WEST CAPE MAY — The nude man walks along the shoreline at the edge of Cape May County on this perfect beach day, the breeze off the water keeping the greenheads away. As he gets closer to another person on the beach, not nude, he unfurls a black Speedo from his hand and slips it on without missing a step.
"If it were polite, everybody would be naked," the 62-year-old Collingswood man explains about why he covers up in mixed beach company. "That's the way I look at it."
At Higbee Beach, a once-nude beach that is no longer officially a nude beach, except that it is basically still a nude beach in spots, the nude sunbathers are nothing if not polite.
"Just as I walked by, everybody rolled over," noted Drew Pearsall, 63, of West Chester, Pa., retired from quality control at Johnson & Johnson, who came down for the day to his favorite beach and was content in a bathing suit and a green Phillies cap, his torso a deeply contented shade of well done. "It's secluded and quiet."
This is Higbee Beach 17 years after a ticket written by Lower Township Capt. Martin Biersbach for public nudity found its way to the state Appellate Division and nudist history, when that court ruled that townships could enforce ordinances against public nudity on state-run land.
That ended Higbee's run as an official nude beach, but really, being an official anything beach was never Higbee's thing.
It's not officially a dog beach. It's not officially even a swimming beach, or an anchor-your-boat beach. Or a horse beach. Or a gay beach. Or a hippie beach. Officially, it's a Wildlife Management Area run by the State of New Jersey, with excellent trails and birding.
But head up through those trails that traverse the amazingly lush, rolling, tree-canopied dunes to this secluded beach most any day of the summer, and it's dogs, boats, swimmers, gays, straights, sometimes people on horses, and, heading south toward Daveys Lake, in the direction of Sunset Beach, still an (unofficial) nude beach. Though the naturists tend to be discreet when warranted.
"It's kind of an anything goes beach," said Adam Keilbaugh, a yoga instructor from Philadelphia who was spending the day idyllically under an umbrella with his 13-year-old dog, Luna, equally content nearby, leaving the nudists to another more remote section farther up the beach. He's been going to Higbee for more than a decade.
Most people seem to know the ropes, and the various constituencies seem to sort themselves out peaceably, but a few are surprised.
"As the beach narrows, there was a congregation. It changes where it narrows down there," said Pearsall in amusement. "It was a surprise to me."
The beach's seclusion, fresh water lakes and springs, pathways up in the dunes and quiet all make Higbee a seriously atypical Jersey Shore beach — no beach tag checkers, no lifeguards, no amenities but the ones you bring in. This is what drew Pearsall back, he said, albeit a bit more enlightened as to where to set down his chair.
"When I came back, I didn't want to encroach on the guys who were rolling over," he said.
Higbee's curving geography gives it the feel of a tropical beach, say St. Thomas without a dive beachside bar, with the Cape May Ferry boats filling in for the cruise ships.
Some people think it's haunted, and its so-called ghost tracks emerge every few years, a relic of a rail line built for the sand mining and munitions testing facilities during World War I.
The hauntings date to the late 19th century, when Thomas Higbee, part of a family that owned a hotel on the land, was buried there at his request. His body was later moved to Cold Spring Cemetery, but local lore recounts sightings of old Tom walking the beach in a long coat, with a dog, as he never wanted to leave.
Highbee also had a reputation as a gay meeting place, but these days, that distinction mostly belongs to Rehoboth Beach, a ferry ride away in Delaware. At least officially.
And for an official nude beach, head to Gunnison Beach on National Park Service land in Sandy Hook in North Jersey. There, clothing is optional and signs are posted.
At Higbee, the dog people, the boat people, the seclusion is my thing people, and the naturalist people appear to have settled into an amiable co-existence.
"It's a sacred kind of place," said one topless woman who's been coming to Higbee for 30 years. "It's been a nude beach since the 1930s."
Keilbaugh says the beach sorts itself out naturally the farther away one gets from the parking lot at the end of New England Road. It makes sense that anyone with kids or a lot of stuff won't bother walking that far from the parking lot.
"It isn't officially a dog beach, but it's a dog beach," said Keilbaugh. "It's not built up. We've seen bald eagles, people riding on horseback. This is wonderful. I do back bends and stretches."
Keilbaugh's been coming to Higbee for about 15 years. He says he sees the same regulars who go low-key nude.
The boaters anchor like they're in the tropics, wading onto the shore like they're on Survivor.
"We live real close to the beach, but we'd rather come here," said Jolene Mizsak. She and her husband, John, bring their boat, the Pinch Me, from Stone Harbor to Higbee for idyllic beach days. "It's not crowded. Nobody bothers anybody. They do their things, we do ours."
Pinch Me indeed. The Mizsaks say Higbee provides a nice beach walk that is a bit more interesting than your typical Stone Harbor, or even North Wildwood, stroll.
"They're happy to show their stuff," jokes John. "The closer you stay to the [Cape May] Canal, the less nudity."
More dogs, more bathing suits, basically. And on some days, hundreds of horseshoe crabs wash up.
The beach was ripped apart during Hurricane Sandy, mostly overwhelming its weird landmarks, like South Voodoo Tree, which Keilbaugh says was basically a collection of driftwood stacked up every year with "South Voodoo" carved into a branch.
Over at Lower Township police headquarters, Biersbach said he can't remember the last time anyone complained about nude sunbathers at Higbee. He says it's been a few years since any summonses have been written. He recalled the years after the law was upheld, when police formed special details to crack down on the practice, with grants from the state.
He said the long walk from the parking lot to where nudists might congregate would tend to keep families from setting up shop nearby.
"We don't actually walk the beach," he said. "It's kind of isolated. Like a deserted island."
Although park rangers ride up and down the beach periodically, the state seems to have let it go as well.
"I thought the nude sunbathing there stopped years ago," said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state's Department of Environmental Protection.
As you get closer to Sunset Beach at Cape May Point, the spot where the famous flag-raising ceremony takes place at sunset, high tide will fill a little tributary from Daveys Lake and make it impossible to cross, forming a moat of sorts. Towels will emerge on some lounge chairs as a nod to discretion, or not. Bathers will emerge from the sea, nude or not.
At Higbee, the sun will set over the Delaware Bay, unceremoniously.
The square wooden remains of what looks like a pier carry still yellow painted warnings that in context seem almost assuredly in jest.
"No traipsing, no shenanigans, no gallivanting."
"No nudes is good nudes."