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Naked and Afraid

Navigating an unexpected bare-all backcountry encounter

I saw the naked women as soon as I crested the waterfall. Five or six of them, hanging out on a granite ledge perched above a swimming hole, wearing nothing but their birthday suits and the occasional piercing. Typically, this sort of scene wouldn’t bother me. I’ve done my share of streaking and skinny dipping and I’m even a card-carrying member of the Nude Underwater Mountain Bike Association (look it up). As a general rule, I encourage nudity. If you can’t tone it, tan it. But on this particular day, in this particular situation, being confronted by all this free-range skin posed a bit of a conundrum: I was leading a multi-family hike with half a dozen 13-year-old kids, and we were heading straight for some Burning Man hedonism. 

The whole idea for the family hike was to drag these young teenagers out of their screen holes and expose them to some natural grandeur. I wanted to take them on a really hard hike, something that was exciting and physically demanding that would, for a few hours at least, rival the TikTok videos and Call of Duty sessions they were accustomed to. I settled on an adventure that would have us scrambling up the heart of Flat Laurel Creek, a pristine trout stream that starts just shy of 6,000 feet and falls off the backside of Sam’s Knob and Black Balsam in a tangle of sheer drops and fast slides. The plan was to hike down Flat Laurel Creek Trail for a few miles then climb our way back up the river, swimming, boulder-hopping, and scrambling up the sides of waterfalls. It’s a fun, warm-weather adventure that would give our kids a taste of canyoneering in the Southern Appalachians but wouldn’t require technical ropes. 

There was a lot of complaining on the hike down the trail, but as soon as we entered the river, the kids got into it, climbing single file up the edge of the first waterfall, then daring each other to plunge into the cold pools. It was all going so well until I saw the naked people. I’m not naïve. My kids have been on the internet once or twice, so I’m sure they’ve seen the naked form before, but there’s a difference between scrolling through images and being led into a swarm of skin by your father. Worse yet, I had extra kids with me, friends of my own kids that I was supposed to be leading on a wholesome adventure, not into a scenario that would prompt questions about hike-appropriate attire and personal grooming practices.  

In any other situation, we’d just walk around the scene, ducking into the woods to avoid full frontal, but we were in the heart of the gorge, surrounded by rock and steep slopes on either side. Like a trapped animal, my mind raced trying to find a possible solution. We could turn back and downclimb our way to the entrance trail. I could race ahead and plead with these nymphs to don clothing as our impressionable children hiked by. I could demand the children close their eyes and lead them by the hand past temptation like some backward Old Testament figure. Or maybe the polite thing to do here is to take my own clothes off? So, they don’t feel so underdressed. 

Because I was raised Catholic, I think everything is my fault. The forest fires out west, dips in the Dow, the Russian Olympic cheating scandals…it’s all cosmically tied to my sins somehow. For a while, I was convinced the U.S. invaded Granada because I discovered masturbation. So, I immediately felt guilty about stumbling onto this gaggle of naked ladies, not just guilty about the impression the scene might leave on my kids, but guilty about seeing the nude ladies myself. Like somehow, I planned this encounter. But no amount of Catholic guilt or prudish hang ups could power us around the gaggle of women. The only way to progress was straight through the heart of all that nudity. Into the bush, if you will. 

What lasting imprint would this disaster leave on my children?  

I made the kids pause about 50 yards downstream of the naked women to give them a chance to cover up if they wanted to. They didn’t. So, we forged ahead, climbing into the naked pool and trying to find the easiest and safest route around all that flesh. We didn’t want to be rude, so we said “hello,” and I did my best to make and maintain eye contact for a few seconds and then spent the next couple of minutes staring at the top of my feet and wondering if my kids could pick up on my discomfort. Was I transmitting my hang-ups directly to them in this moment? Would they have a weird association with skinny dipping from this point on? Would they become “never nudes,” clinging to their tight, denim shorts in situations that would otherwise dictate nudity? What lasting imprint would this disaster leave on my children?  

As we navigated around the pool, I noticed something absolutely wonderful about the women: A few of them were cross stitching. They were sitting on the edge of the water, in the middle of Pisgah National Forest’s remote backcountry, doing needlepoint. Naked. Were they sewing bawdy double entendres in frilly lettering? Something that would look good on a couch pillow, like, “Home is where the bra comes off.” Or maybe they were sewing clothes for themselves? Regardless of what they were crafting, the fact that they were sewing brought some needed levity to the situation, or more accurately, to my interpretation of the situation. My kids weren’t going to become “never nudes.” There would be no uncomfortable conversations about personal preferences of piercing locations. My kids and their friends are probably more mature than I am. They can handle some surprise nudity. Everything would be fine. Immediately, I realized the encounter only made the hike more successful; Call of Duty might be an exciting game, but it doesn’t have a half dozen naked hippies, cross-stitching by the side of a stream. 

Cover Photo: Courtesy of the Author

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