At the nudist resort in Los Gatos, the sun is still warm on my skin in November. Eric is standing over me on the edge of the hot tub. I know I’m not supposed to look at genitals here, but his remarkably large testicles are basically a foot from my face.
Eric won’t stop talking. He tells me that he grew up in the Virgin Islands and feels it is traumatizing to live anywhere else. Everywhere else is outside paradise, he says. He claps me on the shoulder and announces to me that he and his wife are pregnant — a turn of phrase I’ve always disliked, the appropriation of someone else’s reproductive labor.
Eric tells me they are trying to settle down here, at Lupin Lodge, the oldest nudist resort in the Western United States. I spare him a nod. I’m far past trying to get a word in edgewise with this guy. I stare resolutely away from him and hope against hope that he’ll respond to social cues and leave me in peace.
It’s not the islands, but it’s definitely a dream place to live, he says.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard Lupin referred to in the same breath as paradise or dreamland. Its promotional materials use much of this language, referring to it as a “slice of heaven” minutes from the high-end restaurants and office parks of Silicon Valley. A fifteen-page history of Lupin and its role in the nudist (officially, naturist) movement awaits us by the bed in our yurt and reads primarily as a history of hardships and triumphs, of an innocent group of people fighting off challenges and oppressions by those who just didn’t understand their simple, pure way of life.
According to this narrative, written by former owner Glyn Stout, Lupin was started in 1936, and played a key role in the forming of the naturist movement. The booklet traces Lupin’s role in various historical moments of the twentieth century, including area fires and World Wars, transitions of ownership and name, and a number of attempts to keep the place financially afloat. In the 1950s, naturism hadn’t really caught on in the United States, we learn, but with the social shifts of the 1960s and 1970s, the booklet tells us, “Lupin saw a resurgence of Lupin.” I read the sentence a few times to make sure that’s what it says. The solipsism of it seems too perfect.
Sinking in next to me in the hot tub, a woman with deep creases under her eyes and breasts tells me she’s been a member since 1982, and that some of the original founders were from Oakland, where I tell her I live. “They used to take the Oakland–Santa Cruz train line which stopped right there —” she gestures past the children’s play structure, and I picture the naturists heaving packages knotted with twine off a train platform.
Later, Eric brings his portable speaker to the pool and out of the corner of my eye I watch him do some kind of aerobic dance. He swings his arms in perfect loops, collapses his spine toward the ground and tosses it up again. He smiles bigger than seems possible, the skin of his face strained across his high cheekbones. He looks over at his wife. Arms open again: We are going to change the human race, sweetheart! Eric whoops and leaps into the pool, then surfaces and whips hair from his face with a sharp toss of his neck.
You and me and that little baby, we are going to be pure love, he says.
This theme of re-invigorating humanity has been present in many ways throughout naturist history and philosophy. Many contemporary practitioners argue for the right to public nudity because, they say, it benefits not only their own well-being (for innumerable reasons that naturists cite, from fresh air to skin health and positive body image) “but also those of many non-nudists whose body image and, ultimately, life satisfaction, might be promoted by exposure to non-idealized naked bodies (i.e. bodies that fall short of prevailing aesthetic standards).”
I am also told this at Lupin. Doesn’t it just feel so totally natural, a woman sighs as she lays out her towel on the slatted pool chair next to mine.
I’m just so happy my kid will be exposed to a lot of different kinds of human bodies, Eric says.
This aspiration toward acceptance sits strangely against the word pure. When you’re raised in a Jewish family of Eastern-European descent, as I was, the word purity always came with a sinister connotation of eugenics, especially when anywhere near human race.
Turns out this connotation isn’t baseless. Historian Chad Ross has explored the origins of nineteenth century nudism in Germany and found its roots in racial theory and utopia. “From its earliest appearance,” he writes in Naked Germany: Health, Race and the Nation, “nudism established its goal as nothing less than the transformation of the German nation into a harmonious, strong, racially pure Volk by first transforming Germans into healthy and beautiful bearers of the racial seed.”
Well, when you put it that way.
Ross’ analysis roots German nudism in the desire to recapture a sense of national belonging after the divisions formed by industrialization, rapid population growth, the swelling move to cities, and increased inequalities of wealth and power. He writes:
…in nudism, the declining German nation could only be repaired by first building better Germans, and Germans could only be regenerated by transforming their bodies. The body, of course, needed to be returned to its natural, naked state so that it could effect change upwards: first Germans, then the race and nation.
We know this story about Germany, but it’s not true that nudism was employed in service of utopian fantasy in only one European nation-state. This move toward recapturing an original state untarnished by current socio-political conditions is replicated elsewhere, and not just on the far right.
When scholar Richard Clemison looks at such rhetoric in England and Spain in a 2004 essay “Making Sense of the Body: Anarchism, Nudism and Subjective Experience,” he notes how late nineteenth and early twentieth century European nudists on both the right and left justified nudism “as part of a search for the genuine against the artificial in modern life.” He goes on:
Both generally saw nudism as a means of freeing the human body from degradation and from the “lower” human drives such as sexuality, in order to attain a state of purity which was often equated with a particular interpretation of Greek forms and lifestyles. The right and left differed, however, over the imagery evoked to justify the elimination of “foreign substances” from the body.
And then there’s Maurice Parmelee, an early American promoter of nudism, who held that nudism would result in a “more beautiful mankind” because nudists would be motivated to “avoid deformations of the body,” writes Ellen E. Woodall in “The American Nudist Movement: From Cooperative to Capital, the Song Remains the Same,” a 2002 text in the Journal of Popular Culture. Parmelee saw nudism as part of a larger social revolution that would restore physical strength in humans and “free them from industrialization.”
Lupin, too, ascribes to purifying oneself through nudism, ridding oneself of the grit of social conditioning, cleansing oneself in order to reveal “higher” qualities and “drives.” The resort has posted on its website “A Male Tribute to Lupin Women,” a 1993 piece from the California Naturist: written also by Glyn Stout, the text praises female members for the “extraordinary courage, trust and independence of thought” it takes to “overcome the body taboo,” face “sexual abuse headlines,” and “overcome complex social conditioning.” Stout notes that “very few women accept, much less like, their bodies” and presents naturism as the answer to such difficulty of acceptance: “Because it is so humanizing an experience, being nude with people also facilitates communications across gender, generational and genetic differences and makes us feel part of some great universal family.”
Whether it’s anarchists talking about nudism as a way to dispose of entrenched Catholic values, or Stout gesturing towards a way for women to unlearn not just body hatred but “gender, generational, and genetic differences,” the message remains consistent: “pure” human goodness can be found by stripping away the trappings of the social world. Both echo the Christian idea of original sin, so thoroughly permeated throughout Western culture that it has become almost invisible. When I reached out to Lupin for comment, I inquired about the community’s associations with any religion or faith. I was directed to Brad Chibos, a Lupin Lodge member since 1981, who responded:
Lupin Lodge has been a natural sanctuary for people of many different faiths. The club itself has always been run with respect for those faiths and nature itself. Lupin has never been associated with any organized religious or spiritual group. Many people do meditate, read spiritual material or practice yoga. Currently there are naked yoga classes. No religion or faith is ever required in connection with Lupin Lodge membership. We only require that people show each other and each other’s beliefs respect.
This generalized sense that differences are dissolved in Lupin’s sanctuary reflects a choice to ignore social context rather than acknowledge its role in the shaping of the community — a choice to look the other way, which has haunted Lupin of late.
I ended up at Lupin because I was looking for somewhere affordable to get away last minute. Later, on Yelp, I read that this happens to a lot of people. Lupin seems great to many: cheap yurt, nice pool, sunny microclimate, beautiful hiking trails. And nudism, well, we live in the Bay Area — we’ve seen our share. We can get down with that, my partner says as we pull up to the place.
It’s not until I leave Lupin that I begin to learn the rest of the story. The series of misadventures Lupin describes in its version of history read to others as a series of misbehaviors. Most recent press on Lupin describes either the lawsuit against its owners for water theft (“Lupin has historically and lawfully used upstream Hendry’s Creek water that flows through Lupin’s property,” reads Lupin’s official statement) or its rampant exploitation of workers. According to a 2015 article about the lawsuit, Lupin recruited “people ‘in transition’ — transitions from prison, probation, broken relationships, or drug and alcohol addictions” — to work at Lupin in exchange for room and board. Invited to “come live in paradise,” individuals instead racked up debt to Lupin for “membership fees” and market-rate rents.
In the amazingly-titled investigative report “Bad News Bared,” Jennifer Wadworth writes:
Though not certified as a sober-living environment, Lupin has also presented itself as a place to get back on one’s feet. “They deliberately look for people who are in a desperate situation,” said [Russ] Klein, who almost moved out several times because of what he calls rampant and passively accepted methamphetamine use on the grounds. “They have a twisted notion that they’re some kind of a rehab.”
I think back to Glyn Stout’s descriptions of Lupin as “so humanizing an experience.” Stout was co-owner of Lupin with Lori Kay during the time described in these lawsuits, purportedly running a resort that “humanized” people and helped them “connect with themselves.” How is it possible that this discourse persists, even and despite its intersections with basic human suffering, and the harsh facts of class in the Bay Area?
When I asked Lupin to comment on how the resort has been affected by the continued rising cost of living in the Bay, and how the tech boom has affected members of the community, Chibos responded that, “The increase in traffic on highway 17 has been a burden to some of our members when driving to the club,” and “Some people who have found housing to be far too expensive in the bay area [sic] have found a home at Lupin.” I am struck by the continued rhetoric that encodes Lupin as an oasis amid ruthless realities — one need only reach Lupin, and said realities will somehow evaporate.
I’ll admit I felt an affection for Lupin on my visit there, an affection for the old-school Northern California feeling of weirdos who just want to be left alone to live in peace — but it’s a peace that exists in a vacuum. I think here of how Lupin described itself as place for “escaping the pressure-cooker of nearby Silicon Valley,” while at the same time a former resident described on his blog an increasingly-disturbing difference between the clean, resort-oriented lodgings presented for members and guests of the resort and the “Maintenance Area” sign intended to discourage visitors from seeing the ramshackle trailers and tents where workers lived without septic systems or plumbing.
One especially telling detail in Wadsworth’s report on Lupin’s wage theft is how the Stouts installed security cameras to keep an eye on workers, though cameras are generally banned at the resort (at least for guests) in keeping with naturist ethics.
“Nudism, while purporting to free its members from the ills of the capitalist, industrialized system, is a part of that system and, in fact, could not function without it,” writes Woodall. In many ways, Lupin’s travails form a very Bay Area story. Privacy becomes insubstantial when faced with the need to control information and labor. And then there’s that familiar desire to route around rather than reckon with what precedes or surrounds one, whether under the guise of “spiritual community” or “life-hacking.”
When I asked Chibos how Lupin has addressed the 2015 lawsuits since their settlement and whether the resort has improved working and living conditions, he replied, “The arrangement that Lupin has had with the people who work and live here has proven beneficial for both sides since Lupin started in 1935. If Lupin Lodge was taking advantage of people it would not have lasted this long.” This interior reality survives by virtue of its own logic.
“We are always working to improve Lupin so the membership and residents benefit from those efforts,” Chibos continued. Absent from this work is an acknowledgment that true benefit would have to involve an actual reconciliation of Lupin’s utopian ideals with the economic and cultural conditions that surround it.
Lupin has, in select ways, shown itself willing to integrate surrounding cultures when such integration benefits the resort. Wadsworth notes that by 2014 Lupin was hosting “all-night raves and fetish parties that they felt flouted the wholesome ideals of naturism.” According to Lupin’s own history keeping, Lupin rented its space to these raves and parties in order to survive as a business in one particularly hard-up time, associating with Burning Man and other younger party scenes to host events that could bring in additional funding streams.
Nathan Heller has described the way that romantic and utopian ideals manage to survive in private life — if not public applications — in the Bay Area, but I think this story is larger than just this place. The paradoxes of Lupin show the porousness of utopian conceits when it comes to economics; the ways capitalism makes consistency impossible. To operate under utopian ideals with integrity means to acknowledge and participate in existing conditions, at least to the extent that this participation allows individual humans to survive; to reckon with the impossibility of paradise; and to laugh at the boundaries and paradoxes of human behavior. A nudism that claims total utopian purity is doomed to (at best) irrelevance and (at worst) injury of those who do not have a choice about participating in the wider economy. As much as it claims to “bare all,” Lupin doesn’t seem all that interested in the bare realities working upon actual people.
Our bed in the yurt is large and soft and has a king-size heating blanket tucked into the duvet. It is late at night, and my partner is dreaming, he will later tell me, that I bought a new car without telling him. Suddenly we’re both awakened by a series of loud staccato shouts of “yes! yes! yes! yes! YES!” from out of the surrounding forest, followed by a few seconds of soft laughter. We grip each other in the dark.
Sex? I whisper, was it sex?
Definitely not, he says, it doesn’t sound like an orgasm. I can just barely make out his smile.
I’d bet you a lot of money it’s a win at online poker. This seems about right — while we were encouraged by Lupin staff to “detox” from the digital world while on the property, we spotted the WIFI password (N8K3DW1F1) in a corner up at the Lodge. I wouldn’t be surprised if its signal stretches out here to the trees.