Naked, not too afraid, at cave stroll

COBLESKILL, N.Y. _ Let me set the scene: You're fat as hell _ "fat" being the term I prefer to use _ and naked in a way you have only ever been for a person who loves you.

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COBLESKILL, N.Y. _ Let me set the scene: You're fat as hell _ "fat" being the term I prefer to use _ and naked in a way you have only ever been for a person who loves you.

Everyone around you is naked, too, except for a nice man and his wife who are offering you brownies and coffee. A harpist behind you is also not naked, but she is gamely playing "You Are My Sunshine" for a small group of naked older men who sing along with such joyful energy and sincerity, that you begin to believe it is only possible to be truly happy when naked.

It was my idea to bring my fat body to the Naked in a Cave nude stroll held in honor of International Nude Day at Howe Caverns this past Saturday. About 280 people bought tickets to this event, traveling from all over the country (and beyond) to participate.

The event had been marketed as body-positive _ a fraught and, at times, ambiguous term that can mean everything and nothing to someone like me who is actually very fat. But I thought it might be instructive to test the limits of my own politics around the bigness of my body.

So there I am, standing alone in a line with a bunch of seemingly relaxed people extremely eager to get naked. After accepting my souvenir robe, I head to the women's room. While I strip in a stall, a woman says what we're probably all thinking, which is: "Why are we in the bathroom taking our clothes off when we're about to all be naked together anyway?" Obviously a good point, and when I emerge from the stall, she is fully _ unselfconsciously _ nude, bent over and tying her sneakers, the recommended footwear for the cave walk.

Cinching my robe above my waist, I note that it's a bit too small to comfortably protect my bikini area from total exposure (a fact I'm reminded of again, later, when my hands are doubly occupied with drinks so that I can not stop the robe from blowing open and exposing all of the bottom half of my body to a room that hardly notices or cares).

Anyway, it's in the drink line that I meet Jen Klock and her partner, who've traveled from Holland Patent, near Utica, to try out being naked in public for the first time. Klock says mostly she's worried about the cold_she remembers being at Howe Caverns as a kid and being freezing. (Jokes about "shrinkage" are legion.)

Behind me is a rowdy group of southerners who've come from Virginia and elsewhere for the stroll. One of them proudly shows me her pinky finger, half of which is missing. "I lost it in a ziplining accident!" she says, then tells us the story of how she started partying again as soon as she got home from the hospital.

Her husband stands proudly and happily behind her, his gray chest hair poking manfully out of his robe. The two of them have always loved being naked, she tells me. Their kids used to have to beg them to put clothes on before inviting friends over.

"Oh, I want a balloon animal!" she says suddenly. She comes back with a phallic-shaped balloon, which she puts in her bag to save for a friend.

Before entering the cave and after chugging both of my drinks, I meet Steven Taylor-Roth, a lifelong naturist (the preferred term for most people who enjoy being nude) and nude art model in his late 60s from Schenectady. His partner, Mary, had just passed away from brain cancer two weeks ago. To commemorate her, the small patch of beard on his chin was dyed a dark purple.

Taylor-Roth asks me to walk with him, and I'm grateful to have a pro to guide me. He is there when I take the robe off and descend the cool stairs, the air breezing around every part of me I've worked most of my life to hide. The etiquette feels intuitive. I don't stare at his body and he doesn't stare at mine. The same is true of everyone we pass.

We continue down into the cave. "I was abused as a kid," Taylor-Roth shares. "Being nude has helped me a lot with body acceptance." He's a big guy, too, just like me. He's a devout, but liberal, Quaker. He also tells me that sexuality and nudity are strictly separate. He has never been aroused at a nude event.

I notice with happiness the soft tummies and stretchmarked breasts of the women around me, who appear to feel safe. There's little self-conscious covering with hands and arms. Our nudity requires us to also be free of cell phones, which adds another element of safety and protection and freedom to the spirit of the evening. The Howe Caverns staff are clothed, which triggers new anxieties (are the not-nudes judging the nudes?), but they wear signs around their necks that say things like "everyBODY is beautiful," which feels friendly in a very proactive way.

"When everyone's naked, it's like we're all equal," Taylor-Roth says. "The guy who came in wearing the $2,000 suit looks no different than the guy wearing jeans."

The 1-mile stroll took about an hour. The cave exploration included a boat ride, during which some people said they were cold. But all in all, it was a comfortable day.

And when it comes time to take a naked photo, my naked buddy invites me to join him. We put our arms around each other and smile, naked as we came _ except for the viking helmets we picked up from the prop table.

As we keep walking, we pass a guy with a Ron Burgundy mustache, who is studying the rock formations and reading the brochure by the low light on the wall. We pass the harpist again, and now she's playing "Space Oddity." Two naked women and a naked man are singing, "Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do" like it's karaoke night. My right boob accidentally slaps against Taylor-Roth's arm. I don't think he notices.

I text with Klock the next morning. She says, "We asked one of the staff members if they were going to do this again next year. It seemed like a yes!"

In the meantime, she and her partner are already looking for other naked events.

Brianna Snyder is a freelance writer for the Times Union based in Troy.