My mother thinks that everyone in California runs around naked. It’s one of her theories left over from the sixties, when Life Magazine was delivered weekly to our house in New Jersey. In each issue were big photographs of pain and tragedy: train wrecks, car crashes, runaway children, missile crisis, racial strife, and a war somewhere across the Pacific. In-between these articles were snippets of life in California: tan surfer girls shopping in bikinis at the grocery store; movie stars in group therapy; common housewives primal screaming; nude people on the Big Sur coast, sitting in hot tubs discussing their feelings; naked folks in communes having sex with one another; hairy kids in the desert doing god knows what without their clothes on. That’s how mother got the idea that everyone in California was naked, including her daughter: Life Magazine told her so.
And it was true, I did spend some time sans clothes in California. Hitchhiking up the coast, from Thousand Oaks to San Francisco, I got into cars with half-naked people and lay on beaches with the partially clothed. I spent time in a commune in Santa Cruz where threads were optional. I kept my clothes on, but mother didn’t believe me.
After I graduated from college in 1974 and returned to California ten years later, mother advised me, “Knock ’em dead out there, sweetheart, but keep your clothes on.”
She came to visit. We walked around San Francisco’s North Beach.
“See,” mother said as she peered into the doorway of Big Al’s. “Naked people everywhere.”
I took her to the beach. Surfers removed their wet suits in front of mother. “My god,” she exclaimed, looking away, then sneaking a glance back after we had passed by. “Have those boys no shame? Oh my,” she whispered walking by a well-endowed blonde.
At Muir Woods we took a hike, then raced back to the car in order to make it into San Francisco for dinner. “Mom,” I shouted. “You’ll have to change your clothes in the parking lot! There’s no time to go home.”
“You want me to get naked right here in front of everybody?” she asked. “You’ve got to be kidding!”
I looked around. There wasn’t a soul in sight. “Mom, sit in the car. Take your pants off. Put on your skirt. Roll your panty hose up underneath it. That’s it. Now take off your shirt and I’ll hand you your blouse. Good. That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“Wait ’til I tell the gals at bridge club. They won’t believe it.”
We went to Calistoga. We took our clothes off in a communal bath and let a stranger pile hot dirt on top of us. “Isn’t this fun?” I asked as mud oozed around my chin.
“Yes,” she answered in a tentative voice, careful not to let mud fill her nostrils.
The next day we headed to Carmel. I had made reservations for us at Tassajara Hot Springs.
“Mom, there’s something you should know about this place,” I said as we sped down Highway 1.
“It’s clothing optional.”
“Mmmmmm,” she whispered.
Upon our arrival we put on bathing suits and headed for the women-only tubs. Everyone was naked except for mother and me. Someone suggested we take off our suits.
“No thank you,” replied mom.
After our soak we hiked through a narrow canyon. We sat on warm rocks and stared up at the cloudless blue sky. Out of the woods a naked young man meandered toward us. He was tall and muscular, an in-the-flesh Adonis, and he was headed in our direction. “My god,” mother said as she peered over her bifocals at the fellow. I could hear her sucking in air. He said hello as he walked by. I answered hi, but mother said nothing. She was holding her breath. We watched him amble away, his firm buttocks glistening in the afternoon sun. “My god,” mother whispered again.
“Are you all right, mom?”
“Yes,” she answered. “I’m okay.” She let out a big sigh. “Ahhh, but how I do love California.”