There was a time in my life when being naked was normal. My first four years were spent almost entirely in the nude, joined at the hip by my twin sister — her name is Mary Scott, although I call her Sissy. She also calls me that. Sorry for the confusion. The two of us would strip to our birthday suits every time our mom tried to put us in matching outfits. We didn't mind the matching; it was the suffocating feeling of being clothed that we couldn't stand.
Growing up in rural Virginia, we played in the creek and the mud, ran through our yard chasing big dogs, sat on our porch eating popsicles, all while being naked. As we got older we wore more clothes, but we never lost sight of the freedom of being naked. We would skinny dip off of our friends' docks, taking turns stashing each others' clothes, collapsing in laughter in the frantic search for a cover-up under the revealing light of a full moon.
We got older and more self-conscious, struggling with body image issues, my sister especially, punishing herself for years with a restricted diet and obsessive workouts. It hurt me to see my sister struggle, and naturally, being her identical twin, I struggled to keep up, wanting our bodies to look the same forever. Our latter teenage and college years were riddled with various body issues. After a while, I didn't like being naked anymore.
So last month, when the opportunity to visit a family-friendly nudist park presented itself, I felt like I was being called back to my youth, to a time when I truly felt free. I begged my sister to join me on the two-hour trip to Cedar Creek Park, a nudist park located 45 minutes outside of Columbia. "It will be fun," I promised, before adding that she pretty much had to come, because the prospect of going alone was slightly unnerving. After bribing her with snacks and wine, my sister finally agreed to come with me, and we trekked up I-26 to reclaim our nakedness.
Upon arriving at Cedar Creek Park — visitors must enter through a code-protected private gate — we drive to the office, a trailer located just across from several RVs and tents. Jessica Shaw, the park's manager, greets us, signs us in, and gives us a tour of the property. Shaw is topless, wearing a multi-colored sarong around her waist. She moved to Cedar Creek Park over a decade ago to help her parents run the place, and what started as a part-time gig has turned into full-time living.
The grounds feature both indoor and outdoor pools and hot tubs, a banquet area, an outdoor stage, and a camping area for visitors. To my surprise Cedar Creek also boasts a number of semi- and permanent residents, living in elaborately embellished RVs all over the 43 acres. Shaw drives us around in a golf cart — most residents and guests have their own — waving at passersby and pointing out various features of the park. She shows us where we will float down a small creek later in the afternoon. Then she allows us to go to the bathroom. And get naked.
"OK, OK, yep." I'm standing in a bathroom, a purple sarong tied around my waist. I'm topless save for a silver necklace of plastic stars. Sissy bursts out of her stall, belly button-length hair swinging around her bare chest, her blue sarong also tied at the waist. She smiles at me in the mirror, adjusting her American flag head scarf. "It's not that bad," she says.
I'm taking deep breaths. Shaw offered us tequila shots before our undressing, which may be the surest sign of hospitality I've ever encountered. The shot didn't seem to do much, though, and I'm still nervous. I'm about to walk out of the bathroom, half undressed.
I step into the sun, feeling all 100 degrees of a July day. Shaw is surprised that Sissy and I have already gotten, as she says, "halfway there." Cedar Creek is flexible with first-time visitors, allowing them to wear a sarong over their entire body if they so desire. You can ease into nudity here. We walk to the outdoor pool, smiling at everyone we see. I attempt to avert my eyes, forcing eye contact or no contact at all. Nonetheless some piercings catch my eye, a nether-regions tattoo makes its way into my line of vision. Deep breaths.
You can trace nudism back to man's creation — you know, Adam and Eve and their shoddy fig leaves, if you believe that sort of thing. Most ancient societies, from Greece to Egypt, have a rich history of nudism. In America, though, nudism didn't necessarily crop up with the foundling country's first settlement. The pilgrims believed that to be naked was to be depraved.
Things changed after the Revolutionary War, when nudity started to find a place in society. The practice of nudity was popular with 19th century artists and authors like Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Henry David Thoreau, who's quoted as saying, "We cannot adequately appreciate this aspect of nature if we approach it with any taint of human pretense. It will elude us if we allow artifacts like clothing to intervene between ourselves and this Other. To apprehend it, we cannot be naked enough. In Wildness is the preservation of the world."
Twentieth century Germany saw the rise of naturism, a form of nudism that also advocates for improving health and life. The history of nudity and the rise of Adolf Hitler (yes, those words were all just strung together) has its own story, and I recommend checking it out.
Currently there are places to be publicly nude in almost all 50 states, with California and Florida topping the list with the most spots. While nudity in America is far less common than nudity in Europe, U.S. nudism is, as far as I can tell, enjoying something of a boon.
"Y'all will love the creek!" a friendly woman from the pool shouts at us as we board a golf cart with Shaw. "It's nice and cold." At this point, Sissy and I are feeling pretty comfortable. Everyone has been friendly, and maybe I'm being naive here, but they all seem sincere as well. One man makes a point of telling us about his experience with nudism; he says that with his clothes on he had always been a wallflower, but after discovering nudism, he opened up, feeling like a whole new man. Roll your eyes if you want, I found it moving.
The creek float forces us to face our fears and fully unclothe. I tie my sarong around my neck and flop into my semi-inflated float, shouting "Oh Jesus!" as my bare ass hits the freezing cold water. My sister, gripping the last remains of her coffee-cup wine, flops in next to me, screaming. We get separated for a moment, my float moving downstream at a surprising speed.
"Sissy! Grab a branch!" says my sister, laughing and trying to catch up, and our new friends are pushing her float in my direction. I hold onto a low hanging branch and grab my sister's hand when she bumps into me. We're both grinning and I think we're having more fun than we've had in a really long time.
On the creek we ask our surrounding tubers more about how they got into nudism. They're all open and forthcoming, and most tell us that they started stripping down later in life (the age demographic skews toward middle-aged and older). Almost everyone uses the phrase "And then I was hooked," to describe their passion for the lifestyle.
I nod along, as if we're having totally normal conversations. The thing is — we are. We just happen to be naked. I wonder, for a moment, if I'm getting hooked, if once I leave this place I'll have to return, shedding my clothes as I leap joyously into the air. The thought both frightens and excites me.
The creek float comes to an end and we pile out of the water. Sissy and I hold our floats tight against our now nude bodies. To be topless is one thing, but trust me, you don't feel fully vulnerable until every bit of your body is exposed to the elements.
We find ourselves back at the pool, where people are getting ready for a cookout. Sissy grabs my arm, "I think it's time to go." We've had fun, but we have a two-hour car ride back home. There is something reckless about drinking lukewarm pinot grigio on a creek at a nudist park, and I think we're both afraid that if we stay too long, we may never leave.
Before departing we went a few rounds on a slip and slide, which is way more fun when you're naked. I mean OK, it's kind of gross if you think about it for too long, so just don't think about it.
There I stood, naked, surrounded by naked half-strangers, clapping as each person raced towards the slide and then flew down it in all of their birthday-suit glory. Even now I can't quite believe that's a sentence that I'm writing, let alone an experience I'm recalling.
I watch my sister gear up, running sort of duck-footed, as she does, her long hair streaming behind her. She flies on the slide, so fast she looks like she may hurt herself. She jumps off, laughing so hard her face is squished into a smile reaching from her mouth to the corners of her eyes. And this is why we came here, to feel like this. We're four years old again, splashing in mud puddles, 14 years old and skinny dipping in the York River, 25 years old and slip and sliding at a nudist park.
I don't think nudist parks are for everyone. I want to take my friends to Cedar Creek, but then I hesitate, thinking that being nude with people you know is weirder than being nude with strangers. The more I've reflected on my time at the park, the more nuanced and complicated my feelings about it become. I loved it, and I would go back. But part of me wonders where I would go from there. It's simply not practical to be naked all of the time.
Ultimately, I think I loved the nudist park because I went with my sister. It was our thing. We're getting older and eventually we'll probably have to live in separate houses and, gulp, separate cities. But we'll still have this memory.
Years from now I'll call her, or grab her arm, or run into her room, and shout, "We'll always have Cedar Creek!" and she'll crack up, that big happy smile showing its face once again.