Don, a soft-spoken older gentleman with bright blue eyes and the remnants of ruddy hair amidst the gray, spoke to me from a white, plastic lawn chair. Its seat was covered with a towel, one of the cardinal rules at the Emerald Lake Nudist Resort in Porter, just north of Kingwood. Don was completely naked, another one of the resort's cardinal rules. Nudity is not optional here.
Like most of the members at the Houston area's only nudist resort, Don is known by his first name only. He's in his third year of membership and takes pride in the fact that he has long been one of the city's most active nudists, reminiscing about organizing Healthy Hides of Houston some decades ago and talking about what first brought him into the carefully guarded folds of the nudist lifestyle.
"I've been a nudist for...a very long time," he smiled. "I was a member of the first nudist club in Houston, which was called Dare To Be Bare." Like the majority of the other Emerald Lake members, he heard about the resort through the American Association of Nudist Recreation's (AANR) magazine.
And it's that group which organized a bid to make it into the Guiness Book of World Records yet again, for the world's largest simultaneous skinny dip. It's the reason so many of Emerald Lake's 100 plus members were at the wooded campsite on Saturday afternoon, attempting to beat the previous world record of over 13,000 skinny dippers in the water at once -- which they helped to set last year.
The calm 12-acre lake that's the centerpiece and namesake of Emerald Lake is surrounded by tall pines and campsites. It's utterly relaxing, and only five minutes in you stop noticing that the people greeting friends on golf carts, the people playing bocce ball, the people ordering burgers at the lakeside cabana and the people signing in members for the big skinny dip are all naked. Towards the back of the resort, a handful of RVs seem to have taken up permanent residence. It turns out that they have.
"That's the residents' area," John tells me. He is our security escort while at the resort, a muscular, middle aged man with piercing eyes who takes his role as enforcer very seriously. "No one is allowed back there -- even members -- unless invited by a resident."
Full-time residents of Emerald Lake pay the $450 a year membership dues, in addition to camping rates, and are mostly retired people or those lucky enough to work from home. Art, one of the full-timers since 2005, wore a jaunty straw hat and nothing else as he spoke rapturously of waking up each morning and enjoying the day sans clothes.
"My wife passed away from cancer in 2004, so I'm sitting around the house thinking, 'I need to do something different.' And I'd always wanted to go to a nudist resort since I was a young kid," he said about his decision to become a nudist. "I fell in love with it and I've been here ever since. I like walking out in the morning and sitting on the deck with a cup of coffee, watching the birds and the ducks, just relaxing. Nude."
Other members aren't full-time residents, but they're at Emerald Lake as often as possible for their own reasons. Charlie is one of those members.
"My wife and I were looking for a place we could go -- we never liked wet bathing suits hanging on us -- so we used to go out to Austin and that was always such a long drive. We'd sneak down to Bolivar because you'd get in trouble for public nudity, or it was frowned up. We found this place on the Internet," he said. "They gave us a tour, we fell in love and we've been here ever since."
"We enjoy bird watching and the lake is full of fish," he smiled. "It's the freedom out here." But there is more to the nudist lifestyle than just that, he admitted.
"It built a lot of self-esteem for [my wife], because she had breast surgery and had a breast removed. And when we came out here, nobody ever looked or said anything about that. But when we were out in the textile world, she had to put a falsie in and try to look normal."
"When we came out here, she was totally accepted," he finished with a beatific smile.
The feeling of being wholly accepted for who you are -- parts and all -- seems to be one of the biggest reasons (with the more flower child-esque "communing with nature" reason as a close second) that most people here became nudists in the first place. "There's no judgment, no emphasis on the image thing that the textile world cares about," Charlie explained. What is not accepted in the nudist world, however, is anything even remotely prurient. John and a retinue of other security personnel make sure of that.
"There's a big misconception about it. Everybody, for some reason, associates it with sex or something nasty or unacceptable or a perversion or something like that. And it's not about that at all," Charlie said, his voice tinted with frustration.
"I think it comes from the Christian right coalition in this country and their lobbying in Washington that has created the idea that you're going to hell if you do this and this and this. And that's why I believe 100 percent in AANR and their efforts because there have been several attempts to outlaw or run off places like this."
But that's not the only thign AANR does. The organization creates fun events like the world record skinny dip but it also carefully monitors resorts and groups that are AANR-affiliated and endorsed to make sure that nothing inappropriate takes place under its auspices. Two nudist resorts in Florida recently had their AANR membership revoked after the organization found them to be less than "family-friendly," hosting events like G-string competitions and allowing swingers to become members.
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Before long, it was time for the members and residents alike to clamber into the lake, hoping once again to set the world record. At 2 p.m. sharp, Rusti -- one of the charter members and a motherly presence at the resort -- aimed her video camera towards the lake, capturing evidence for the Guinness folks of the 80 odd nudists bobbing up and down in the green water of Emerald Lake. They held up a sign and cheered, congratulating each other on a record not yet set and another bucolic weekend at the resort.
Although there's been no word yet as to whether or not the record was achieved -- all the other nudist resorts across the country that participated have to send in their videos and pictures, and wait for the Guinness committee to count heads and release their decision -- the folks at Emerald Lake are already busy planning their next event: a Labor Day weekend steak dinner with a live band.
The band will be clothed.