Gettin' naked under the Big Sky.
Corvallis, Montana, with its old-school farming history, may not look like it's on the cutting edge of the Montana tourism industry. After all, with 859 residents, the town is but a speck on the map. But it turns out that little Corvallis is a major player in the fastest-growing form of outdoor recreation in the country: nudism.
To be sure, Corvallis isn't a town full of streakers. Quite the contrary. But it is home to the Montana Naturist Organization (MNO), which boasts over 100 members across the state.
The MNO was founded in July 1998 by a man we'll just call Bill (who, for obvious reasons, did not want us to publish his last name), and is one of around 270 nudist clubs and resorts in the United States that are officially associated with the American Association of Nude Recreation (AANR). Founded in 1931, AANR has about 50,000 members around the world.
MNO members range in age from newborn to grandparents, although the average age is between 40 and 50 according to Bill, and they come in all shapes and sizes. "The club grew rapidly at first," according to Bill, "but has tapered off a bit." Bill doesn't have to worry about membership numbers much though if the nude outdoor recreation trend keeps up—according to Forbes, nude recreation went from a $120 million industry in 1992 to a $400 million industry in 2003. It's now easier than ever to find nude cruises and resorts in nearly every popular vacation destination.
MNO members get together once or twice a month in the summer and once every other month or so in the winter. "Our activities are the same as any other recreational group," says Bill. He declined to tell us where the Montana hot spots were for nudists, but the MNO website did say the group has made outings to Goldbug Hot Springs in Idaho, Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Jerry Johnson Hot Springs in Idaho, the Aspen Grove campground near Lincoln, and the Sun Meadow Resort near Coeur d'Alene. "We get together when and where we can for activities at lakes, rivers, member's property, motels with swimming pools in the winter or any place that seems it would offer fun recreational opportunities," he explains. Some like hiking and camping as well. "We often go places where the public can go, but we do not want to turn them into places where either the area becomes abused or those who are there may become abused by opening them up to those with less than satisfactory intentions."
This last point is important, because you would think that with Montana's relatively thin population and millions of acres of wilderness there would be room for a few people to get naked under the trees. And in general, there is enough room, says Bill. "In Montana, it seems like most people in general don't have a problem. Montanans are a 'let me alone, I want to do my own thing' kind of people," he said. "I don't get any bad phone calls or anything. The worst thing I get is somebody who is shy on the phone because they want information."
But the group is not unfamiliar with the police, even though it makes a point of not going to areas where members might offend or surprise people. "We had one complaint issued in an area a mile back in a national forest that has been used by nudists for over 30 years by a woman who seemed to just want to make a point. Officers came, made contact, and left without issuing citations or even taking names. In other areas we have been approached by officers either on their rounds or looking for something specific and [they] have never so much as commented about nudity even though they stopped and chatted."
Even though public nudity is generally legal in Montana if there is no intent to offend or conduct lewd behavior (see the sidebar by Alex Roots for information about state nudity laws), its legality is not a given and clearly not everybody is in love with the idea. As recently as 2003, religious activist Dallas Erickson and Senator Duane Grimes introduced legislation in the Montana state senate that would have effectively shut down strip clubs and allowed local governments to go above and beyond state-mandated penalties for indecent exposure. The Naturist Action Committee, a political adjunct to the Naturist Society (an organization similar to the AANR), worried that these bills (which are now dead) would impede nudists, although Erickson stated in a 2001 state senate judiciary committee session that a similar bill under discussion "should not apply to these clubs."
Despite the morality question on both sides ("If people want to have freedom for themselves, they have to give it to others," says Bill), what Bill and Erickson can probably agree on is that the number of Republicans who belong to the MNO is baffling. Bill and Erickson will also probably both get out and enjoy Montana this fall while the warm breezes are still blowing and the sun is still shining brightly through the beautiful multicolored leaves—Bill just won't be wearing any clothes. "It is like going barefoot through the grass, the sun, and the air,” he says, “only with your whole body." For more information on nude recreation in Montana visit montananaturist.org.