Sloshed on Busch Light and a little sun-dazed after my first pool day in ages, it was 11 p.m. when I finally went to set up my tent at the L.V. Campground in Coggon, Iowa.
My sister, two friends and I had rented a cabin ($135/night) — sturdy, spacious and best of all air-conditioned, with plywood walls, two queen beds, a mid-sized fridge and a dining table suitable for the kind of trashy college drinking games our small social circle forgot to leave in adolescence. But dogs aren’t supposed to sleep in these cabins, so I also reserved a tent site ($30/night) for my dog Goldie and I to crash on.
Earlier in the day, a couple fellow campers lounging by the pool — and taking full advantage of the campground’s clothing-optional status — gave me shit as I cracked into my second IPA.
“You broke the first rule of camping: set up the tent before you start drinking,” one (middle-aged, very nude) man said.
“Hang on, I bought a pop-up tent,” I bragged. “The reviews said it was drunk-friendly.”
But the sun had since set, and as I felt inebriation overcome my senses after a round of Ring of Fire, I decided I better go toss the tent. I grabbed an LED lantern, removed the folded blue tent from my trunk and walked past a parked Ram pick-up truck to find two guys in the tailgate, sharing a passionate embrace. Or more specifically, giving and receiving fellatio.
I blurted out, “Oop! Sorry,” among other awkward Midwestern noises, haphazardly popped my tent — smacking myself in the face but certainly getting the job done quickly — and hustled back to Cabin 8 to find I’d been Iced. (That is, I found a bottle of Smirnoff Ice sitting outside the door and thus, according to the sacred laws, now had to chug it.) I went inside, knelt and whisked down the sweet blue liquid, feeling I’d just been through a kind of initiation.
Little Village staff have been eager to cover L.V. Campground for years, if only because of our shared initials. The adult-only oasis was even more “adult” than I anticipated: There was nudity, margaritas, outrageous sex stories, ~intimate~ moments before my very eyes — in lantern-light, firelight and broad daylight. But the campground is also a labor of love for its owner and manager Jerry Limkemann, a friend to all who pass through its hallowed gravel roads.
Simultaneously wholesome and lascivious, L.V. Campground, nestled in rural Delaware County amid the fields and barns that inspired Grant Wood, can best be described as an LGBTQ-friendly, body- and sex-positive campground with a distinctly Iowa character. Check your shame at the Camp Office.
Jerry founded the Limkemann Village Campground (better known as L.V.) in 2006 and continues to manage, maintain and live on the property with his longtime partner. He is the beloved patriarch of the five-acre site, which features a 16,000-gallon pool, a common kitchen and lobby area, two- and four-person cabins for rental, dozens of RV and tent camping sites with electrical hook-ups and communal bathrooms with flush toilets (complete with excellent toilet paper, I might add, especially for a campground) and showers. The grounds are surrounded by tall trees, beyond which are expansive cornfields; the stalks stood less than a foot from the soil when I visited in mid-June, and they looked gorgeous at sunset.
The seasonal getaway hosts a number of events throughout the summer, including the Lesbians of Iowa’s annual “summer camp”; mixers for Club G, a Des Moines swingers club; L.V.’s monthly men-only Bear Camps; and the pièce de résistance, the Big Gay Campout, open to all and taking place Aug. 27-29 this year. Non-event weekends are more rare than booked ones, and more unpredictable: Anyone could walk up to the front desk. Like me.
One of the most vibrant campers the weekend I visited was Chris, a rainbow-haired Quad Cities salon owner and stylist with a mix of gay pride, horror movie and Marvel Cinematic Universe tattoos. “A nudist at heart,” he and his husband have been escaping to L.V. for years.
“The first thing I noticed was that there was zero body shaming,” Chris told me. “This campground out in the middle of nowhere is my favorite place in the world.”
As popular as nudity is at L.V., it’s not ubiquitous, and campers that choose not to undress face no apparent judgment. I’ve never been much of a nudist myself, but if there was any social environment in which I’d feel comfortable disrobing, it’d be here — in the middle of nowhere, as Chris aptly noted. Indeed, surrounded by naked sunbathers between the ages of 25 and 75, of various genders and sexualities, all amicable towards us (my group of friends was lovingly referred to as “the lesbians,” though technically we represented a mix of gay, bi and straight women), but not nosy or gossipy, I was empowered to float in the pool tits to the wind, until fear of sunburn overcame the impulse to liberate my palest regions.
When a woman (let’s call her Lisa) asked the guests gathered around the pool, “Who wants margaritas!?” Saturday afternoon, all were welcome to a salt-rimmed, lime-garnished cup or two mixed by her husband, “Dave.” While we sipped the free margs, I learned some recent history of the campground.
The L.V. community had united around a common enemy: a former pro-wrestler who apparently didn’t receive the celebrity treatment he expected during a weekend stay, Chris said, and sought a kind of revenge against the campground. The wrestler reported Jerry for a number of pool code violations, the resolutions of which would cost tens of thousands of dollars Jerry didn’t have in hand.
Chris and other L.V. regulars launched a fundraising campaign last year and crowdsourced more than $30,000 in a few short months. Jerry was able to update the fencing and pool deck, among other repairs. His hot tub wasn’t approved for commercial use, so Lisa and Dave bought it off him.
“And we’ve been making great use of it,” Lisa said, leering across the pool at her husband, who was skimming dead leaves and bugs from the water.
Voyeurism and exhibitionism are more common than s’mores at L.V., it turns out. Chris playfully badgered Lisa and Dave for closing the curtains in their RV the night before during what had been a rather public lovemaking session. (“I was enjoying the show!”) Chris even recalled an incident at last year’s Halloween party in which a fellow regular — one of the quieter people we met at the campground, incidentally — bottomed on a picnic table while dressed as Fred Flintstone. “Fred” just smiled coyly.
Later that night, as my friend and I roasted hotdogs by the firepit, the sounds of clanging, whipping and moans of pleasure carried over from the next campsite over. Even in the darkness we could make out a man and woman, lit by a raging campfire, demonstrating BDSM for a small audience seated in foldable lawn chairs. Presently, a little further away, a group of older campers watched a sitcom on a TV mounted on their RV — The Big Bang Theory, I think. The laugh track lilted over the noise of handcuffs clanking and leather swatting flesh, creating perhaps the most surreal soundscape I’ve heard in a long time.
I recount the more lurid details of my weekend at L.V. not just for local color, but because it feels prudent to inform potential visitors that, well, you may be going to set up a tent, reapply sunscreen or cook a hotdog and find yourself face to face with some happy campers.
I can very much understand why some would not enjoy such a sex-forward environment, and a week ago I’d have wagered I was one of them. Surprisingly, I found myself fascinated by the various pairings and polycules of people, the peeks into various sexual subcultures, the erotic politics of L.V.’s central characters. It was like a NSFW reality show with little episodes throughout the day, watchable from the comfort of a pool floatie. Freak flags flew in the breeze, and it was refreshing to see a group of queer, kinky Midwesterners joyful and uninhibited.
A decades-long debate about the representation of kink in Pride celebrations reached a fever pitch this year. Pride parades and festivals are widely regarded as family-friendly events, including in eastern Iowa. Nudity is generally not accepted, but what about bondage gear — cuffs, collars, leather vests? What about the Leather Pride flag, with its black and blue stripes and big red heart? Are symbols of nonconventional, for lack of a better term, sexual preferences inappropriate in and of themselves?
Of course not. After all, it was the sex-positive, bisexual, polyamorous, BDSM-loving “Mother of Pride” Brenda Howard that organized the first modern Pride March and festival in New York City in 1970. Pride organizers have long separated daytime family festivities from the adult mixers at 18+ gay bars later in the evening, and they have nuanced discussions about how to accommodate the full spectrum of sexual identities in their community. The moral outrage that flared on Twitter this June was largely stoked by rightwing trolls hoping to sow division among liberals by playing off age-old stereotypes conflating queerness and sexual perversion.
But in light of this controversy, this heightened focus on the way LGBTQ folks are allowed to celebrate their bodies, I realized just how rare a space like L.V. Campground is: one where queer and kinky folks of all stripes can express themselves without being policed by a moral authority, so long as they’re safe, surrounded by consenting adults and respectful of Jerry’s basic camp rules (no glass bottles or dildos in the pool area, folks). You’re out of earshot of any kind of bad-faith “debates” about your right to exist, literally; I couldn’t get a cell signal at L.V. to save my life.
Not everyone was there for casual sex or spankings — for instance, me, who was after all camping with my sister — and for many campers, choosing to walk around in the buff was not sexually motivated at all. Everyone came to L.V. Campground as they were, and many have found genuine friendships in the process. And unlike adult stores, strip clubs and even feminist bookstores and sexual health clinics in Iowa, moral outrage in the form of strict zoning or obscenity laws has not killed the campground.
Lisa said she and Dave would live nude all the time if they could, but must be cautious, even on their own property. They planted trees to obscure views into the house and hot tub area, but still a neighbor complained they’d spotted a topless Lisa in the window the other day. “You’re not even safe in your own home,” Lisa lamented.
Public indecency laws vary widely across states and local municipalities, but suffice to say Iowa is not the most open-minded when it comes to nudity. In essence, if someone is offended by the sight of a full or partially naked person and they report it, they have a decent case. Going au natural always comes with some degree of risk, making an openly adult-only, clothing-optional, middle-of-nowhere resort like L.V. a true sanctuary for nudists.
Which is why writing this piece feels like a risk. Could drawing attention to the hidden gem that is L.V. open it to scrutiny? Perhaps, but the many camp-goers and staff I spoke to, including Jerry himself, expressed no fear of being outed — only excitement or intrigue at the idea of new folks joining the fold, especially queer women. Hell, even the couple I’d caught mid-blowjob in the truck tailgate wasted no time in making light of the situation the next morning — “We were like, ‘oh no, we’ve scarred one of the lesbians!’”
When I decided to spend a weekend at L.V. Campground and write about my experience for LV Mag, I could already picture the central moment: Queer, chubby me at my first nude pool, stretch marks on my stomach and thighs from pandemic weight gain, tentatively sheds my swimsuit and jumps in the pool, baptized in the chlorinated water as a Perfume Genius song plays in the background, vibing like a teen in some indie coming-of-age drama.
In reality, I wasn’t a big fan of topless swimming; breasts really want to float, and it felt like I was strapped to a pair of buoys. The real review is simple: I had some of the most fun I’ve had since March 2020, because I was surrounded by people having fun.
An important part of pride is shedding shame. Sometimes, it takes a village.
Emma McClatchey would like to thank Thomas for wrestling her pop-up tent back into its bag and giving Goldie plenty of pets on the pool deck.