'I've Never Hiked Naked Before': The Government Shutdown Changed That

As he hiked in Chiricahua National Monument, which is officially closed due to the government shutdown, '"I really felt like I could do whatever I wanted," Hankins said.
As he hiked in Chiricahua National Monument, which is officially closed due to the government shutdown, '"I really felt like I could do whatever I wanted," Hankins said. Courtesy of Brandon Hankins
Brandon Hankins didn't plan on taking off all his clothes.

It just felt like the natural thing to do, on a day in early January at Arizona's Chiricahua National Monument, with the federal government shut down and no one to see or stop him.

“I’ve never hiked naked before," Hankins, a 20-year-old from San Diego, told Phoenix New Times by phone. "I wasn’t like, 'I’m gonna go to the Chiricahuas today and hike naked.'"

But that's what Hankins said he did after he slipped into the park, which was officially closed because of the shutdown. He found that he had it almost entirely to himself. By the end of the day, he hiked almost 18 miles, he said, and was "sunburnt in places I've never been sunburnt before."

As much as the shutdown was a "bummer," Hankins added, it had given him the chance of a lifetime. "It was the most freeing experience ever," he said.

click to enlarge Who wouldn't want to hike here butt naked? - DENNY ARMSTRONG/FLICKR
Who wouldn't want to hike here butt naked?
Since the federal government partially shut down December 22 over a dispute between President Donald Trump and congressional leaders over funding for a border wall, some national parks and monuments have stayed open. Their management has fallen to a handful of non-furloughed Park Service employees, state agencies, and whichever local volunteers step up. Other sites have closed their gates.

Either way, caretakers and resources are stretched thin, and they've struggled to enforce closures and other rules that protect these lands and to keep up with basic services. In Yosemite, trash has piled up since the shutdown began, while some visitors have hacked down protected Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park.

The nude adventures of hikers like Hankins might seem comic and innocuous by comparison

"It was the most freeing experience ever," Hankins said.

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But to the Cochise County Sheriff's Department, it's not amusing. During the shutdown, any search-and-rescue or recovery operations in Chiricahua National Monument would fall to them.

"Let’s say something were to have happened, where he slipped and fell and got hurt, or he got lost," said Carol Capas, spokesperson for that department. "That would put our personnel and our resources at a responsible point to get there and save him. What happens if one of our personnel got injured in the process of looking for him, because he made the decision to go into a location that was closed?"

Here's how Hankins said his adventure went down:

It was Thursday, January 4. The day before, the National Park Service had closed the monument, after keeping it open during the first two weeks of the shutdown. It locked the visitor center and put a sign at the entrance, saying that Chiricahua was closed and that there were no amenities and no road maintenance.

But some people are stubborn. And when you have no funding and therefore no park rangers, and about all you can do to close 12,000 acres of public land is slap up a gentle warning sign, you're not going to keep certain determined people out.

click to enlarge Chiricahua National Monument closed on January 3, nearly two weeks into the partial federal shutdown. - FACEBOOK
Chiricahua National Monument closed on January 3, nearly two weeks into the partial federal shutdown.
For several days before, Hankins had been in an area south of Chiricahua, bow hunting with his father and brother. He killed a javelina on their first day, filling his card and leaving him with several days of hanging out, unable to hunt.

Hankins, who lived in Flagstaff for two years while attending Coconino Community College, had always wanted to visit Chiricahua. The park is known for its rounded rock pinnacles formed out of ancient, compacted volcanic ash.

"I'm a rock climber, so I feel like I like rocks more than just the average human being," Hankins said. "The rock structures there are amazing."

That Thursday, Hankins told his father and brother where he was going, packed his backpack with water, Goldfish crackers, and a sandwich, and headed to the Chiricahuas. He parked his car, walked the two miles to the trailhead, and started hiking.

After a half-mile, he emerged from a wooded section of the trail into the bright, blazing sun.

"The sun was so intense, it was hot," Hankins said. He stripped off his outer layers, down to his shirt and pants.

Then, he realized, he could take off far more, and so he took off everything but his hiking boots, his hat, and his sunglasses.

On an average day, about 172 people will visit Chiricahua National Monument, according to National Park Service statistics.

But during the shutdown, or at least on the day Hankins slipped in, he saw no one, although he heard two people yelling and saw their footprints in the freshly fallen snow. 

And, he was pretty sure, no one heard or saw him. If they did, no one reported it. The Cochise County Sheriff's Department said it did not receive any reports or complaints about someone fitting Hankins' description.

“It really felt like wilderness because there was no one out there," Hankins said. "Usually, my experience is when you go to places like that, like the Grand Canyon, or Yosemite, or any big national park or national monument, there’s always so many people there it's almost like an amusement park."

If he had encountered people, especially a family with kids, Hankins said he would have put his clothes back on before seeing them.

He documented the hike by setting a camera on a rock and setting the timer. Hankins posted several photos to Twitter, showing himself from behind.

In one photo, Hankins' arms are raised above his head in a triumphant V, his butt cheeks visible below a large backpack. The sky is a crisp blue, and Chiricahua's famous rock pinnacles are dusted with snow.

"I really felt like I could do whatever I wanted," Hankins said. "I was just kinda proving a point, to myself, that I could do that. Just taking my clothes off and walking naked.”
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.