Searching for Assateague’s Clothing-Optional Beach
The first hurdle in going to the nude beach at Assateague is finding it. Capitalsun.com, a web site run by the National Capitol Sun Club dedicated to Assateague’s clothing-optional waterfront, offers an old map that uses letters and punctuation marks to represent sand and water, which at the beach are the worst landmarks ever. Why not include a symbol for air while you’re at it?
Not that there’s any reason to doubt the validity of a map off the internet, but just to be on the safe side I decided to take the old-fashioned approach and talk to people in the area to see if they could offer more detailed instructions. After several hours on the Ocean City boardwalk I discovered that talking to people is overrated. The internet wins again.
Most of the people I talked to had never heard of the nude beach. And after several hours of fruitless questioning, I became known to the locals as the crazy boardwalk lady obsessed with naked people. I was about to give up when I stumbled upon Danny King, proprietor of Kingie’s Funnel Cakes, a sidewalk stand on the boardwalk. I pulled up a stool at his dough bar and asked if he knew anything about the nude beach.
“What do you want to know?” he asked suspiciously.
“Well, what do you know?” I cagily replied.
Realizing that this could go on all day, he offered me a funnel cake and spilled his guts.
“I’ve never been,” he hastily assured me. “But I always knew it was down there. You go to the farthest parking lot [at Assateague], and you have to walk quite a ways before you get to where you have any privacy. It’s mostly guys, from what I understand.”
Much like the map, King was short on specifics, but he more than made up for it with trivia. Grateful just to have found someone that had heard of the place, I was like a deranged child begging for an inappropriate bedtime story.
“Tell me again about when Playboy wrote about it,” I pleaded. King’s hair stood in great white spikes of hardened sugar, and he dipped apples in caramel and spun cotton candy for his customers, as they eyed me wondering why I was engaging in dirty talk with Willy Wonka.
“[Playboy] mentioned it in an article [in 1984],” he explained. “And suddenly everybody wanted to go see the nude people. It blew the whole deal. Suddenly everyone’s taking a walk up there. The rangers, I don’t think they really cared, but once it got a little exposure they had to do something about it.”
“The park’s stance is that nude sunbathing is not permitted,” Assateague assistant chief ranger Ted Morlock explains. “We will deal with it as we need to. The ticket [we issue] is for disorderly conduct. It starts at $250 and can go as high as $5,000. Last year we ticketed a group of people and it was $750 a piece.”
Understandably, fans of the beach have opted to stay out of the limelight for years so as not to rile local law enforcement. Then in 2004 the nude beach was suddenly all over the Delmarva local news. The American Association of Nude Recreation (AANR), a Kissimmee, Fla.-based naturist organization, attempted to get legislation introduced in Annapolis that would legally designate a portion of Assateague as clothing-optional. Somewhat surprisingly, people living in the tiny burgs dotting the seashore seemed fine with the idea. “We believe the community is behind it in large part,” says Carolyn Hawkins, public relations coordinator for AANR. A 2005 AANR poll of local residents showed that 50 percent were in favor of a designated nude beach. Despite the lack of outrage, no one in the legislature was willing to sponsor the bill.
I left Ocean City with a belly full of funnel cake and my head spinning with visions of merry nudists carousing with the wild ponies. I was determined to track down the nude beach. Ultimately this would prove only slightly more successful than searching for unicorns. The crucial difference is that if you manage to find a unicorn, it’s probably not lurking behind a bush in a shiny black thong.
Some friends and I got a campsite on Assateague, pulled out our trusty map, and started walking up the beach. That was until a thunderstorm sent us racing back to the safety of our tents. On the way back I ran into some lifeguards night surfing and stopped to ask if they knew anything about the nude beach. They hadn’t ever been, but at the word “nude,” one suddenly stripped naked and went racing into the water. Apparently this is how surfers show appreciation for a concept: “I hear your question about the nude beach and validate it with my own nudity.” Not quite what I was looking for, but encouraging nonetheless.
The lifeguards invited me to a kegger, but I declined. I needed rest. My instincts would have to be at their sharpest if I was going to elude park rangers the next day, nude and dragging a beach umbrella.
The next morning was gorgeous and sunny. After walking about a half mile north I saw a big lump of something vaguely human-shaped lying in the surf far ahead. Hoping the lump was my first nude sighting of the day, I started squinting to see if I could make out a penis. But as I got closer I realized it was actually an enormous dead dolphin washed up on the shore. I’m talking stinky and maggoty. It was disgusting, so my friends and I photographed it from every conceivable angle, and moved on. My stroll through the valley of the dead has only just begun.
The next stop was a dead giant turtle. After the dolphin carcass I was pretty comfortable with the turtle. So after taking a few more photos we continued, confident that while lightening sometimes strikes twice, it never strikes three times.
Five minutes later we came upon the bleached skeletal remains of a dead whale. At this point, event the dimmest Greek hero would take these as signs of a doomed journey. We, on the other hand, took turns posing inside the whale’s giant vertebra.
Finally, I saw my first good omen of the day, a sign stating nudity prohibited. After the disturbing journey here, even this admonition was exciting. Somewhere up ahead there must be beautiful sun-kissed naked people, waiting to welcome my friends and I and help us build sand castles. In fact, we got so excited that we stripped naked and danced around the sign, despite the fact that we were still pretty far from the ostensible nude section of the beach. We were actually in the middle of a bird sanctuary. The two fiftysomething bird-watchers desperately trying to ignore us tipped me off.
A few miles up the beach I started seeing a few sunbathers, but it was impossible to tell whether they were naked because they all had big blue privacy tents. All the tents were exactly the same, as though there was a nudist supply store somewhere, or a rental kiosk on the beach that I had missed.
Even though I had yet to see a naked person with my own eyes, I figured I had found the clothing-optional beach and decided to make camp. Lacking the apparently requisite privacy tent, my friends and I headed for the natural privacy of the dunes.
We weren’t the only ones drawn there that day. I quickly realized that the dunes were for cruising. Several men walked slowly among the dunes, like scantily clad and very tan jungle cats. The tension was thick. We waited to see if they would get naked, confirming that we had found the right spot, while they waited to see if we were there for a date.
In a fit of perhaps unwise pluck, I decided to make the first move and shed my bathing suit. Within seconds the closest jungle cat disrobed as well without even breaking stride. Very impressive. In cruising language, it’s possible that I was moments from selecting a boyfriend.
Once it became clear that my friends and I were just there to sunbathe and eat potato chips, the men of the dunes lost interest, although one tenacious older gentleman with a deep tan hung around for a while. He would saunter around our little group in large slow, sharklike circles, cutoffs swinging in his hand, shiny black thong merrily saying how-do-you-do every time he turned toward us; once, even it came off. We could have watched Black Thong’s mating dance for hours, popping chips into our mouths and critiquing his moves, smooth as they were. But eventually even Black Thong faded back into the brush.
My daydream of entire families of nude Marylanders innocently playing in the surf proved just that. In fact, other than my friends, the surfer from the previous evening and a coupla cruisers were the only naked people I saw all weekend. Instead, I quietly wiled away the day eating snacks and telling my friends to flip over when their butts looked too pink.
My nude-beach experience wasn’t unique. Assateague park rangers say they have been concerned about what they call “other activity” at the nude beach for a while.
“We had some incidents last year of sexual behavior on the beach. We’re deeply concerned about that behavior,” Morlock says. “We even had an employee propositioned last year.”
Even the AANR’s Hawkins recognizes that the beach has become home to an unwelcome element. “After the park rangers started to crack down, people chose not to take their families there anymore for fear of being arrested,” she says. “And the beach became a place for ‘other’ visitors.”
And so, the vicious cycle of the Assateague nude beach continues. The beach’s illegality and location in an ill-defined, desolate stretch of beach has led to “other activity,” and that activity has seriously hampered naturists’ attempts to legalize nudity for more family-friendly activities.
Despite their failed attempts, AANR remains hopeful. “We’re still working on it,” Hawkins says. “We don’t give up easy. We’ve hired a lobbyist in Annapolis and we believe we’ve made some headway.”
But for now, if you’re going to Assateague to check out the clothing-optional beach, be sure to keep your clothes close at hand. And for God’s sake, stay out of the dunes.
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