By Jesse Marx
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After our quick introduction, Dave and Jane took us on a tour of the grounds, answering all of our questions and explaining the history of the club.
Avatan was founded back in the early '60s, when East Bethel was even more sparsely developed than it is today. Each year, more and more people came for the club's secluded grounds, welcoming atmosphere, and family-friendly culture. Today, the club counts 250 members. While civilization has continued to encroach on them over the years—an elementary school opened just a few miles from the grounds—the camp has managed to maintain a generally positive relationship with the community.
Most of the trappings at Avatan are more luxurious than what you'd see at your average clothing-required campground. Lavish mobile homes sit at the ends of brick walkways, with wood-carved street signs bearing names such as "Running Bare Lane," "Streaker Street," and "Northern Exposure" (props to Joel Fleischman). In addition, the club makes it a point to add new amenities each year, with a pool, hot tub, and beach volleyball courts already part of the landscape.
During the tour, I learned about some of the organization's policies, designed to preserve the safety and integrity of the club. For example, only a set number of single men can be a part of the organization—roughly 10 percent. Also, if you join the club with your wife/girlfriend/baby mama, you must visit as a couple (Avatan is definitely not down with O.P.P).
"If a married man were to visit us today and say that he wants to become a single member because his wife isn't comfortable with the idea of being naked, then we would tell him no," Jane explained. "Our feelings are that if your significant other isn't comfortable with being here then you should be respectful of their wishes and stay home. We're not here to break up relationships or anything like that."
ONCE THE TOUR WAS COMPLETE, I set off to chat with a few of the club's members in order to get a better understanding of how they found out about this oasis of nakedness in East Bethel.
The first person I went looking for was Bob, a married father in his mid-60s who has been a part of Avatan for about 10 years and organized the skinny-dipping record attempt. Someone told me that Bob was over by the pool, and that I should just shout his name to find him. After yelling at a few innocent passersby, I finally tracked him down. He was sporting a T-shirt but no pants (coincidentally, my preferred look when lounging around my apartment). We talked for a few minutes, and Bob made it clear that he was concerned that the camp be portrayed accurately.
"We are not a sexual place, and I want to make it clear that this isn't some swinger camp," he said. "Families are the core of our membership and we place everyone's comfort and safety above all else."
Once I assured him that I was simply there to learn about what life is like at the club, he warmed up and began discussing his own entrée into the world of nudism. He and his wife first became nudists during a trip to Florida, where they found a beach that allowed skinny-dipping. They shucked off their clothes, hopped in the water, and never looked back. Today, Bob is a part of the membership committee that votes to approve new members and handles potential problems.
"To be honest, any issues we've had were usually with guests or with people that managed to sneak in," he said. "It's not anything terrible, just people asking dumb questions and not respecting what this place is about. You can always tell if someone belongs here or not based on the types of questions they ask you, that's how we can tell if they should be here."
I smiled and nodded in agreement, as if to say, "Exactly! Who wants nosy outsiders asking stupid questions, right?"
Then I immediately crossed off the next two questions on my list: "How come no one is wearing fanny packs? And where do you keep your wallet and keys?"
A few minutes later, Bob introduced me to Jenny, a 31-year-old mother of three who had visited the club for the first time just three weeks prior. She was a stark contrast to many of the other members I had met, both in age and appearance, sporting a yellow sarong and orange horseshoe-shaped lip ring. She's also Bob's next-door neighbor. Bob and his wife invited her out to the club and told her to bring her kids and her fiancé along. While she had visited the club alone a few weeks ago, today was the first time her kids had come with her.
"They're having a great time," she said. "My oldest was a little apprehensive at first, but now that she's here and sees what it's all about, I think she'll be ready to come back again a lot more."
Jenny admits she was skeptical at the beginning. "When I first came here, I wore my bathing suit during the tour and for the first few minutes that I was at the pool," she said. "But once I realized how much I stuck out because I was wearing clothes, the bathing suit came off and I started enjoying myself. The people are just so welcoming and friendly, and they make you realize that it's okay to be yourself and not worry about what anyone thinks."