Along the Appalachian Trail -- Dave Odorisio unzipped his tent flap yesterday, peered out and stretched; a halo of gnats quickly formed around his tousled head. It was just another morning on Maryland's leg of the Appalachian Trail. But this particular morning, the 25-year-old hiker had an important decision to make: Namely, would he get dressed today?
Hike Naked Day marks the summer solstice on the 2,000-plus mile trail and gives the boldest adventurers a chance to walk -- not to mention scale boulders and gain summits -- on the wild side. The bad news for us is that the solstice falls at the time when backpackers are passing en masse through the Maryland area. These thru-hikers, trudging from the trail head in Georgia to its finish in Maine (a journey that typically starts in early spring and ends in late summer), are the most likely to shed their smelly regalia for the solstice ritual, making the 41 miles of in-state trail potentially perilous for Girl Scout troops or day hikers whose tour buses have paused there briefly on the way to historic battlefields.
The good news is that, although the nude hikers' flesh may be as brilliantly white as the blazes that mark the trail, they make themselves quite scarce.
It didn't take long for Odorisio to decide no, he definitely would not let the sun shine below the timberline, as it were. The morning was chilly, and the bugs were out for blood.
Besides, in the next tent over, 24-year-old Ian Russ of Chicago was yelling: "You better not hike naked! I've got my 11-year-old brother with me!"
Even setting aside the obvious examples, there are many strange activities that can be undertaken sans clothes. Naked bull roasts and naked chili cook-offs. Naked scuba-diving and naked sky-diving. Nude Texas hold 'em tournaments, beach cleanups, 5K runs, blues concerts and "shine 'n' buff" car shows. But naked mountain climbing ranks among the more hazardous options.
Think of poor Pus Gut, who hiked naked a few years back. All thru-hikers who attempt to complete the trail are given nicknames, but Pus Gut truly earned his, said Todd Berezuk, who works at the Outfitter at Harpers Ferry, a hiking equipment store near the Maryland segment. Suffering a fit of modesty in the midst of his solstice celebration, the young hiker attempted to fashion himself an undergarment out of leaves he found growing along the trail.
Poison ivy? He wasn't quite that dumb. It was poison sumac.
"His stomach was blistered, inflamed, broken out completely," said Berezuk, also a nursing student, who examined him when he came into the store. "So everyone called him Pus Gut."
Rather than devising natural-fiber loincloths, many trekkers prefer to "just keep a bandana handy" on the heavily traveled trail, said Al Preston, an assistant manager of Western Maryland's South Mountain State Park, which the trail runs through.
"I really don't know why they do it to begin with," Preston added. No one really does. "It's been passed down. When I got here in '92, I was warned that on the first day of summer people hike naked. And they do." Technically, it's against park rules, Preston says, but on the solstice officials "tend to grin" -- and bear it.
Of course, it depends on which park you're in. Stark-naked hikers who don't make it as far north as Maryland on the longest day of the year may encounter patrolmen to the south who are less tolerant of the holiday. Bare hindquarters are given no quarter at Virginia's George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, according to Woody Lipps, a patrol captain there who is not afraid to fine the naked. Penalties range from $75 to $5,000 or six months in jail, he said.
"Once someone called and asked if we would look the other way if they hiked naked to the Cascades on Hike Naked Day," Lipps said. "If you are in a public area nude, you are going to get a ticket."
However, Lipps admitted that tracking down nudes on the move is neither an enviable nor an easy task.
"It's like a needle in a haystack," he said. "How are you going to find one naked person in 1.8 million acres? You could hide a hundred naked people out there."
No one knows exactly how many hikers participate in the informal holiday, said Laurie Potteiger, information services manager for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Actually, "we really try to pretend that it doesn't exist," she said. The activity violates the sanctity of the trail and often disturbs other nature-lovers. Besides, because of all that extra exposed skin, the naked "are much more at risk for Lyme's disease," she said.
Not to mention for sunburn, snapping turtle bites and pack-strap chafing that even Body Glide, a special lubricant favored by thru-hikers, can't prevent. And "southbounders" doing the trail in reverse better not even think about it, hikers say, because it's still blackfly season up north.
And yet, despite these dangers, the day of nakedness seems an integral part of the trail's kooky culture, which revolves around reducing one's possessions to the bare necessities until a whole life can be crammed in a backpack. To many of the travelers bound for the trail's end at Mount Katahdin, the naked hiker seems to truly embody the principal of stripping down, and everyone seems to hope he exists, even if they've never met him.
Six hours after dawn on Hike Naked Day, no one had passed by Maryland's Dahlgren Backpackers' Campground less than half-dressed -- not even 23-year-old Scott Ames of Massachusetts, though his trail name, Quarter Moon, sounded promising.
"Too many roads in Maryland" was Quarter Moon's excuse.
One librarian from Queens, N.Y., saw the adventure's appeal. Michelle Ray, 30, had posed as a life model for art students during her college days, and she was still contemplating hiking naked herself. "God forbid I run into a pack of Boy Scouts and scar them for life," she said. "A naked librarian? They don't need to see that."
Leaving other hikers with such a startling memory might violate the thru-hiker's vow to "leave no trace" behind in the wilderness.
And yet, Ray said, it could honestly be worth it.
For information about the Appalachian Trail, visit appalachiantrail.org.