Palm Springs: At nudist crossing, pedestrians walk the 'Bridge of Thighs'

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — The man standing outside Davey's Hideaway has heard all the talk. Oh, sure. Hasn't everyone?

The Desert Shadows Resort & Villas, a nudist resort on the other side of town, just built a pedestrian bridge connecting the main part of its property to some new condos it built on the other side of North Indian Canyon Road.

That means that naked guests now cross a major thoroughfare to get from one place to the other, and the rest of the city has to keep its eyes on the road.

"That's bizarre," said the Davey's patron, who was happy to share details of his home in London, his Olympic medals and his career "at one of the largest banks in the world" — but not his name. Especially not in connection with that bridge.

"I really don't want to see 90-year-old crotches through my sunroof," he quipped, lighting a cigarette. "I don't care if you're 20 or 200, it's not the best view."

He took a drag for dramatic pause, then offered one in a series of punch lines that would be heard over the weekend:

"But certainly, the bridge will open up new vistas to people."

And so goes the chatter in the land of strong sun and exposed skin. People have either seen too much, or not enough. And in that sense, the Lee R. Baxandall Bridge is serving as the Great Divide.

The main link

The bridge connects two sections of Desert Shadows: the main area, where there is a pool, clubhouse, tennis courts and condominiums; and an area with new condos and a 2,000-square-foot community room for dinners and dances. The naked kind.

It is made of teal steel and beige canvas, and stands 30 feet above the road. It was designed by architect Christopher Mills and cost $500,000 to construct.

Initially, there was only one layer of canvas across the steel, said Steve Payne, 53, who has owned the resort since 1992.

"But when the sun was shining in the right place, you could all but count the hairs on people's arms," Payne said.

So they added another layer.

The bridge has meant a coming-out, of sorts, for the 11-year-old resort. For along with raising its members above the street, it has raised the resort's profile.

"It's really been a lightning rod," Payne said on a recent visit, when he showed visitors around wearing only sandals and a Hawaiian-style shirt that brushed his upper thighs.

"We've been transmitting the attention into reservations, and that's what it's all about," Payne said, strolling past naked sunbathers, swimmers and, yes, diners in the cafe. "We're getting chuckles and snickers from newscasters, but the bottom line is, they would probably like to try this place."

Desert Shadows opened in 1992 as an 11-room hotel and now has 59 villas, 17 condominiums and 33 rooms and suites. Part of the new villas were built on Doris Day's old hotel property.

The growth, Payne said, should change the image of the stereotypical nudist, Payne said.

"We are not leftover hippies from the '60s rolling around in the mud," he said, adding that he has hosted Richard Nixon's former law partners, doctors and lawyers.

A recent survey showed that the core group of residents were "overwhelmingly professional, making over $100,000 and very conservative," Payne said.

And the resort is nothing like an RV camp with water and TV hook-ups, as many nude resorts tend to be.

"It's a vacation choice, like a cruise," Payne said. "And once people get here, they wonder what took them so long."

The curious got their first peek inside Feb. 13, when the resort hosted an official ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony for the bridge. The public and local politicians were invited, and the bridge was christened the Lee R. Baxandall Bridge, after the 68-year-old founder of the Naturist Society.

The plaque they unveiled reads: "The World's First Naturist Bridge," but people don't call it that, said Sgt. Dennis Graham of the Palm Springs Police Department.

"They call it the 'Bridge of Thighs,' which kind of bums me out," Graham said. "The Bridge of Sighs is a historical landmark."

Talk has been plentiful

Talk has been the only kind of traffic the bridge has caused, Graham said. Sure, people slow down to pass under it, but nothing more. Sort of like rubber-necking without the fender-bender.

"It's not like you can stand there and watch nude people walking across the street," Graham said. "You can see their heads, but you can't see their torsos or their lower bodies.

"It's really kind of a non-issue, but a lot has been made of it."

Indeed, Payne said, the publicity has been "bizarre."

The Guardian. Le Monde. Newsday. The Wall Street Journal. CNN. Almost 800 newspapers have written about Desert Shadows in the last several weeks.

"I still don't get it," Payne said. "It's a bridge."

Nevertheless, like a good naturist ("Naturalists eat tree and bark; naturists drop their pants," he said), Payne is grabbing his moment in the sun, cooperating with curious media, while still respecting the residents' need for privacy. After all, they include "entertainers and politicians you would know," he said.

Some residents have volunteered to be interviewed, while others "see the cameras and head for the hills," Payne said.

"A few are public about it," he said. "But 99 percent are not. Lots of people still feel nervous."

Not Rosianne Kearns. One recent morning, the Beverly Hills jeweler and her husband left their new condo at Desert Shadows, crossed the bridge, and sat down to chat.

"No big deal," Kurtz said of the naked crossing. "I only get dressed to go to sleep."

Their condominium features a Plexiglas dining-room set and windows that, if you're standing in the right place, offer quite a show.

"Wait 'til I put up my pictures!" she said. "I'm going to have the windows etched. I almost mooned everyone this morning."

Montana likes it

Former Seattleite Ruby Montana owns the Coral Sands Inn, just a couple of blocks from Desert Shadows — and the bridge.

"I just think it's fascinating that that place exists," she said. The rumors about the bridge started long ago. Some said it would be made of Plexiglas, allowing a full view.

"That's scary, isn't it?" Montana said. "People thought there would be lots of accidents, seeing nude people walk across the street in their tennis shoes and socks. Because you have to wear tennis shoes to play tennis, right?"

Most of the time, Payne said. Residents do wear Velcro belts to hold tennis balls, since they don't wear shorts with pockets.

"People walk around naked in their homes all the time," Payne said. "Yet they drive under the bridge and freak out."

He shook his head.

"Anywhere else, and this would be just a bridge."

Yet the bridge is nothing if not inspiring.

Montana is thinking of adding a "Nude Month" to the Coral Sands schedule.

"But the idea of a restaurant ... can you imagine? Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but let something be a surprise."

Nicole Brodeur: