My friend Xochil was shocked to see me when we met up at the Portland Art Museum last Saturday night, mostly because I was wearing underwear, cowboy boots, and nothing else. Then again, she was barely clothed herself.
After years of giving in to excuses like "It's raining," "I'm too tired," or "I don't want my bare breasts roving the city streets," I decided this year to squelch my inhibitions, take off my top and participate in the city's 10th-annual World Naked Bike Ride. Born as a protest of pollution-based transportation and a biking-awareness builder, Portland's infamous clothing-optional ride has multiplied in size over the last decade, from 125 riders in 2004 to 7,000 in 2007, when the weather was particularly nice. Adding a twist this year, the Portland Art Museum, a first-time sponsor and the starting point of the ride, offered participants after-hours admission to its new bicycle-design exhibit for an entrance fee of $1 per worn article of clothing.
I'll admit, the thought of being nude -- both on a bike and in an art museum -- made me want to round up and put on all my jackets at once. But I wanted to both push my limits and understand the widespread appeal of the event, Portland's offbeat free spirit at its finest. I knew the only way to learn anything real was to woman up, strip down and pedal the route for myself.
"I am so in," Xochil (pronounced "Social") responded when I sent an email to friends trying to drum up some company. "This body has produced two humans. I can do anything."
With a partner in crime arranged and a meet-up plan determined, I affixed an empty pannier to my bike for the clothes I'd take off, and I headed downtown.
A Nude Among Nudes
When I arrived at the ride start in the waning 9pm light, thousands of people were preparing themselves for the seven-mile pedal. Across the museum's grassy front lawn, they were painting each other's bodies, wrapping strings of lights around the handlebars of their bikes and dancing to music blasted from battery-powered PA systems. Around the base of an elm tree, four topless women arranged each other's pastel tutu skirts, a 60-something man wearing only a red cape and Viking hat adjusted his bike, and a young naked couple posed for pictures, sometimes covering certain parts with helmets, sometimes not.
Still wearing my hoodie and shorts, I felt overdressed, but I couldn't muster the gumption to disrobe just yet. I headed instead for the long line at the museum entrance in hopes of getting inside before I met up with Xochil and began the ride.
Midway through a conversation with the naked man in front of me in line, I was hit with the panic-inducing realization that I would somehow need to remove my clothing before reaching the front desk of the museum to avoid overpaying. I developed a hasty plan that, admittedly, lacked subtlety.
Corey had just finished telling me about his work as an auto insurance agent when I took off my pants. Minutes later, between discussing recent weather patterns and running shoe preferences, I removed my shirt, then my bra.
Our conversation proceeded like nothing had changed. Corey did not seem to notice my sudden strip. Nor did anyone else. I exhaled. I'd done it.
Two minutes later, I entered the white-halled art museum behind other equally bare visitors and headed for Cyclepedia, a collection of particularly innovative bicycles curated by Vienna-based designer Michael Embacher. I tried to concentrate on the explanations of each bike's innovation (the first folding mountain bike! a ski bike designed for ice riding!), but I spent most of the time awed by the fact that no one but the docent was wearing clothes.
Skin to the Wind
The art museum's two entrances with views of separate horse statues complicated my reunion with Xochil, but we eventually managed to find each other. Retrieving my bike, which I'd locked to a pole half a block and a dense sea of riders away, proved our next challenge.
Xochil opted to reason with the people. "We have to get Christina's bike," she stated loudly to the crowd before hoisting her mountain bike over her head and wading in. Surprised at the effectiveness of her move, I followed and three minutes later, had reunited with my clunker.
As we waited for half an hour under the golden glow of street lamps for our far-back section of the ride to budge, I marveled at the good-naturedness of everyone in my vicinity. A guy named John shared his airplane-sized bottle of bourbon. A girl named Ali offered her body glitter. Matt, a four-year ride veteran, passed along tips he'd picked up in years past, which included 1.) bring along supplies including your clothes and a spare tube, and 2.) try to position yourself near someone with music. I ran into Jeff and Wesley, two guys I'd met (fully clothed) at a coffee shop a few weeks prior. Everyone in our section of street seemed open and happy; I didn't feel judgment anywhere.