude beach. “I came out yesterday,” he said. “I’ve heard about this place and I’ve been wanting to come for a long time, but I didn’t know where it was.” Or whom to ask without risking fatal ridicule. Finally he just drove out to Mazomanie, the nearby town, and followed roads along the river until he found dozens of cars parked in the middle of nowhere on Conservation Road. After that it’s easy; you just go with the flow.

Mazo, as the beach is called, is an extraordinarily beautiful place, even when compared with such spectacular nude sites as Black’s Beach in La Jolla with its imposing cliff and multicolored hang gliders veering overhead, or Baker Beach in San Francisco, just below the Golden Gate Bridge. At Mazo, the meandering river is wide but usually shallow enough to wade, and flows around a large sandbar that effectively doubles the size of the beach; forested bluffs frame the scene, which may include passing canoes, flights of geese, or circling hawks.

But once on the beach with a couple hundred naked people, Mike didn’t know what to do or to expect, and was terrified, so he headed for the high grass at the west end and stayed there, observing. “It took me three hours to come out of the bushes,” he said. But when he emerged he was a happy camper, “a confirmed nudist” as he put it.

It’s ten years ago and I’m sitting in my steamy apartment in Beijing reading much-wanted mail from the real world. A friend in California writes that she and her husband enjoyed a relaxing holiday on a free beach in Hawaii. This is perplexing. I know that all the beaches in Hawaii are free. Not until hours later, so removed are we in Beijing from our former lives, does it come back to me that “free” in this context means a beach where you can go bare-ass. Alone, I laugh aloud, and then drift into reverie as I remember visiting Hawaii with her a dozen years before, when we were not yet 30. The night we arrived, we wandered out in the wee hours to the beach in front of our hosts’ home, where we found a big moon backlighting the hills and coconut palms and creating a sparkly glow in the surf. We looked around. The household was asleep, the stretch of beach deserted. We hinted to each other for permission, but hesitated. Then, tossing caution to the trade winds, we giggled, shucked our clothes, and hit the water–in our underwear.

But soon enough we rid ourselves of the underwear too, a palpable liberation. The tactile feeling of freedom at the edge of the world was ecstatic, and the moonlight and the viscous, fragrant air turned the ecstasy erotic; back in the guest house, heaven-scented plumeria fell from the trees through the open window onto our bed.

Later that morning, discussing the news from Vietnam with our hosts over a breakfast of lime-laced papaya and strong Kona coffee, we were interrupted by their young son, who asked with more than a little mischief if the soggy Jockey shorts he had found outside belonged to anyone present.

Bummer. This was 1968 and I was the last of the crew cuts, wearing an upright if not rigid respectability that suppressed, most of the time, all manner of fearsome kinkiness, including the urge to go naked on the beach. Woodstock had not yet happened, and even when it did I was the sort who would publicly proclaim the wholesomeness of baring a thousand butts, but wouldn’t dare let mine be counted among them. In 90-degree weather, I marched on People’s Park in Berkeley wearing a suit, so as not to be mistaken for a street person. Over the next few years, however, the spirit of the times, assisted by the people’s pharmacopoeia, encouraged me to let more and more if not all hang out.

Not that I was obsessive about it. Though I had enough inhibitions that losing them could have become a full-time job, as it does for some people, there was real work to be done in the world. I was turned off by the notion of a nudist club or colony; playing pinochle in the nude in somebody’s rec room seemed, and seems still, a peculiar idea. (I realize that peculiarity is a relative value here.) On a few occasions, however, I made an effort to find a liberated beach. I tried and failed to reach what was touted as the nation’s first nude beach, at San Gregorio in California, which the newsmagazines were salivating over–each time I went, either the cliff face or the fog was too daunting. On an organizing trip in Texas, local journalists took us for a nighttime visit to Austin’s Hippie Hollow, a swimming hole at the bottom of a steeply ledged embankment. The reporters and a couple of dozen young people I took to be University of Texas students were whooping it up and having a good old time. But my traveling companions–our mission was to get journalists in Houston, Austin, and Dallas to launch local versions of the Chicago Journalism Review–were three heavy Marxist dudes from Berkeley and three revolutionary feminist women from New York. We kept our pants on.

I made one other foray in those years, going with my buddies in the Zebra Gang, a group of black and white gay men (yet another kink or two worked loose), to Illinois Beach State Park near Zion, in the shadow of the Commonwealth Edison nuclear plant cooling tower. We’d heard that a section of lakefront dunes was being used as a nude beach, mostly by gays. That proved true but was otherwise disappointing, because we got hassled by park police and were frequently buzzed by Army helicopters, presumably from Fort Sheridan. Only in the water–the lake bottom tapers off slowly and you can go some distance out before you lose your footing–did I feel safe getting naked.

That was the last such expedition for seven or eight years, until I returned from my stay in China in 1981 and found, in the travel sections of bookstores, what the back-cover blurb from the Toronto Globe & Mail described as “the book that skinny-dippers have been waiting for,” Lee Baxandall’s World Guide to Nude Beaches and Recreation. I hadn’t exactly been waiting for it, but was certainly glad of its arrival, and obviously a lot of other people were too; over the next few years it sold some 200,000 copies. Packed into its 240 enticingly illustrated pages were descriptions of and directions to perhaps 2,000 beaches, streams, hot springs, quarries, ponds, parks, and other public places from Alabama to Antarctica. Following its leads I hit the beaches in California and Hawaii and even scrambled up a granite cliff to Devil’s Bathtubs, a pool at the bottom of a falls with a fabulous view of Yosemite Valley.

It’s evident that not all regions of the country are created equal in this respect. While the World Guide has been out of print since 1987 and is only now being updated for reissue later this year, the Bay Guardian, an alternative newsweekly in San Francisco, publishes an annual report on the Bay Area’s nude beaches. This year it listed 69 spots, including 6 new ones. The entire Chicago metropolitan area, loosely construed, has maybe five or six sites, only two of which, at Mazomanie in Wisconsin and Saugatuck in Michigan, are both actively used and hassle-free.

There has been organized nakedness in Europe and the U.S. at least since the turn of the century, originally inspired by a lot of now sinister sounding Greco-Teutonic Nacktkultur and by medical practices including “heliotherapy” (sunshine and fresh air), used by Naturheilbewegung, the Natural Healing Movement, to treat a variety of diseases and wounds–sound enough given the medical technology of the time. It was a prominent Chicago naturopath, Dr. Arne L. Suominen, a friend of Mayor Anton Cermak, who first tried to establish an official nude beach on Lake Michigan in the early 1930s.

At Dr. Suominen’s request, Mayor Cermak proposed an ordinance to set aside the beach at Touhy Avenue for nude use, but neighbors, including the students at a nearby Catholic high school, protested and the ordinance failed to pass the City Council. Undeterred, Dr. Suominen presented a petition bearing 10,000 signatures to the Lincoln Park Board calling for a nude sunbathing enclosure in the park; to protect the sensibilities of high-rise apartment residents, Dr. Suominen suggested that the park board erect a stockade fence, nine feet high and lined with sheet metal. The facility would be used by men and women at separate times, but it was absolutely essential that they be completely nude, an issue upon which Dr. Suominen disagreed with Dr. Morris Fishbein, then and for many years more the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Dr. Fishbein had suggested that one could still get plenty of sunshine while wearing a bathing suit. The Tribune quoted Dr. Suominen as replying:

“Dr. Rollier, great Swiss expert on sun bathing, in his book on ‘Heliotherapy,’ declares that an unbalanced exposure makes an individual irritable instead of affording relaxation. . . . Dr. Alfred Hess of Columbia University says that exposure to actinic rays [ultraviolet rays] increases the calcium and phosphorus salts in the blood with beneficial results. These salts are essential for body structure and resistance to tuberculosis.”

Dr. Suominen assured the park board and the newspapers that he was not sponsoring sexually integrated nudity, though he was not opposed to it under the proper conditions. He’d heard of a nudist colony in Indiana, he said–probably a reference to the beginnings of Alois S. Knapp’s German-inspired Zoro Nature Park at Roselawn, later the site of Dick Drost’s truly tacky Naked City Resort–but such an environment was suitable only for “the most highest-minded persons without inhibitions.” Nevertheless, park board president Alfred D. Plamondon referred Dr. Suominen’s petition to committee and, with Mayor Cermak out of the picture (he’d been killed by an assassin’s bullet intended for President Roosevelt), in committee it stayed.

Another park board president, James H. Gately, was confronted with new demands for public space dedicated to nude recreation in 1949. The recently organized Chicago Sunbathing Association requested that beaches and park areas be set aside for mixed nude use, including families with children. Gately replied with finality: “There will be none of that so long as I am president of the park board. Bathing suits have already come off about as far as they can go.”

At the time, it had been less than 20 years since the law allowed men to go topless at the beach. Women’s bathing suits typically extended from an inch or so below the crotch to just below the clavicle.

Even in the posthippie era, no Chicago territory could be claimed for bare-ass beachgoing. A classified ad placed in the Reader in 1975 by someone who called himself Keith Speludnik brought to the advertised “nude-in” at Oak Street Beach perhaps a dozen men, one woman, and two children who ditched their swimsuits offshore, cheered on by a thousand or more spectators. The cops arrested three young men who walked back onto the beach without their trunks.

Unheralded nudity seems to be widespread but infrequent. In the 1970s, Northwestern University students and faculty used to go naked on the rocks south of the Lindheimer observatory. There was a major dustup at Rosewood Beach in Highland Park a while back when a two-year-old pulled down her bathing suit and her mother refused a lifeguard’s order to pull it back up. Playboy columnist Asa Baber got a whole column (“The Liberation of Oak Street Beach”) out of a woman who unostentatiously went topless one afternoon in 1983. There’s occasional toplessness at the Belmont Rocks–the guys are mostly gay so the women don’t have to worry about getting hassled–and a few years ago there was sporadic total nudity there, effectively ended by some rather dramatic arrests.

It’s just as well. The Oak Street and Belmont lakefront sites are in well- traveled areas where a good many unsuspecting strollers or beachgoers are likely to be offended. But it would be nice to have a reasonably accessible place marked off with one of the standard notices, a copy of which is reproduced as the first inside page of the World Guide: “ATTENTION. BEYOND THIS SIGN YOU MAY ENCOUNTER NUDE SUNBATHERS.”

Don Deakin, president of the Chicago Sun Club, has been putting up such signs on the beach near Mount Baldy in the Indiana Dunes for the past ten years or so, at least once each year on National Nude Weekend, the second weekend in July. For some years now the event has been drawing about 200 people, but then it’s over and the area reverts to its normal emptiness. Sometimes there are a few people in bathing suits. Sometimes there are one or two nudeniks. National Park Service rangers tend to let them be–there’s no federal law against nudity in the national parks, but don’t tell Jesse Helms–unless somebody complains, in which case, says chief ranger Richard Littlefield, “we ask the people either to put their clothes on or leave the area. . . . We’ve made a smattering of arrests for lewd behavior, probably less than a dozen last year. But that has to do with disorderly conduct or flashing, not nude sunbathing.”

Deakin, a ruddy blond with a wonderfully arching mustache, is a south-suburban high school teacher and a third-generation naturist. As a boy growing up in Florida, he spent a lot of time on Chicago insurance billionaire John D. MacArthur’s beachfront near Palm Beach, where MacArthur went skinny-dipping and didn’t mind if others did too. When he died he left the property to the state of Florida for use as a park, and the state quickly banned bare bottoms. The matter is in litigation.

On the third Saturday of each month from October through April, the Chicago Sun Club (which Deakin and his wife Joan started ten years ago because “it was a long time between seasons and we wanted to get together with other families”) takes over a health club for a private party. Deakin says there are about 100 people at each event. Then, in the summer, except for National Nude Weekend, the Deakins and many CSC members repair to Summer Oaks Lake Resort in Battle Creek, Michigan, a 140-acre traditional family nudist resort that the Deakins own. Summer Oaks is affiliated both with the American Sunbathing Association, which represents private proprietary clubs and resorts, and with the Naturist Society, which advocates legalized use of designated public lands by anyone who cares to come.

A Gallup Organization poll taken in 1983 indicates that about 15 percent of adult Americans have at some time in their lives participated in social nudity–skinny-dipping or nude sunbathing in a mixed group of men and women. “That’s about 30 million people,” Deakin points out. “We spend taxpayers’ money to set aside designated areas in our county, state, and federal parks for special-interest groups: fishing, hunting, camping, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling. So why not set aside areas in those parks for naturist groups? We represent as large or larger a segment of the population as these other special-interest groups. . . . And with a designated area there’s more control–by the park authorities, and within the naturist groups themselves. They’ll want to take care of it, keep it clean.”

For obvious reasons, successful nude beaches tend to get established in areas that are not otherwise developed and so require both voluntary maintenance by users and forbearance by the authorities. At Saugatuck, nude use became common on the long stretch of empty Lake Michigan beach north of the official municipal beach at the Oval, but the authorities could not keep their end of the unspoken bargain. A few years ago, some casual strollers were offended and brought down the law. A Good Samaritan came to the rescue, however. Now, a man sits in a beach chair at the north end of the Oval and collects $3 weekdays and $5 on weekends (freewill offerings) for the privilege of going starkers in the dunes behind the beach, which are private property. The compromise is less than ideal–you can’t see the lake–but dozens of people are there every day, for those of us who need the reassurance of numbers. By contrast, there’s another nude beach a few miles north, at Saugatuck Dunes State Park, where even on a sunny holiday weekend I encountered exactly one other beachgoer. Some people of course may prefer the solitude.

But to my mind the area’s only really satisfactory nude beach is the one at Mazomanie. It’s on land controlled by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, but is not considered a public beach and is not maintained by the DNR. It is, however, very well policed, in both senses of that word, by its users; many of the regulars are organized in a group called the Badger Naturists. There are minimal rules–“don’t hit, and clean up your mess” would be a fair summary here as elsewhere–and people tend to take responsibility for maintaining civility as well as sanitation. Adrienne Burich, of Oshkosh, whose husband Ron is executive director of the Naturist Society, recalls being by herself on the beach one day (not many women go there alone) when a couple of teenage boys started hassling her. A group of men approached from down the beach; Burich took a walk and when she returned the boys were on good behavior and stayed that way.

There is rarely any problem, however, and often much to soothe the spirit.

Something like 700 people were expected for National Nude Weekend on July 14 and 15, and some who had come long distances began to arrive and set up tents on Friday the 13th, an hour or two before a smashing pink-and-gray sunset over the bluffs. But Bastille Day dawned with rain showers and remained intermittently overcast, so the numbers of the sans-culottes were kept to perhaps 200, a normal weekend complement. There was a larger than usual number of passing canoes–outfitters upstream inform clients that they may encounter nude people on their way downriver–with some mutual giggling and waving between ship and shore. There are never any boom-boxes on the beach, but from somewhere came the strains of a Saint-Saens piece, Allegro appassionato; it was John, a skinny six-foot-five cellist from Milwaukee. Later there was a flautist, a young woman not nearly so accomplished, playing pops. Scattered about the beach were the usual assortment of folks of all ages and all conditions of conditioning, and a few, as is true on any bathing-suit beach as well, who were very wonderful indeed to look at; the official nudist-camp propaganda that states that “nudist living is almost totally devoid of sexual stimulation” is asinine and no doubt accounts for much of the distance between club people and beach people.

The Badger Naturists and the folks at the Naturist Society–did I mention that this national nerve center of the free-beach movement is headquartered in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, of all places?–have disagreed about how much publicity to encourage. The headquarters people are naturally disposed to trumpet the virtues of one of the best nude beaches in the world. The Badgers are naturally reluctant to risk having the place overrun, which would not only spoil the fun but might force the DNR to take action to protect the riverway conservation area of which Mazo is a part.

But if you’ll promise to be discreet, I’ll let you in on the secret.

For information on the Saugatuck and Mazomanie areas, see the Visitors’ Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.