From the early ’60s to the late ’70s, the Desert Gardens Ranch nudist colony was secreted away in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains. This is Desert Hot Springs, California, two-ish hours east of Los Angeles. The story goes that the grounds were built as a hush-hush haven for Al Capone, and, after things went south for him, a pair of entrepreneurial nudists bought the place and set up shop. In its prime, Desert Gardens Ranch offered a lifestyle of seclusion and liberation, of year-round sun and bathhouses, an in-ground swimming pool and a water well for landscaping and, not ironically, laundry facilities. What it lacked was anything resembling a paved road from the highway to the property. The last leg of the drive is only a few miles, but the scrub is so gut-twistingly rutted, the hills so driveshaft-bustingly steep, and the destination so maddeningly elusive, that the temptation to turn back is constant and profound. All of which bodes really well for a top-secret mobster hideout, but considerably less well for any kind of commercial enterprise. By 1980, Desert Gardens Ranch was shuttered. The locals only recalled the nudists when they made the haul up the hill to dump garbage that proved too bulky for the trash collectors. A year later, when a man in a 4x4 truck happened upon the property, the pool was a makeshift landfill—washing machines and dryers, a large dead palm tree, car and motorcycle parts, all sunk or floating in filthy water. The man didn’t see anything he could use or sell, but he lived beside a skateboarder and he’d recently heard skaters liked to roll around in drained pools, so the next time he saw his neighbor, the 4x4 driver—bless his angel heart—offered to show the young man what he’d found.
The California drought of 1976 was gnarly, one of the worst on record—extreme water shortages, cessation of nonessential agricultural practices, the construction of an emergency water pipeline after various reservoirs ran dry. A lot of backyard pools were drained.
Skateboarding was still young. When skaters hopped fences for empty pools, the goal was simply to replicate surfing. With backyard bowls, though, there was the added thrill of barging a quick session before the owners or cops arrived. Soon skaters were choosing concrete over ocean, and savvy entrepreneurs were designing pools specifically for skating.
Which is great, but what makes skating pools so attractive is that they were never meant to be skated. The allure is the hunt, the appropriation, the challenges of the terrain. Skaters are always scouting boarded-up motels, checking real-estate listings, trying to bribe homeowners. Some hire helicopters to survey neighborhoods, then pose as pool cleaners to check prospects. If the property has power—not a given in vacant homes—they use an electric pump to drain the pool. A lack of power requires buckets. Either way, they’ll bring snow shovels and industrial-grade garbage bags for whatever’s at the bottom—usually dead animals, everything from opossums to alligators.
Then, if the cops still haven’t come, skaters have to learn to ride the thing. Basins of backyard pools are ridiculously tight, which makes it near impossible to find the speed to climb the 3- to 6-foot vertical wall up to the coping. The surfaces are, at best, lumpy and uneven. Often they’re abrasive or so coated in chlorine dust that they’re ice-slick. Every pool skater has a tale of a perfect pool being shut down after owners returned to find someone unconscious in the deep end.
Skate parks boast first-aid kits and waivers with emergency contacts. You’re a paying customer. Your safety matters. In a drained pool, you’re a liability, a criminal. Owners will take pot shots through bathroom windows. Cops will haul your trespassing ass to jail. So it goes—the price of admission, a necessary risk, part of the fun.
The 4x4 driver’s neighbor toiled for weeks to clear out the Desert Gardens Ranch bowl. The palm tree alone was a massive pain; it was too waterlogged to move until the sun dried it out. He enlisted friends to help, but swore them to secrecy. They’re rumored to have skated for a year before word spread and everyone from posers to pros started flocking to the desert. To honor the clothing-optional heritage, they called it the Nude Bowl.
The scene blew up. Throughout the ’80s, the Nude Bowl appeared in iconic magazine photos and seminal video parts, which are a professional skateboarder’s equivalent to an author’s published books. Skaters pitched tents and camped. They brought film crews, generators, lights. In the afternoons, when it was too hot to skate, they drank beer and shot the cans with pistols. When they were drunk enough, they skated the pool naked.
At some point in the ’90s, a fire came down the mountain and threatened the homes below. The cause was unknown, but residents complained and authorities buried the bowl. Then, inexplicably, a start-up paid to dig it out and threw a colossal kegger. There were live bands and lots of partygoers. There was also a pretty vicious fight with some jocks. Details are sketchy. The jocks fought some skaters, some punkers, or some bikers, possibly Hells Angels. Four people were definitely stabbed, and one person either died or came awfully close. Of course the pool was buried again, its deep end wall reportedly broken apart by a bulldozer to preclude future excavations. The great punk band JFA (Jodie Foster’s Army) mourned the loss in “Nude Bowl Resurrection”: “They brought in the equipment and up and killed her where she stood / smashed up and kicked in her walls and buried her for good.” There’s also a fairly famous photograph of the bowl—taken from a helicopter, in dramatic black and white, by the peerless J. Grant Brittain—wherein pale rocks spell out RIP. You can clearly see the left-handed kidney shape in the dirt. It’s heartrending, only slightly less haunting than a chalk outline at a crime scene.
Then, a couple of years ago—like, um, holy fucking shit—new Nude Bowl images started surfacing. The most consistent narrative attached to this latest Lazarusing is that some fifteen years after it was buried, and nearly forty years after they first cleaned it, the original Nude Bowl crew trucked in two backhoes and dug their hearts out. The deep end wall hadn’t actually been dozed (#fakenews), but the pool needed major repairs so they spent months doing rehab. I flew out as soon as I could.
In L.A., I rented a Ford F-150, gathered my photographer, and bought a broom, shovel, buckets, sunscreen, Clif Bars, and cases of water; I “borrowed” every towel from my hotel room. Rain had been drenching the region for weeks, and people had stopped posting Nude Bowl photos, so I didn’t know what I’d find. The highlight of the drive was a pickup with considerable signage indicating that copies of the memoir Letters to Zerky: A Father’s Legacy to a Lost Son… and a Road Trip Around the World were on sale inside. Just before the turn onto the unpaved path, a leathery couple was selling used tires on the highway shoulder. The last few miles took an hour. The F-150 got stuck twice.
When we finally arrived, a small band of Hells Angels was packing up to leave. They had sleeping bags and neck tattoos. Used shotgun shells and 9mm casings littered the ground. The tall trunk of a dead palm tree was still standing nearby, despite a) not appearing in old photos of the bowl and b) having clearly been used in multiple bonfires. Bullet holes pocked the shallow-end walls, and layers of peeling paint and crumbling concrete furrowed the deep end floor. Every surface was graffitied. There was an impressive rendering of Frankenstein’s head, a lonesome Pac Man ghost, and a woman’s naked torso with the caption “Send Nudes.” There were also sentences and phrases—Let Me Be Your Dog; Free el chapo; 2/11 was an inside job; Make America Great Again—and free-floating words such as Punk, Beer, Suffer, Incest Mushroom, and my two favorites, Pie and Piss Rock.
Here’s a passable way to imagine skating the Nude Bowl: Think of starting on the small side of the letter J and trying to heave yourself to the top of the tall side. Then think of the letter’s basin being so potholed that it either saps your speed or slams you face-first into the wall. Think of how when you do reach the peak, you’re so off-balance and terrified that you spend much of the day falling. Think of how the letter J is so steep that these particular falls recall what it might be like to drop down an elevator shaft. Think of how each trick, no matter how old, feels new and significant but also freighted with the entirety of your skate history.
Or maybe it’s more than that. Maybe it’s your whole life that’s led you here. Think of the relentless sun, the expansive silence between attempts, the vertigo-inducing landscape. Think of how the whole enterprise sounds like a gonzo vision quest, a heatstroke mirage: a secret swimming pool, built by a gangster, maintained by nudists, sought out and saved, time and again, by skate punks. Think of how so few people have ever actually been here, and how, whether they came to hide or skate, they came in exile. Society failed to satisfy them, and the desert has always offered itself to outlaws and free spirits, to mystics and misfits, to zealots and dreamers and, now, to you. Think of how, as soon as you leave, you’ll long to come back and yet know full well that you won’t. Think of the pool’s inevitable next burial. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a decade. And then, at last, think—think real hard—about how it’s not the challenge or the harshness or the isolation or anything to do with the Nude Bowl at all that has drawn everyone here over the years. It’s impermanence. It’s ephemerality. It’s an abiding vulnerability and the innate desire to experience something bigger than yourself, the need to feel small and, at once, strong. It’s the inescapable instinct to forge a place, however far away and however briefly, where you can lay bare who you really are, where you can push beyond what you’ve always been, where you have even a shred of a chance of finding more of your fugitive kind.