Rich Pasco, dressed like a tourist in a white souvenir tee tucked into navy-blue shorts, cautiously descends a dusty path between two cliffs at Bonny Doon Beach. He arrives at his picnic spot breathless from hotfooting it across the sand, and, without pause, he begins to disrobe.
Every Monday afternoon, Pasco, 63, joins his friend for a game of Scrabble in the raw at the secluded quarter-mile patch of sand and surf north of Santa Cruz. They met in 1978 at the clothing-optional north end of the beach, where the crescent shape of the cliffs buffers the wind. She was naked, naturally, practicing Tai Chi with waves lapping up at her ankles, and he offered to take her photo.
“I told her, ‘That’s beautiful, may I take your picture?'” he remembers, pointing to the very spot. “Here we are 36 years later. The beach looks the same and she hasn’t changed a bit.”
Like many Bay Area naturists, Pasco, a San Jose resident and retired software engineer, feels a sense of ownership of Bonny Doon, one of a dwindling number of public spaces that allow nudity. Aside from a couple fog-shrouded, wind-whipped beaches in San Francisco, it’s the only stretch of coastline within a day’s drive where he can lounge around in the buff without worrying about a park ranger ordering him to put his shorts back on. Nude resorts provide another option—such as Lupin Lodge in Los Gatos, a 110-acre resort and restaurant founded in 1935 by a utopian entrepreneur—but they often require paid admission or membership. Pasco, head of the Bay Area Naturists, and his cohort of naturists feel strongly about setting aside public land for the clothing-optional crowd.
“We’re taxpayers, too,” he argues.
As head of the South Bay Naturists—eventually renamed the Bay Area Naturists when it merged with an East Bay nudie faction—Pasco has seen membership rolls shrink from more than 500 a decade ago to just a few hundred. While polling shows Americans have become more comfortable with nudity, Pasco says appeal of nudism as a movement has dwindled in recent years. Nudists are becoming a graying crowd, and it’s tougher to recruit new members to dedicated clubs, which Pasco chalks up to youthful insecurities over body image or millennials’ aversion to joining groups.
Also, at least in the U.S., there’s a prevailing notion that naked means naughty.
“Americans, at least the ones in charge, can’t seem to disassociate the nudity from sexuality,” he says. “They think: indecent exposure.”
Lounging by the Lupin Lodge pool, Pasco sets down a towel before sitting down—legs crossed, penis tucked—on a wooden chair.
“It’s polite,” he explains while nibbling on raspberries and diced-up strawberries. “The rules are pretty simple. If you’re sitting nude, don’t put your sweaty butt on a public chair. Ask someone’s permission before you take their picture. Ask permission before you touch (anyone else). Clean up after yourself. We do advise people, if we have to, that nudism is not about sexuality. Sure, we see people we’re attracted to, but we don’t walk up to someone and go, ‘Hey, I like your boobs.'”
Pasco preaches this same etiquette of respect for boundaries and one’s environment away from home.
On a balmy June day in 1958, about 100 naked men, women and children met at nearby Davenport Landing for the nation’s first nude gathering sanctioned by local law enforcement. Following the inception of the so-called Experimental Beach (XB-58), naturists began to congregate at Bonny Doon, a stone’s throw south of the tiny cement plant town of Davenport. Nationally, the growing popularity of naked sunbathing and zeitgeist of body acceptance began to galvanize the concept of public nude spaces, and beaches in particular.
But as the years went on, drunken revelers had begun to dirty the place up. The same qualities that drew nudists like Pasco to the beach—the wind-sheltering cliffs, its invisibility from the highway—attracted bonfire-building partiers who left charred driftwood and glass beer bottles on the sand.
“People would ask me, ‘Hey, Rich, what beach do you go to?’ When I told them Bonny Doon, they said, ‘Oh, the trashy beach?'” he recalls with a grimace. “I didn’t like that it developed a reputation. The beach was home to me and a bunch of other naturists. We were as annoyed by the trash as anyone. When you’re walking around naked and barefoot, you don’t want to be stepping on broken glass.”
In summer of 1988, Pasco heard on the radio that the California Coastal Commission needed people to adopt a beach. Immediately, he dialed them up.
“We’ll adopt Bonny Doon,” he told the woman at the other end of the line.
“Oh good,” she replied. “Who’s ‘we?'”
“Uhhh É the South Bay Naturists,” Pasco answered, making up a title on the spot.
He started writing his friends, telling them that, whether they knew it or not, they were members of the South Bay Naturists.
A few-dozen dishabille litter-pickers arrived for the first annual Bonny Doon cleanup in 1988, armed with trash bags and gardening gloves. Reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and the Santa Cruz Sentinel came to watch, curious about the group of nudists who adopted a coastal enclave along Highway 1. “We naturists are offended by the trash and the association the public makes between naturists and trash,” Pasco told them. By the time the dump truck arrived midday, the newly formed South Bay Naturists hauled up a half-ton of broken glass.
“The beach was spotless again,” Pasco says. “We’ve had the cleanup every year ever since.”
But Pasco fears that, as nudists continue to lose ground, the state may change its mind about Bonny Doon, which is why his group has organized the 27th annual Bonny Doon cleanup for 9am this Saturday.
“This is very important,” Pasco says. “I think it’s part of the reason we’ve retained our clothing-optional status [at Bonny Doon]. There were many times it seemed like we would lose it.”
Garrapata Beach, 18 miles north of Big Sur, was a nude spot until the state assumed jurisdiction four years ago. Not long after, a sign went up at Gray Whale Cove in San Francisco prohibiting in-the-raw visitors, but was taken down after people complained. In 2008, park rangers cracked down on nudity at San Onofre State Beach just south of San Clemente after anecdotal reports that in-the-buff bathing had created a sexually charged atmosphere. Allen Baylis, an attorney who unsuccessfully sued the state over the decision, called those claims bunk. New York lost a longstanding nude beach after Hurricane Sandy, when state officials decided to reinvent the place into their idea of “family friendly.” Baker Beach in San Francisco is one of the few that remain safe from anti-nudity enforcement, as it lies in a national park and there’s no federal law against nudity.
Bonny Doon is part of a strip of eight “pocket” beaches tied together by Highway 1 but separated from each other by cliffs. Once privately owned by Swiss dairy farmers who permitted public use, it was sold along with seven other beaches for $45 million in 2006 to the California state park system. The state erected anti-nudity signs despite a longstanding policy that it is “a victimless crime, at worst.” Enforcement now only occurs when a private citizen complains.
Felicity Jones, 26, grew up in a nudist collective on the East Coast, and she says organized naturism has waned because of a lack of family-friendly nude spaces. She founded the Young Naturists of America to promote body acceptance and nudism among her peers.
“We wanted to bring back the old-school ideals of naturism,” Jones says. “And there was also a lack of activism, a lack of promoting naturism to the everyone else.”
Maybe the older generation of nudists got a little too comfortable, she suggests. They relegated naturism to vacations and recreation without lobbying hard enough for legal and cultural acceptance. So the laws closed in around them—cities and counties, including notoriously liberal San Francisco and Berkeley, passed local ordinances banning simple public nudity despite scattered protests insisting that “nude is not lewd.” In the South Bay, there is hardly anywhere for nudists to congregate outside of Lupin Lodge.
“People are more self-conscious now,” Jones says. “In a way it is harder for young people, especially women, to get over body image insecurities and try naturism. But it’s healing. It helps you be more comfortable. You see that nobody cares. People are not judging you and you can see real bodies instead of what we’re exposed to in ads on a daily basis. You realize that other people have flaws, too.”