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Naked, With Bats

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Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Cat's Cradle: "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." I had a peak experience over Labor Day that involved hundreds of thousands of bats, a double rainbow and naturists of all ages. I would not have had this experience if I hadn't accepted a peculiar travel suggestion from my sister, Terry, to go to Valley View Hot Springs in southern Colorado with several friends. I'd long heard of Valley View as a former hippie watering place. Although I love hot springs, I imagined it would have funky bathroom options, messy kitchens and spacey people concocting meals that contain no meat, no gluten, no dairy and possibly no taste.

But... Terry told me there was an extraordinary natural phenomenon to be witnessed there. A large colony of Mexican free-tailed bats spend the summer months in a collapsed mine near the hot springs. At dusk every night, the bats fly out of what's called the "Glory Hole," creating a flying black river across the San Luis Valley. I decided to go for the bats.

Because it was a holiday weekend, Valley View -- which has campsites and cabins -- was sold out except for a room in a community house, where people use a shared kitchen and shared bathroom across the dirt road. I took it, thinking it would be like camping, with an indoor bed.

Checking in at the Welcome Center, I was told the entire resort is clothing optional. I'd been to places like Esalen in Big Sur, hot springs by the Rio Grande in New Mexico and Strawberry Park near Steamboat, Colorado, where the drill is: you walk to the hot pool area, take off your clothes and slide in, and after emerging, put the clothes back on.

Valley View is different. You see naturists, as they're called now, walking everywhere and doing everything naked: cooking, eating, hiking, checking email, playing board games, making music. You see all age groups from babies to very old people walking with difficulty. Naked. There are no teenagers, or if they're present they wear bathing suits, and the largest demographic is people in their 50s and 60s.

To my surprise, the grounds and buildings, though rustic, are clean and well maintained with rigorous environmental standards. The clientele is amazingly diverse: in addition to New Age types, there are conservative red-state people driving enormous RVs or pulling airstream trailers; college kids volunteering on environmental work projects; and wholesome-looking families with young children. And when clothes are off, everyone talks with everybody else.

But let's get to the bats. That's what we came for, so shortly after checking in, we started the 1.7-mile trek up the mountainside, wearing layers of clothes because we'd been told the weather could turn cold or rainy. The Glory Hole looked like the set of a science fiction movie: jagged black caves, rust-colored rocks with gaping holes, and stone pinnacles pointing at the sky. About 30 people waited, expectant, checking their watches, wondering if this would be the night the bats wouldn't fly out to hunt insects. I was staring at the ground when I heard the sudden flapping. Out came the bats, looking as small as flies at first. The species is only four inches long with a wingspan of twelve inches. As they emerged, backlit by the sun, they took on the rust color of the rocks and it was only when they fanned across the blue sky that we could see the familiar bat shape and color.

It was thrilling: they moved like a tornado cloud, spinning and twisting at 60 miles an hour. Gathering distance, they looked like a lacy ribbon unfurling across the valley. Individual bats would dart away from the cloud, circle and dive back in. They navigate by echolocation, sending out sound waves that, when reaching anything solid, tell the bats where and how big the object is. This creates extreme sensitivity to what's around them. They flew over our heads, not among us, and sometimes you would hear a crack when the sound waves of two bats collided and the bats caromed away from each other.

Everyone stared, transfixed, and then, unbelievably, two rainbows appeared next to the Glory Hole. The bats flew right through the arcs of color.

The out-flight lasted about ten minutes and when it stopped, we wanted more. We waited, hopefully, for a second out-flight, but it didn't come. So we hiked back to camp and received another aesthetic thrill: the sun setting over the desert mountains. The horizon was vast and unobstructed, with streaks of red, orange and purple. When the sun disappeared, the air in every direction turned creamy blue.

In the evening we hit the sauna, one of the nicest I've been in, with beautiful wood benches and a cold pool right in the center of the sauna so that when you get hot, you can dunk in the pool, then hoist yourself back onto the benches in the heat. Later we floated on our backs in the Olympic-size swimming pool, fed by natural spring water that's warm-92 degrees! The Milky Way had never looked brighter and more clear.

The next day I spoke with a grandmother whom I'll call Judy, who's the "camp host," a plus-size woman with an all-over tan. She and her husband have been volunteering as hosts at Valley View for six weeks, living in a mammoth RV equipped with a flat screen TV and state of the art kitchen. They have three kids in their 30s but, Judy says, "They don't know we come here. My oldest son, who's a banker, would be appalled."

Judy grew up in the Midwest, "sheltered and ultra conservative," she saed. "It never crossed my mind that a place like this would exist." Her husband discovered it online and visited it by himself while Judy was raising their kids. Many men come without their wives, I learned, and Judy told her husband she'd only come if he bought her an RV. So he did. "I was really shy at first, I wouldn't talk to anyone," she recalled. "Then I started to make friends. We all have something in common: no one cares what anybody else looks like. We're just here to enjoy nature."

Not wearing clothes is a great leveler; any pretense or formality is dropped, and people begin to feel relaxed and free. The most challenging aspect for me was the unisex bathroom, where I'd see men peeing into urinals while I was brushing my teeth.

After slipping in and out of warm waters all day, though, and the transporting experience with the bats, I awoke on the second morning feeling a kind of peace I hadn't felt in some time.

Then came re-entry. We drove home, arriving in time to attend a Labor Day party held by friends. Everyone there was in high spirits, meeting and greeting and eating bountiful food, but the nature of connecting and talking was different from what I'd experienced in previous days. I tried to imagine what the gathering would be like if everyone shed their clothes. But that seemed beyond imagining.

Final words from Kurt Vonnegut: "Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly; Man got to sit and wonder, 'Why, why, why?' Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land; Man got to tell himself he understand."

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