Seasoned travellers will tell you that the only way to travel is to immerse yourself in a local culture. But what if the local tradition is skinny-dipping at night—with a group of strangers? For shy Indians like me, such an adventure requires a long mental leap. Even when we go swimming, many of us wear modest swimsuits to ensure our bodies are properly covered.
Understandably, skinny-dipping hadn’t really crossed my mind—until I got to Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
My partner and I crossed the Colorado state border the day an early snowstorm had visited, fringing the land with frost. Steamboat Springs is an atmospheric little ski town that gets its name from the hot springs in the craggy mountainside. Early explorers thought the gurgling sound of the water was the chugging of steamboats on the Yampa River nearby.
We were headed high above the main town lined with woodfronted sports equipment shops, to Strawberry Park Hot Springs, an ideal spot for stargazing. The online reviews warned us that the lodge’s residents sometimes go skinny-dipping after hours, and that guests were expected to use torches and lamps sparingly to maintain discretion. We laughed it off on account of the freezing weather. Little did we know.
Strawberry Park’s hot springs were edged with snow. In the rock pools, travellers soaked in the water (clad respectably in swimsuits), chatting softly, or silently contemplating the pine trees that rose all around. We went for a midday dip, enjoying the crisp mountain air and warm water before climbing out to grill hot dogs for dinner. As night fell, the temperature plummeted. I could barely feel my fingers and stomped my feet to keep the numbness at bay.
Still, it was a picture-perfect night with shining stars studding a velvety blue sky. We decided to make the most of it, quickly changing into our swimsuits. Our breath formed little white puffs as we scurried to the pools and took flying leaps into the water.
Our limbs thawed instantly and as our eyes grew accustomed to the darkness we realised that most swimmers were in the nude. Now and then, the careless swing of a flashlight would set off squeals of protest. The moonlight glinted on a bare bottom as it twinkled past in the night.
I blame it on the steam. I think it made me light-headed. Whatever it was, it made us want to share the experience. We quietly slipped our swimsuits off and floated in silence for a couple of minutes. The uneasiness of being nude faded quickly. The stars shone above, the snow gleamed around us, and the soft sounds of people laughing rippled the air. I leaned my face against the side of the pool, spreading my arms to hug the rock, silently thanking the universe for this moment.
As the warmth of the rocks seeped into my bones, tears inexplicably sprang to my eyes. With them came an epiphany: Despite being adults, all human beings can experience the innocence of a child, if only we let go of our self-consciousness.
As I pondered this, I heard a stranger cough as he glided past. And just like that the selfconsciousness returned: What if he bumped into me? What if he wasn’t wearing anything? Worse, what if he was clothed, when I was skinny-dipping? “Uh… don’t come too close” I quavered. “I’m not…um… I’m naked.”
“Don’t worry honey,” he replied. “All of us are.”
Appeared in the July 2014 issue as “Bare Necessities”.