Local lore tells of a nude beach at the northern-most tip of Fort Desoto Beach. When I moved here seven years ago, my new friends described a place that sounded like paradise. A recent refugee of the Bible Belt, a place where one could bask openly in God’s glorious light with nothing to cover one’s perfect created-in-His-image body sounded downright sinful. So I had to try it.
I had never been “skinny-dipping” before. I had been a fat kid, uncomfortable in my own skin, and certainly not comfortable exposing much between my neck and my ankles. But in high school I chose to be healthy, and by my freshman year of college, at 5-8, I was a respectable size 6. I still felt like a fat kid, but since I was new in town, I thought maybe I could fake it long enough to taste the forbidden fruit of daytime, public, full-frontal nudity.
My first taste was gritty.
At the most northern tip of North Beach, so far north that I had to wade around a stand of mangroves to reach the infamous strip of white sand, I stumbled upon a sign placed by the city stating that public nudity is against the law. Underneath the sign a large, sweaty, mound of pink flesh accumulated sun damage and sweat. He wore only a ball cap, sunglasses, and a tube sock. I got the hell out of there, and I haven’t been back.
But two weeks ago, while exploring the Canaveral National Seashore, I stumbled upon Paradise Lost. Spanish for “beautiful beach”, Playalinda is 24 miles of undeveloped, public beach—the longest stretch on the east coast of Florida. After paying only $5, I made my exodus, once again, to the most northern area, the infamous parking lot No. 13.
Crossing the boardwalk felt like walking onto another planet. Dozens of bodies scattered over clean, white sand lie naked as the day they were born. Groups of healthy young adults frolicked in glassy six-foot waves, while middle-aged couples strolled the shoreline, hand-in-hand, wearing only hats and smiles. One lady, crouched on her knees next to a sleeping man, lazily constructed a sandcastle.
The myriad of bodies, a well-balanced cross-section of humans, seemed more comfortable than most beach-goers. Still, they were more relaxed than my upbringing would allow me to be, and I regressed to the self-conscious fat kid I had almost forgotten. Unwilling to disrobe in front of all of the people who didn’t notice me anyway, I walked farther north and tried not to make eye-contact, pretending instead to be more interested in sandpipers and surf.
Before long the crowd thinned out, until I found myself, in every sense of the phrase, in what must have been Adam and Eve’s vacation timeshare. With no human flesh visible in any direction but down, I applied generous sunscreen and spent the next few hours playing like a child in the waves. I was One with the Universe, an intimate part God’s perfect creation, a God who I hadn’t believed in since the age of reason, and who still loved me enough to bring me to this place.
Filled with peace and contentment, I stuck my nose in a book, then drifted into a nap.
I awoke to a hostile voice.
“Do you have a back-country permit,” it asked, in the flat tone of a statement.
I squinted up at the federal officer, mounted on a large, black ATV, and offered a confused, “Huh?”.
“Do you have a back-country permit,” she repeated, with the same flat tone.
“Do you have a back-country permit,” once again, louder. In the next few hours it was made clear to me that, while trying to avoid eye contact during my northbound pilgrimage, I had missed the sign which read “PERMIT REQUIRED BEYOND THIS POINT”. I was instructed to begin a walk of shame, in front of the officer, the several miles back down the beach and to my car. After I stepped back into my sundress and was issued a warning, here’s what I learned:
A back-country permit only costs an additional $4 per person, and can be purchased at the entrance of the park between 6 a.m. and 1 p.m.
The back-country permit gives its holder access, for the day, to the 12 miles of natural beach beyond the sign and away from the crowd.
Only 25 permits are issued daily, and they usually sell out before noon.
It is against the law to be naked in public in all of Florida, even on this federal beach, but they choose not to enforce it.
Extra sunscreen should be applied where the sun doesn’t usually shine.
The next day, I bought more sunscreen and a back-country permit, then let the waves wash away all shame.