Cradling my beach towel close to my chest, I clutch a red Solo cup full of champagne and pineapple juice. I take a long drink and start to relax a little, eventually setting the cup and towel aside. I sprawl out on the chair, uncovered, closing my eyes and basking in the uninhibited sunshine as water laps the sides of the pool.
"Hey, did you two get settled in okay?" a maternal voice asks me. I open my eyes and reach for my glasses. "Oh yeah, we're having a great time," I reply, pulled back into reality for a second, a little dazed by the warmth of the July day enveloping my body.
"All right, well, just as a reminder," the voice says, "there is no clothing allowed in the pool."
"Gotcha," I respond, already completely naked.
We're a half an hour south of Cleveland at the Green Valley Family Nudist Camp, a place where men, women and families cavort together in the nude, located near neighborhoods in Medina County that shade red on your friendly local political maps. A nudist camp in Northeast Ohio? Many neighbors don't even know it exists, let alone the rest of Clevelanders. It's one of those perplexing places, cloistered by choice and circumstance, with a rich and colorful history brimming right beneath our noses. Or other body parts, as the case may be.
I rank high on the "comfortable-being-naked" scale, probably because I am young and have received relatively little negative feedback when naked. I identify with white, body-positive feminists (a la Lena Dunham), and have accepted the bumpy, square-shaped structure I was born in. Being undressed doesn't scare me.
There's very little history of Green Valley online, save for a bare-bones website that boasts "average people from all walks of life" with members "of all shapes and sizes." A few articles from the early 2000s offer little information to sate the curious mind. So what's a gal to do but go experience it for herself, right?
I made a reservation for mid-July and convinced my best friend to come along, for comic relief and company and because, at the end of the day, it'd be a story to tell. Bonnie is like me in many ways, a mixture of eccentric and curious, liberal yet self-aware. We had envisioned bringing more guests on the adventure but, it turns out, organizing mutual friends to sign up for a weekend in our birthday suits proved difficult despite the short drive. Even my boyfriend declined to join the Garden of Eden outing. Like the vast majority of people, he said it was too far out of his comfort zone to spend a couple of days naked with strangers. Alas, we set out as a fearsome duo.
We made our way to Green Valley, or the approximation that Google Maps had found for our search, via hilly back roads and past horse stables and the Bath Township ballparks. Technically in Granger Township, nestled between Hinckley, Richfield and Fairlawn, the 47-acre campground seems to be reluctant to be found amid barns and chain restaurants catering to the interstate crowd. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find much besides a P.O. box listing online.
The drive reminded me of traveling to Girl Scouts camp my freshman year of high school. I wondered if Green Valley would be anything like the weekend I spent beading necklaces in my underwear alongside my pubescent troop. In retrospect, maybe if we'd all been more comfortable with our bodies back then it would have saved some years of combined confusion.
When you defeat Green Valley's urge to not be found, you'll find two miniscule mustard letters affixed to a pole just off the road: GV. The letters signify something special to "snowbirds" returning to their summer nests. They act as a makeshift address to keep the estate shrouded in pastoral privacy, so hidden that even snooping neighbors can't find them. As we pull off onto their gravel drive, there is a chainlink fence decorated with barbed wire on top.
"Hi. This is the Hunt party of two. We have a reservation for a cabin," Bonnie says assertively out of her unrolled driver's-side window and into the speaker box. A metallic female voice echoes over the intercom, "Okay, go ahead and come straight up to the office."
Somewhere behind the fence she pushes a button and the gate swings open. I shove our phones into the glove box. On Green Valley's website, an FAQ section suggests that the only thing nudists hate more than using their last names are camera phones. It's just as well.
"There are just too many people out there on the internet that would get a kick out of knowing we're here together, naked," Bonnie says.
Bonnie and I see a welcome sign attached to a fragment of fence painted brick red with white script. It reads: "Welcome to Green Valley, A Family Nudist Camp," in a medieval-looking font. We pass a chalkboard sign on the opposite side of the car with updated activities for the weekend. The speed limit is a 10-mph crawl so the golf carts, which have run of the camp, can keep up.
The majority of Green Valley runs as a co-op, with members working together to complete work projects and maintenance on the grounds, based on their talents, abilities and time. As we park next to the sky-blue shed that serves as the office, I spot a guy on a riding mower cutting the lawn. He's naked, of course.
A middle-aged blonde hippie with glasses resting on the bridge of her nose and a large bronzed bosom takes our IDs into the office before gathering brochures and a complimentary bag and towels for us. We survey the shelves packed full of sarongs, wraps, sunglasses and bangles. "Do they have any sunscreen?" I ask Bonnie, terrified of burning my nipples. We sign off on our paperwork after reviewing the rules and regulations, and exit the office in single file behind our nude guide.
She loads us up on the back of her golf cart, the leather seats hot to the touch from the summer sun, to take us on an abridged tour of the park. We ride along past the one-room shack where we'll be staying, across from the pool, outdoor showers, and community restrooms inside the clubhouse, to a modest pond stocked with fish and a lone paddleboat. Kitschy signs around the ornately decorated trailers parked on the grounds beam inspirational messages like, "It's 5 o'clock somewhere," and "Park your butt and take a seat," the latter emblazoned with a set of bare buns.
Besides the pool, Green Valley's campgrounds include pickle ball and volleyball courts, as well as a playground for kids and tetherball. I have never played tetherball, clothed or otherwise, so I add it to my list of things to do this weekend. Several fire pits sit stocked with chopped wood and kindling, a task members of the co-op perform as part of their grounds duties. Inside the clubhouse, a small stage and tables are set up for community ice cream socials, dances, and live performances.
Green Valley has had a surplus of visitors this season, which runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, because of the good weather, our guide tells us. Ten cars are parked in the lot by the time we arrive at 11 a.m., and just as we finish unpacking our towels, a mammoth RV from New York pulls up just feet away from the cabin. A couple, probably in their 60s, emerges.
Meanwhile, Bonnie and I have disrobed and made our way across the courtyard to the pool. The fenced-in perimeter of the 72,000-gallon pool is the only zone of Green Valley where it's mandatory to be naked. They do this for sanitary reasons, but with the water temperature set to a balmy 85 degrees (and 101 degrees for the hot tub), who really needs a suit, anyway?
Thirty chairs surround the pool and six are occupied by the time we sit down. Nudist etiquette dictates that you should bring at least one towel with you at all times. That's to sit on. Towels, as suggested on the site's FAQ section, are also good for the rare occasion someone becomes visibly excited. "Simply don a towel, turn over, or take a quick dip in the pool," it suggests.
"I think a lot of people knew about it, but thought it was more legend," says Kaitlyn Berle, a friend whose parents live only a few miles away from the camp, when I tell her about my trip. "I knew it was real, but I also can't believe you went." In 28 years, she'd never seen Green Valley and didn't know anyone who had visited, though if they had, they probably wouldn't have advertised it to their conservative neighbors.
"My wife's first husband, they lived one street over," says Steve B., the vice president of Green Valley's member-run board. "They knew it was here, but they could never find it."
The president of the Green Valley board, also named Steve, confirms the surrounding community's naivety. "My office has been around the corner since 1999 and nobody up there knows we're here," he says. "For many, many years we kept it that way. The less people knew we were here, the less exposure and the less headaches we had."
Each of the six board members I met with seemed impressed that I had been willing to bare it all for the sake of telling their story. It was similar to the vulnerability that they had gone through themselves: Everyone starts as a visitor at Green Valley. In 1929, the first nude organization in the United States was established as an extension of a German movement called Nacktkultur, which encouraged people to lead a healthier lifestyle associated with being nude. In the 1930s, nudism gained popularity due to growing tolerance of sexual expression in America and testimonials of its therapeutic physical and mental benefits, according to Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism by Brian Hoffman. That's about the time the history of Green Valley begins, at least so far as can be recounted these days.
Rumor has it that 80 years ago, the land was purchased by owners of the May Company who wanted a country estate for their friends and family to partake in what was one of the newest and most provocative trends of the time: naturalism.
Green Valley continued to grow from a few modest wood cabins and primitive campsites, adding sanctioned lots with electricity for trailers and RVs as the years passed. Then, in 1973, the government took part of Green Valley's property in order to build Interstate 271, land-locking a portion of the camp in the process. Speculation at the time surmised that local officials purposely planned the I-271 construction through the nudist community in order to spurn the organization, but the rumored distaste for the camp was never officially documented. Around the same time as the concrete highway opened, nudity became legal on private property in Ohio.
The GV co-op decided to sell the land on the opposite side of the highway to the Firestone family. This piece of Green Valley became Allard Park and at the very back of the public park one of the original Green Valley cabins stood until it crumbled five years ago. A sign designating its historical significance read, "Nudist Cabin: 1936."
Before computers and the internet, the only way to find out about naturalist resorts and beaches was through the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR) or, as they were known in tamer times, the American Sunbather's Association (ASA). AANR, Green Valley's parent organization, placed ads in publications to drum up interest.
"I read about AANR in Playboy," says Steve, Green Valley president. "I was one of the few that actually read Playboy."
"You read Playboy, we read Penthouse!" exclaims Green Valley's corresponding secretary, an 80-year-old woman with short, curly hair, wearing a key-lime colored sarong with white lace details, who for the purposes of this article would like to be known as "the Queen of Green Valley." A member since 1978, she is one of the longest-tenured members, just behind a couple who have been attending for 50 years this summer.
"Reading things online now, nude-cations come up all the time, but you never used to see that, not even five years ago," says Vicki, the camp's activities director, who has been a member, with her husband, for 14 years. He brought up the idea of nude recreation to her after a trip to the dentist's office where he saw an ad for AANR in a Travel & Leisure magazine.
Green Valley is a far cry from resorts such as Hedonism II in Jamaica, which is mentioned throughout popular culture as an erotic vacation destination dedicated to explicit encounters and ample drug use. Green Valley is a far, far cry from that, but both are lumped together into the nude recreation industry, which brings in an estimated $400 million in business annually, according to USA Today.
"If people are open to it and want to try this," says Vicki regarding nacationing, as it's been called, "it's a smaller place to go rather than a massive resort. I think it's more people-friendly."
There are 97 lots on the grounds of Green Valley, divided into affectionately named sections based on geography, like "Bare Bottoms" and "The Plateau: Home of Frog Hollow." Four visitor cabins are available for rent. Bonnie and I stay in "Starlight," which goes for $55 a night.
Visitors must pay a daily fee, which is discounted if you are a member of AANR, INF (International Naturist Federation), or TNS (The Naturist Society).
There are roughly 160 members, with 26 living on the grounds during summer months. Membership is predominantly heterosexual couples but, "We don't dictate a couple as a man and a woman. A couple is a couple, you know," President Steve says. "We've had many gay and lesbian couples."
Only 10 percent of Green Valley's members are single, one reason being to create a balance between sexes and perpetuate the family-friendly atmosphere. Green Valley's members range in age, but there is a large concentration of 40- to 60-year-olds. Bonnie and I seem to be outliers during our weekend stay.
Green Valley has established itself as "family-oriented," which may seem ethically questionable, but there are two generations of members from the same family registered at the campsite. Prominently written into their club guidelines is a reminder that sexual behavior or gesturing is absolutely not tolerated
In the digital age, it has become much easier to get information about clothing-free campgrounds than it used to be. Yet, for a community known to let it all hang out, their members' privacy is paramount when it comes to sharing information with the general public. Part of the freedom of going nude is the anonymity that comes with it.
To protect individuals, Green Valley explicitly prohibits the use of cellphones, laptops, tablets or any other devices capable of taking photographs while on the grounds, if you are a visitor or guest. Anyone seen with a photographic device out in the open will be ejected from the park and added to their list of those-who-shalt-not-return. When it comes to their own use of social media, Green Valley tries to share without over-sharing.
"If you're talking about our Facebook specifically," says Pam, recording secretary and social media admin, "I try to post kind of neutral stuff, and as much as you can, keep it private. You still have to go through a screening process to get in. You can't just march through the doors."
In 2007, Green Valley added a computer to their operations. It was also then that they started cross-checking visitors, guests, and members against the National Sex Offenders list. "We do look out for pedophiles and things of that nature, for the safety of our kids," Mark says.
With a new mobile-friendly website on the way, and apps such as iSwimNude making Green Valley more visible to a technologically savvy audience, the Queen of Green Valley also has her hands full making sure creepers stay out. She personally responds to all email inquiries the camp receives.
"Sometimes they'll go on and on about their fantasies," she says. "It makes me laugh because they don't think that an 80-year-old, grey-haired woman is reading it. Last year took the cake when that nude picture got sent. I really wanted to write back, 'Wasn't worth the trouble, buddy!' But I just hit delete."
"Oh, our buddy by the refrigerator, with the erection?" Mark says, filling in the details for us.
"Yeah, our refrigerator buddy," she rolls her eyes.
"There are places out there where you can go to do that, but this is not one of them," says President Steve. It's abundantly clear that nudity does not equate to sex in the community.
"Well, with the internet, we're getting more and more of that," the Queen of Green Valley says, my heart sinking at the plague of dick pics invading her inbox, my brain somehow still missing the internet despite that fact.
I feel a little guilty about leaving the outside, clothed world completely behind during our stay. It's the sort of remorse workaholics or Facebook addicts feel on vacation when their cellphones don't work or are literally banned.
"When you pull through that gate," President Steve says, sweeping his arm out over the treetops in the direction of the campground's entrance, "you remove all your clothes and you remove all of your issues from outside."
If those on the outside ever thought that Green Valley was just an urban legend, to the members inside the little nudist commune, the restraints of the "real world" seem just as fake, at least for a few months each summer.
"Everyone just gets along and has a good time," Steve says.
A good time tomorrow would be a community-wide potluck. Tonight, that would be a bonfire, or at least that was the plan.
While I love a good sit around an open fire, doing so naked seemed dangerous, what with the possibility of embers flying back onto your bush. I had visions of competing on Naked and Afraid flash before my eyes. I was secretly happy later when it rained.
On Saturday morning, as Bonnie and I wait on a bench outside the office to check out, a thin woman fully dressed with sunglasses and a visor on asks if we'd be back.
"Oh, before you know it," I respond.