By Kaitlin Barker Davis
I see the first one a little before five o'clock, four hours before the ride begins. The man is somewhere over fifty with long graying hair and a wild beard, arms stretching up to hang another sheet from the tree branches, completing his fort of white linens blowing in the hot June wind.
He is also stark naked.
Portland's stereotypes are mostly based in truth: the constant flow of rain and coffee, the marijuana and millennial hippies, the chicken coops and hula-hoops, the beer, bikes and beards. But its mythical weirdness? The Keep Portland Weird! bumper stickers plastered all over the city have always seemed like overly earnest propaganda. I'm allowed to be skeptical because I grew up here, riding bikes in the late summer light. Portland was never weird; it was just where I came from. It was home. Until I moved away.
"Look, it's already starting!" I point out the nude fort-builder to my husband as we drive past our neighborhood park, which is reliably inhabited by the kind of Portlanders I think non-Portlanders imagine when they think of our city. If it's a Monday, I bend my running route through Colonel Summers Park for the weekly carnival of '90s music and dodgeball on the tennis courts, an acrobatic style of yoga, drum circles, hibachi grills, various types of juggling, sometimes stilts, usually bubbles and always hula-hoops.
This happy solitary nudist marks the beginning of the World Naked Bike Ride, a global demonstration to protest oil dependency and highlight cyclist vulnerability that's taken on a choose-your-own-cause vibe here. This year the ride's gathering point is the park five blocks from our house.
When I was eighteen I moved to San Diego for college, to the southern edge of a trendy region where most people specifically try not to be weird. After a decade of the same cloudless blue sky and 75-degree days, I moved back to Portland with my husband. We barred ourselves from watching episodes of "Portlandia." We wanted to swerve around the tie-dyed unicyclist in our lane and say, "This is our neighborhood!" not "Oh, like on Portlandia!"
I'm a pretty mainstream girl. I have a gold hoop in my nose and a small constellation tattooed beneath my left shoulder blade. In Portland, these are basically camouflage. As a returnee, I blended in just fine, but blending in is not the same as feeling at home. Sometimes it's more like invisibility.
Two years after moving back, I still felt like a visitor in my hometown: a longing observer on the wrong side of the glass.
Our first summer back in Portland, my husband and I saw the mass migration of bikers flowing toward a park on the other side of town. Butt cheeks smushed up against bike seats, perfect little hearts with a crack down the middle.
Emancipated breasts bouncing over speed bumps. Hair streaming in the summer night air, free from the confines of helmets. "Hey Cars! Can U See Me Now?" painted in neon across chests and backs. I paused on the sidewalk as they sped by, lost for a moment between shock and awe. The air tingled in their wake. Maybe next year, I told myself.
I want to be the type of person who embraces where I live. I want to be bold enough to cycle in the nude. But the closest we've gotten to boldness this year is agreeing to "just go down and check things out."
We've been watching the stream of bikers through our window grow steadier over the last hour, first just a blip of bare skin every few minutes, and now—45 minutes until the ride starts—a continuous parade of body paint.
"So," I ask my husband, "want to walk or bike over?"
"Well—" he pauses, "—may as well ride our bikes." A half-smile pulls at the corner of his mouth.
I assumed he'd only want to observe from the other side of the glass, that this was just a little too Portland for him. But Portland has cast its spell on him.
"You mean you want to do it?"
"Why not?" he says. He lifts the green bottle of mezcal off the kitchen shelf and pours us each an inch of liquid courage. I toss mine back and put on spandex yoga shorts and a striped bikini top, not sure how daring I'm feeling but satisfied with my middle-of-the-road ensemble. My husband takes off his dress shirt and changes into board shorts.
A block from the park, the temperature rises, the extra heat of thousands of bodies. A faint marijuana cloud hovers unmoving above a city block of skin while fully clothed cops hold back traffic for groups of half-dressed bikers. We dismount as soon as we cross the street, the crowd too thick to pedal without falling off. Nobody knows which corner of the park the ride will start from, so everyone is just waiting. Milling about. Sipping anonymous beverages from water bottles. Painting faces and other places. Taking selfies. Tying on capes, affixing unicorn horns to helmets, touching up a friend's body glitter.
Everywhere I look, the private made public: nipples transformed into brightly painted flowers, dashboard six-packs, saggy stomach rolls, nether regions ranging from the shaven to the overgrown. People at home in their skin. We take it all in, silent and sweating. It's nearly 8:30 now, but the sun hasn't set and the temperature is still well in the nineties.
I am not a nudist. My first real experience with public nudity was on a Greek island right after college. But that was Greece. This is my neighborhood. Someone from my office might be here. A guy in nothing but a helmet strolls past, holds up a hand. I look him straight in the eye while we high-five. He winks and continues strolling. "Check this guy out," my husband whispers, pointing to a man who has painted his entire body brown and glued tufts of fur to his chest, forearms and feet. A few feet away is an old woman wearing only a denim apron, behind her a little girl with wild blonde hair dancing on a platform attached to the back of her dad's bike. She swings her hips and pumps her arms to the beat of the closest speaker. I fidget with my bikini. It feels tight and hot, more like a turtleneck than two triangles of cloth.
Fifteen minutes: That's how long it takes for naked to become normal. That's how long it takes for me to feel like the weird one. The crowd effect is a real thing. We usually talk about it under negative circumstances, the terrible things people will do in a crowd, things they'd never imagine on their own. But it's also true of nudity. The naked impulse of a crowd is strong, dissolving the idea of nudity into the simple truth of the human bodies that live around you.
I look at my husband. How would he feel about his wife exposing herself to thousands of strangers? This was not something we'd ever discussed.
"I think I want to take my top off," I whisper. He left his shirt at home; his chest is already free in the sweaty air. My heart is pounding. "Are you okay with that?"
He looks at me for a moment. "I want you to do whatever you want to do," he says at last. The same answer he gave when I asked what he thought about me getting a tattoo. I adjust my bikini but leave it in place. The wave of boldness has passed.
There is no announcement. The whole park suddenly seems to be tipping, everyone sliding toward the intersection of Southeast Belmont and 20th Avenue. My husband cuts a path through the crowd with his front tire. I follow right behind. When we reach the crush of bikes on the street, I get nervous. I'm not a great cyclist; I can't balance at a standstill on both pedals like Portland's expert bike commuters, like my husband. The feeling that I don't really belong—the one I've felt so often since moving back—returns. Each time the stoplight turns green, our Belmont stream surges forward a few inches. Then the light changes to red, damming us while the 20th Avenue stream flows into the river. Red. Green. Red. Green. Ten thousand bikes slowly merging onto one road.
The sun is down now, the sky still streaked with faded light, but it's only getting hotter in the street as we pack in tighter. Suddenly I'm ready. I reach around my back—without a word to my husband—and tug my bikini knot loose. I pull it over my head and shove my bikini into the little zip bag on my handlebars. I undo my bun to let my hair fall over my chest, mermaid style. My husband's surprise quickly melts into an amused smile. He's the only one who notices.
If you ever feel disconnected from the place you live, try biking naked through it—or in my case, just topless. It helps if it's dark, even more if it's hot, and it really helps if you're not alone. There on the right is your yoga studio, except it's different now because you are biking past it with nothing between your skin and the summer breeze. There's your ATM, your grocery store, the shop with all the enticing, expensive shoes, the teahouse that makes the perfect chai. The quotidian fixtures of your life have a glimmer of newness. But nothing is new. You're just on the other side of the glass.
We are the queens and kings of the night, our bikes our chariots and the road our kingdom. Cars are stopped on side streets, engines shut off. When the cops tell them it'll be a while before they can get through, some get out of their cars, strip and lounge on their hoods to watch the ride. People flood out of bars and restaurants to line the sidewalks and cheer us on. Although I'm still wearing shorts, I don't feel any less of a participant than the girl in only glittery fairy wings and a rainbow wig, the nude rollerblader wrapped in Christmas lights, or the old man, buck naked, puttering along in his motorized wheelchair. We are all part of a bizarre tribe, with nothing more in common than we have every other day with our clothes on. Driving to work, walking our dogs, weeding our gardens, shopping for dinner.
My husband zigs and zags a few yards in front of me, using the whole street and low-fiving the sidewalk spectators. Filling my lungs with warm night air, I realize my exhilaration is from more than partial nudity. It's like I'm taking my first full breath since moving back—wearing the night like a second skin and slipping into the folds of the city. I feel the urge to stand tall on my pedals, tilt my head back and howl at the stars. Instead I pedal faster, pull up alongside my husband and holler like a child: "This is the best thing ever!"
The after-party is in full swing when we reach the end of the ride on the east bank of the Willamette River, the freeways and bridges crisscrossing above us, an impromptu dance party all around us. A few people have climbed up on a cement overpass support and formed a drum circle. The drumbeats echo off the underbelly of the freeway. The summer night air pulses with something intangible. Portland throbs up through the soles of my shoes and into my bones.
Before we start home, I tie my bikini top on. We ride back through the silent streets, the night still warm, my husband dinging his bell when we cross paths with other bikers, who chime back in a sort of secret society code.
The next day I return to my regular clothed life. But sometimes I still wonder: Did my grocery checker ride through Portland's streets with me? What about my barista, the one who always has my drink ready before I make it to the register?
It turns out Portland's weirdness isn't a marketing ploy, like I always thought. It's more than a bumper sticker slogan. It's the thing that—weirdly enough—finally made this city feel like home again.