Bare Facts

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie -- someone's dropped his drawers.

The two women were both in their mid-thirties, with three kids and one frost 'n' tip dye job between them. In no way did they look like potential naked people.

" then I told her to quit driving so fast, and that's when I pressed a big fat moon up against the windshield!"

"What a kick! I used to be quite a streaker myself."

Jo Rivers

What a big fat mystery is mankind.

I understand joy. I understand the impulse to experience moments of joy as they happen -- to wade into a beautiful body of water instead of admiring it from the riverbank. I even grasp the concept that certain items of clothing -- neckties, pantyhose -- were designed to make us look forward to the minute we can take them off. But I have never understood a culture that, when everything is going just fine, heightens the moment by getting naked.

Impromptu disrobers have walked among us since time -- or at least clothes -- began, yet to me they remain as strange and insular a group as the observant Amish. And while I enjoy very much certain private naked activities, I've never, ever had the urge to remove my clothes among casual acquaintances -- not at a football game, not on a mountaintop, not after my seventh cerveza.

But clearly, a large percentage of humans not only have this urge but act on it. Still, no scientific study has been made of the ritual -- until now. So in an attempt to build bridges between diverse peoples, I give you: a Field Guide to the Naked Tribes.

The Sporting Naked: Anyone who has ever played football will fall out of those pads and laces faster than you can say "Dude, I dare you to run up and down the street in the snow naked, but first have a boilermaker."

One neighbor, a recent proud member of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, is a member of this club. "The next thing I knew, I was running past your house naked, that night of the big blizzard, remember?" he reminds me. "I don't know how it happened. This friend of mine came over, and -- he dared me?" In the glory days of the Gophers, he recalls, the team engaged in regular Naked TV nights, at which they sat around on sofas watching TV, naked. It is a state fond and familiar to gridiron guys, he explains. But...

"The Denver Broncos do not suddenly take their clothes off," states a team spokesman, firmly. "Women get naked for them, for money. On the other hand, if they were to suddenly get naked, they would be less embarrassed by it, because they're always naked in the locker room."

And have been since the moment they realized they were endowed with athletic talent. Could there be a connection between the football-naked impulse and whatever drives clothes-free toddlers to run around the rec room screaming in delight because their legs work?

That hypothesis would work for the Groovy Naked, a tribe that includes your basic women's sisterhood and men's fire-in-the-belly associations. This nakedness always happens out in nature, where bodies of all shapes and sizes can be validated -- or stared at by tourists (both outcomes are acceptable). On a recent trip to Telluride, I was never more than one degree of separation from a Groovy Naked member, even though the nights were growing cold.

Frigid air is also no impediment to the Intrepid Naked, who can be found marking the culmination of any exploration victory by posing nude (except for expedition footwear and sunglasses) on a mountaintop, in an icy breeze.

"I've summitted a fourteener by myself and gotten naked," admits Denver mountaineer Tom Beckett. "It's the same urge that makes you sneak out at night when you're a kid living in a horrible, humid climate, and you run all over the neighborhood just so you can feel cool air washing all over all your parts. At the top of the mountain, there you are, as close to heaven as you're ever going to be, and there's this gorgeous view, and -- and why not?"

Yes, but what if you're not alone on that summit? What if, in fact, you appear in one of the ubiquitous "naked group victory shots" snapped and re-snapped by hardy explorers? Every time I've tried to trace this trend back to its source, I arrive at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyoming, a sort of über-Outward Bound at which impressionable students -- most college-aged, some several decades older -- are taught their way around the wilderness. Was Intrepid Naked, Group Division, an NOLS invention?

"I have no doubt that it's true," NOLS marketing and admissions director Bruce Palmer admits. "But I've actually never seen anyone naked around here, or even one of those photographs. I've taken three courses myself and spent the whole time comfy in clothes. But then, I was up in Alaska on ski trips, and you don't always want to get naked in that climate."

If I were Palmer, I would be careful about dropping such a blanket statement. Perhaps he's never encountered one of the Tennessee Williams Naked, those impeccably mannered and dressed older folks who, for eccentric reasons, think nothing of skinny-dipping, sunbathing nude on the veranda or just turning up for tea in the altogether. As you might expect, the demographic here is heavily Southern, but I had two great-aunts, one from rural New Jersey and one from Paris, who were so famous for this behavior that it was remarked upon at both their funerals. While alive, neither ever offered an explanation for the display of bodies that were, after all, their own to do with as they pleased.

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