Everyone talks shit about the West Coast. I know this because, besides the fact that I travel a lot, I happen to be one of those freaks who was born, raised, and willingly chose to stay in Vancouver, B.C. According to the rest of Canada, we're "laid-back, nature nerds" who take hiking and bong hits more seriously than taxes or sample sales, we have a totally "chill" way of approaching life, we have the purest, strongest drugs and we're proud of it, we take our dogs to yoga class, compost with a passion, and provide our massive heroin-addicted population designated "safe places" to shoot-up with clean needles, private booths and hot coffee.
I'm about to let you in on a little secret. The West Coast isn't all drum circles and super mellow vibes. Okay, it kind of is, but it's not. For those residents of Vancouver who follow the "chill" protocol, it's not just about being a free spirit who walks around downtown without shoes. Some places in Vancouver, like the idrug-infested, nudist, hippy hang-out, Wreck Beach, are super up-tight about being laid-back.
I do not follow the aforementioned "chill protocol." In fact, I'm kind of annoyed and disgusted by it. So, when VICE decided they were sending me to Wreck Beach to hang with the nudists for the day, I wanted to die. First off, I am not a beach person. Secondly, I am not a naked-in-public person. Thirdly, I'm not a stoned-in-public person. The thing about kids who grew up in B.C. is that, contrary to popular belief, we don't really give a shit about pot. We've had it shoved in our faces since we were in our training bras and abused it all through high school. So, being naked, in the sunshine with a bunch of flaccid old dicks offering me pot sounded like my worst nightmare. But I'm not a baby, I'm a journalist, so I wrangled up my hippy, Wreck Beach veteran neighbour Renee and headed down to the nudist party.
Wreck Beach pioneered in the late 1970's as Canada's first clothing-optional beach and patrons fought hard to keep it that way when politicians thought the nudism was "alienating". Located beside our city's largest university, the action on Wreck Beach seems like a total freak show next to the stuffy law students running from lecture to lecture just a few yards away. Nearly four decades later, everyone in Vancouver knows that Wreck is the place you go if you want to buy a frozen tequila shot and a handful of mushrooms from a sun-kissed nudist. Although the beach started as a sacred place for people who wanted to get naked, get high and get free, it has now turned into a business for vendors. Stands are set up offering Taco Dogs, tie-dyed sarongs and couples massages.
Well-known characters like Watermelon (a female weed vendor, advocate and aspiring comedian, who posed naked for High Times magazine and was voted in the Top Ten Sexiest Criminals Of The Year for Cannabis Culture in 2001) walk up and down the beach completely naked except for a cooler swung over their shoulder, shouting out the goods they have for sale. For four months of the year, these beach dealers sell whatever they can to sun bathers making upwards of $10,000 a month on illegal drug and alcohol sales. And the Cops are onto it. It's a game of cat and mouse between the vendors and the police who occasionally show up and buzz kill the free-for-all.
Armed with two six packs and my sunglasses, Renee and I walked the 542 wooden stairs through the forrest to the ocean side. It was a blazing hot day and the beach was packed. Renee seemed excited, ripping off her clothes and exposing her perfectly trimmed pubic hair before we had even settled on a spot. "You have to get naked now!" she commanded. Real naked advocates on Wreck Beach call people who wear their bathing suits, "textiles". I winced as I pulled off my dress and underwear glowing like a see-through alien next to the sea of tanned nudists who had been doing this since the dawn of time.
"I look like a fucking glow worm," I said to Renee as I laid down on our blanket trying my best to be normal. "I need a drink, like now."
I sipped my beer and starred at everyone around me. There was a naked child running down to the water, tiny penis flying, drinking from a giant coconut, naked couples kissing and playing annoying songs on the guitar, a bunch of girls were doing split-leg tricks on a trapeze they had set up. The whole beach smelled of sea weed and hash. An old naked man in front of us was rolling his body in the hot sand like he was a dog. I bet he had sand in his urethra. Everyone was talking, hugging, yelling, smoking, dancing. The ratio of snipped to un-snipped penises was mind blowing. There was a woman standing on a log, posing as though she was the statue of liberty. She was perfectly still. I had entered a new world.
It was hot so we went swimming. Walking from our towel to the water without coverage made my heart seize up. I'm a total pussy when it comes to my body. I can barely wear tight shorts, let alone strut my huge, pale, womanly ass through a group of old nudists to get into the water. I self-consciously held my hands behind my back. "Someone is shy!" A husky voice screamed from the distance. I turned around and an old, naked fatty with the tiniest penis I had ever seen was cat calling me from the edge of the water. He laughed and pointed as his friends joined in hollering at me. Renee laughed in my face as I sheepishly dunked into the water.
A shot of me and Renee after our skinny dip.
Suddenly, I noticed seven cops walking down the beach. The action seized. People with coolers either vanished or suddenly sold only "ice cold soft drinks". The cops emptied coolers, handed out tickets and spread out like it was a real bust. But the statue woman on the log didn't move. Devotion, I thought. Total ball-busting devotion.
Fixated on the action, I barely noticed when a string-bean, 60-year-old man came up and sat down beside me. He introduced himself as Robert and shook my hand. I had noticed him selling mushrooms earlier.
"This amount of cops is rare," he said pulling his cigarettes out from his hat, the only piece of clothing on him. "They are really killing my buzz, man. I only come to Wreck because I can't decide what to wear." He burst out laughing. He told us he was sitting with us because we didn't look suspicious and the cops were after him. He'd already hidden his stash, but he was sketched out. "They have microphones down here and fucking rats," he said, darting his stoned-out eyes. I thought he was full of hippy garbage until the cops raced over to a dude sitting behind us. Earlier, I had over-heard the guy on his phone saying that he didn't bring anything to sell today, just his own beer to chill. The cops shook him up and down saying that they were tipped off that he was selling. As the cops issued him a ticket and banned him from the beach I watched his penis shrink three inches.
"See, man," Robert whispered. "They have narcs down here! Cops who act like us and then rat people out. Big microphones all over!"
I watched the cops leave the beach with eight empty coolers. Robert told us he loved us and that we were his sisters, but now he had to go and tell his fellow vendors what he had heard. His butt looked like the perfect pancake as he walked away.
We ran into a girl selling tequila on the beach who Renee had once life coached. Tequila Girl and her girlfriend (who had her nipples covered with crosses of white tape) told us that cops never bothered them. She'd only been arrested once in four years. She thinks it's because male cops are afraid to confront a young, bare-breasted girl. The rats are obvious, she said. They have to wear a badge so they usually keep their shirts on, plus everyone is kind of paranoided.
What was going on here? How the fuck did this place exist? What was any different about the way this place was policed in relation to the drug-addled, gang controlled, homeless disaster on the Downtown Eastside? The Downtown Eastside is managed by harm reduction from our city. Although this area is home to the most visible and drug addicted population in Canada, it is policed with the attitude of a baby sitter. The cops can't stop what is going on, it's too big for them, so they just manage it best they can. Wreck Beach is a major tourist attraction filled with so-called "illegal activity" and spiritual believers who see this as the utopia of Vancouver, yet it is able to function with little aggravation from the authorities. The Vancouver police respect the historical, spiritual and social importance of Wreck Beach, even though they try to stop the illegal drug and alcohol sales. It's like the beach is guarded by this unspoken heritage halo that signifies that everyone here just wants to get nude, enjoy the nature and trip on some acid.
Lately, potential condo developments have also been a problem for the hardcore lifers of Wreck Beach. If new condos are built on the property near the beach, then home owners would be able to look down to Wreck Beach from their balconies and this angers the nudists who have had this area sacred for decades. Another typical Vancouver issue that plagues this young and growing city: preservation of heritage spots vs. high-rise condo development.
The longer I spent naked, I found myself raging at people who kept their trunks on. It was rare, but it happened and as jocky male students my age walked by me gawking at my body, I wanted to get up and tell them to drop their drawers or fuck off. I was becoming the thing I hated: up-tight about being laid-back.
As we left the beach, fleets of students and Asian tourists in business suits flooded onto the sand. "School's out," Renee laughed. The beach had now become a weird mix of the nudists and tourists just trying to catch a peak at the action. As we left I turned around to get one last look at the free-for-all. I noticed the woman on the log was still standing, perfectly posed, like that Indian man who held his hand above his head for 12 years to prove his devotion to God. I had to give it to her. She had some serious discipline.
Follow Mish on Twitter here