Of all the sand in San Diego, one strand wins mythic status. Most of the place is inside a state park, it runs along a length of two miles walled by 300-foot bluffs, and it boasts a historic gliderport, the country's raddest shorebreak, and a famously flouted taboo. The name alone rings like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean: Black's Beach. The first time you see it, you're either 300 feet above it or miles away. It's that scenic. From above, the ocean stretches into blue haze, and from the shores of La Jolla Cove or the Children's Pool, the cliffs of Black's furl like a reddish banner in the distance. The treacherous scramble down those cliffs turns slow and strenuous coming back up. Or you can park a mile away and walk, walk, walk, squinting over hot sand. One commodity afforded by the inaccessibility of Black's Beach is privacy. You have to earn your way down.
As a result, almost everything about the place is more carefree, more natural, and more uninhibited than anywhere else in San Diego.
Including, of course, the people.
Folks call Lloyd Johnson, 44, "the mayor" of Black's Beach. The reference is only slightly tongue-in-cheek. In 2000, Johnson set up a website, began publishing a periodic newsletter, and started policing Black's and keeping the sand clean with a few of his friends, "the Black's Beach Bares." They hoisted a flag to represent their crowd, and they went about claiming an area of the beach and organizing activities for other like-minded beachgoers. And on any given summer Sunday, among the hundred or so Bares and friends who might be tanning, barbecuing, horseshoeing, volleyballing, or chatting on Black's, you'll detect very few stitches of clothing covering any parts of them.
"We tend to regard the clothed with suspicion," Johnson said. "But it isn't really discrimination."
As Johnson talked to me, I was sporting baggy beach shorts. And -- although I tried not to linger on this very fact -- Johnson's johnson hung there in full view.
I asked the man to advise me on how to better look at nudity.
"You look, you see, you move on," Johnson said, sounding like some postmodern naturist Julius Caesar. "And when you're done looking someone up and down, the mystery's all gone. There's no need to go over it again. Then you can look each other in the eye and talk to each other."
Though commonly referred to as the most renowned nude beach in the United States, Black's Beach has many other claims to fame.
Of the more licit activities enjoyed at Black's, the one that offers at least as much spectator enjoyment as naturism is hang gliding. The Torrey Pines Gliderport has graced the cliff-tops at Black's since 1928.
Bill Armstrong, who has instructed gliders for the past 15 years, told me matter-of-factly that the gliderport is widely considered "the Kitty Hawk of the West Coast."
"There's a lot of history here," Armstrong said. "It's a national landmark."
But wasn't he promoting a dangerous sport?
"No, not at all," Armstrong said. He sounded as if he were floating somewhere above me, almost wholly disinterested. "It's as safe as driving a car." And then he added, "Actually, it's probably safer. It's three-dimensional up there, whereas a car is only two-dimensional. It's pretty easy to stay out of trouble."
In fact, I found that no fatalities had been reported at the gliderport in recent memory, and no serious injuries or accidents had occurred in at least the past 20 years.
And how did gliding feel?
"Beautiful, complacent, free, very nice," Armstrong said. "It's not an extreme sport. It's a natural, biological sense, the sense of flight. And even after you land you feel completely different than you've ever felt before. It's something you can't feel any other way, knowing what it's like to fly. You can't get that feeling in an airplane or any other mechanical device."
"A natural, biological sense."
Curious, but nudists speak of nudism in much the same way, it seems, as gliding instructors speak of gliding.
"It feels righteous."
"It just feels better. More natural."
And nudists say other things about their, um, "sport" as well:
"The sun hits you places you never knew you had."
"You totally forget you're naked. Other than the fact that it's much freer and you don't feel constricted in your clothes."
"It becomes a routine. You get used to it. And then you feel less comfortable when you go back to wearing clothes."
Aside from "the mayor," two other individuals are mentioned on the website for the Black's Beach Bares. With Johnson, call them the senior cabinet members of the naturist contingent at Black's.
Dave Cole, 43, is an area representative for the Naturist Education Foundation and represents the West Coast as one of six people on the Membership Advisory Committee of the Naturist Society. And Claudia Kellersch, 41, who was born in Germany, in Bavaria, and grew up there, is a Naturist Action Committee and also Naturist Education Foundation representative for the Bares.
Kellersch, Johnson, and Cole all display something vaguely nymphlike, elfin, and gently mischievous about their demeanors and facial expressions, which I found curious, since even good-natured mischievousness usually indicates that a person has something to hide. Maybe these naturists cloak their nudism often enough in everyday society that they still seem sprightly when they can't hide anything at all.
"We usually refer to the Black's Beach Bares as 'a group of friends dedicated to preserving the beach's clothing-optional status by educating visitors of the boundaries of the clothing-optional section as well as about proper nude-beach behavior,' " Cole said. "We're a loose-knit group of beachgoers who have adopted this beach as our own. We want it to be a clean, safe, and fun beach for everybody to enjoy."
"We call this nude recreation," Kellersch told me. "Free body culture. The German word is Freikörperkultur. This is how it's known throughout Europe. At European beaches, you'll see the abbreviation F.K.K. And then you know there's a nude beach."