I’m wearing Chacos. That’s it. Well, OK—if we’re being totally honest, I’m also wearing sunglasses, a watch, half a dozen bracelets, and a Buff. Otherwise, I’m in the buff. As in, naked. Removing the actual Buff felt too final. I take a tentative stride down the trail on a mostly empty island in Baja, Mexico’s Loreto Bay National Park. Never have I felt so exposed.
I would not call myself a nudist, nor would I say that I particularly like being naked. While bodies come in a wonderful diversity of size, shape, and color, beauty standards do not. I still recoil when I think of an infomercial I saw when I was elementary-school age about the scourge of spider veins. I started poking could-be cellulite before I could drive. I know better than to be pushed around by beauty marketing, but I can’t seem to stop reacting to it.
In an attempt to learn to love the body that carries me over summits, I’ve adopted a brute-force method for exposure: I set challenges for myself—such as this writing assignment—that would be more embarrassing to quit than to pursue. The goal is to stop questioning whether my body looks good enough and to focus on whether it feels strong, healthy, and poised.
I can see almost all the edges of this island, which is one lonely palm tree short of the classic desert isle, give or take a few skinny cactuses. There isn’t much cover if someone appears over the bluffs. I scout the trail’s sightlines once, then twice. This is it, I think.
I take slow, deep breaths of salty air as I leave my clothes in a pile. What if I get sunburned? I wonder, as I hike away from the bush I’ve designated as my safe harbor. What if I slip while scrambling down to the beach on the back side of the island and need help? I imagine how it would go: “Are you O-Oh my God! Why are you naked?!”
Tentatively, I plod down the dusty trail and force my attention to rest on anything else: the waves crashing on two different beaches, the sea birds taking a break from plunging for fish, the cactuses I have to shimmy past with utmost care. It’s surprising how quickly I feel normal. I stop in the middle of the trail, where there are no bushes or rocks to shield me, and take a spin to admire the view. In every direction, the water is deep sapphire. Small mountain islands rise out of the waves, still draped in a golden glow from the early-morning sun.
I tune into my own sensations, thinking about what it feels like to hike into the breeze. I wonder if I’ll feel stronger, more confident, game for more challenges when this one is over. I wonder if I can actually persuade myself to like this.
Then, I tune out those voices, too. As I start to pick up the pace, my sandals sinking into the flat, gravelly trail, I stop glancing over my shoulder with every stride. I make it to the other side of the island and step through a curtain of shade, where I begin to scramble down rocks to a hidden beach. Earlier, chilly winds snaked through my inner and outer layers in spite of the sunny day. Naked, I brace for goosebumps that never come, as if my body is regulating itself in a way that could not be more natural.
A few feet above the beach, from a perch on the bluffs, I pause in the shadows to marvel at the mountains standing in the sea. The moment could have lasted 10 seconds or 10 minutes. I smile at my secret beach, relaxed enough to forget why I don’t want to share it.