Main | Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Bare Bears, Part 1

It's 6am.

I awaken slowly, reluctantly, resisting any finality of movement that means I'm really going to get up this time. Before I open my eyes, I lie still...for just one more minute...and try to pick out the different types of birds whose morning songs are gently rousing me. When I do finally sit up and push the edges of my sleeping bag back, I'm overwhelmed by the fragrances of the nearby wildflowers. From last night's campfire, a lazy trail of almost invisible smoke is twirling up, making its presence known only where the verdant canopy allows the occasional golden shaft of morning light to break through to the mountain floor. I lean back on my elbows and smile to myself, quietly drinking in this rare, pristine, unspoiled meeting with nature.

And then a 300 pound naked guy walks by.

This is Hillside, the gay male, bear-friendly, disco included, clothing optional campground in the eastern Poconos of Pennsylvania. There's a network of similar campgrounds around North America, but Hillside is the only one I've ever been to. When the rest of gay Manhattan spends their summer weekend out on Fire Island or in Provincetown, I've been spending some of mine at Hillside Campground.

Hillside Campground is a strange beast, with a physical layout that clearly delineates the various cultures and cliques of its clientele. On the lower levels are trailers and cabins. Some of the trailers are as luxuriously appointed as a corporate jet, with opulent bedrooms and satellite television. Rumor has it that one mad queen actually has Reba McIntyre's old tour bus. Some of the cabins and trailers are opulently landscaped, with small bridges to their front doors and whimsical ornaments hanging from the lush greenery that surrounds them. This lower level of the campground is entirely populated by "perms", campground terminology for campers that live on-site all summer long, some even staying throughout the week.

Further up the mountain, the terrain becomes too steep for most trailers. This is where the "temps", the folks who only come on the occasional weekend, stay. There is a bit of a social disconnect between the perms and temps, because some temps consider the trailer/cabin crowd to by "pussy campers", whereas the folks further up the mountain actually stay in tents. The temp areas tend to be wilder, louder, friendlier. But even the non-pussy campers are pampered by picnic tables, grills, larger shower/restroom facilities and a water/electricity hook-up.

On Friday and Saturday nights, the entire camp, which can number up to a couple of thousand guys, gathers on one of the lower levels for a giant bonfire. There's an open-air disco next to the bonfire, and here's where you can find yourself dancing to Donna Summer next to Radical Faeries, bears, leathermen and the occasional baffled twink.

Hook-ups around the bonfire are common, but if that doesn't happen, there's always the dark area behind the rec hall, where shadowy figures and glowing cigarettes are all that can be discerned. That area seems to frighten me for some reason, and I never go back there. Really.

Most of my time at Hillside is spent traipsing from one campsite to another, always trying to keep up with the cocktail invitations delivered at the previous night's bonfire. The campers tend to arrive in huge extended families of men, most of whom have known each other for decades, it seems. There's a genuine, unforced conviviality that quickly disarms even the most cynical among us.

Now, as for the nakedness...yes, there's a lot of it. A lot. And the usual sort of illogic that applies to nude beaches seems to be in place here. You know, the less you'd want to see somebody naked, the more likely that they will be one of the naked people. But pretty quickly, you stop noticing that the guy you are talking to is naked, and you carry on discussing American Idol or whatever. (For the record, I'm not one of the naked people. Never have been, never will. Not that there's anything wrong with it.)

Today, I'm leaving for my first Hillside weekend of the summer. It's one of their themed weekends, "Bears In The Woods". One thing about bear events, you can always, always guarantee that the food is going to be great.

Continue to conclusion.....

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