Baby, it's cold outside. But the early-spring chill doesn't deter Thomas B. from taking a brisk walk along Appenzell's hilly trails to enjoy the green landscape of this rural canton in northeast Switzerland.
There's a good reason why Thomas, 24, doesn't give out his last name: he is concerned that his bosses at a nearby bank may not like his unconventional hiking attire, consisting of shoes, socks, a backpack and nothing else. Thomas isn't just some nature nut in a birthday suit he's one of a growing number of hikers who make the pilgrimage to Appenzell specifically so they can trek in the nude. (See pictures of skiing.)
Hiking in the buff might shock Thomas' bosses, as well as some of Appenzell's 15,000 inhabitants, but it's no skin off his back. "Hiking in clothes is too constrictive," he says, adding that he has never had any negative reactions from the fully clothed hikers he meets on the trails. "I like to feel comfortable. There's nothing wrong with that, is there?"
Fellow nude hiker Puistola Grottenpösch agrees, saying that the allure of walking naked "is all about freedom." For the past three decades, the 54-year-old engineer from Zurich has been unabashedly hiking in the altogether, in all kinds of climatic conditions, with no incident. "I wouldn't do this in Afghanistan," he concedes, but he insists on his right to walk naked on the trails of his own country, where public nudity as long as it is not lewd is perfectly legal. (See pictures of treasure-hunting in Afghanistan.)
Why Appenzell, the second smallest of Switzerland's 26 cantons, known for its cheese and sturdy mountain dogs, became a nude-hiking mecca is the subject of some speculation. "It's probably because naked hikers who had been here raved about their experiences on blogs, building this area's reputation," says Veronique Kanel, a spokeswoman for Switzerland Tourism, the country's official tourist body. "We haven't heard so far of a massive influx of naked hikers to other Swiss regions, although I suspect that once in a while they also go outside of Appenzell."
Kanel adds that although the tourist board does not "actively promote" this particular pastime, "in this kind of spectacular environment, one can hardly resist the temptation to hike naked."
That's what the local authorities are afraid of. Having watched with growing concern as groups of unclad walkers criss cross the canton's stunning mountain paths and cow-studded meadows, the government decided that such a practice is not compatible with the canton's conservative ways. It has drafted a law that would ban public nudity, subjecting offenders to a $160 fine. The proposed legislation will be submitted to a popular vote on April 26, during Appenzell's annual Landsgemeinde, an open-air assembly in the town's picturesque main square, where all eligible citizens vote, by show of hands, on local laws and budget issues.
But even if accepted by the electorate, the law may prove difficult to implement, says Daniel Kettiger, a legal expert on public administration and management who has been following the Appenzell debate. The proposed legislation, he points out, would prohibit "misbehavior in public places" but would not specifically target nudity, "so its interpretation will be open-ended, because a nude hiker is not necessarily unruly."
To the authorities' argument that naked hiking should be banned because it could be detrimental to children, Kettiger responds with incredulity. "Oh, please. In this day and age, when kids have access to the Internet and where images of naked people are on every newsstand, how can they be shocked?" he asks. "Is there really a child out there who hasn't seen a naked person yet?"
Longtime naked hiker Grottenpösch says the possibility of a new penal code (no pun intended) makes his flesh crawl. "Some people may see nudity as indecent, but what harm does it do to public security and order?" he asks, adding that he has already convened about a dozen other nude-hiking aficionados to devise legal action. If the law passes, "we will sue Appenzell," he says, vowing to take the case all the way to the Federal Court Switzerland's highest judicial authority.
Meanwhile, the brouhaha is bringing what some locals consider to be unwelcome attention to the laid-back canton. Melchior Looser, Appenzell's justice and police minister who spearheaded the proposed legislation, didn't return TIME's request for an interview but told a local newspaper that the sudden public interest in the naked-hikers issue is "absolutely ridiculous. I don't understand what all the fuss is about." (See pictures of the newest natural wonders of the world.)
Others look beyond the bare facts and see the silver lining. Reading about nude hikers, says the tourist board's Kanel, "is so much more fun than reading about the Swiss banks."