Leave Only Footprints by Conor Knighton

“It was always possible to trace my experience in a park to the experiences of those who had walked the land long before I ever set foot on it.”

I’ve always been more of an armchair traveler than a globe-trotter (luckily for me in this year of canceled plans). I prefer living vicariously through books by people like Bill Bryson and David Sedaris, who can portray the joys and headaches of their various travels with gentle humor. My latest read in this category was Leave Only Footprints by Conor Knighton, published earlier this year.

In this non-fiction read, Knighton (a CBS correspondent) tells the story of the year he spent visiting 59 of America’s National Parks. He undertook this ambitious project in 2016 after a broken engagement left him desperately in need of a change of scene, and over the course of the year crisscrossed the country from Maine to Arizona to American Samoa to North Dakota and back again. In the process, he met park rangers, locals, and other travelers who gave him the inside scoop on the beautiful landscapes and ecosystems, and he also had lots of solitude to reflect on the meaning of nature, community, history, God, and more. With the book, he seeks to describe the lifechanging effects both of the individual awe-inspiring parks and of his journey as a whole, making a case for humility, unity, exploration, and conservation.

As a nature lover, I adored this book. His description of the cathedral-like Redwood forest and the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula sparked my imagination and increased my longing to see them for myself someday, and his appreciation for desert landscapes in the Southwest gave me a greater appreciation for their unique beauty. I especially appreciated his taking the time to delve into the unique cultures of parks in more remote locations like American Samoa, Hawaii, and Alaska; the history and peoples in these places are just as important as the landscapes. All in all I thought this book was a beautiful introduction to both our National Parks and to the wide scenic diversity of the United States as a whole.

That said, it took me a little while to get used to the book’s structure. Rather than taking a strictly chronological, “travel diary” approach to his journey like I expected, Knighton divides the book into topical chapters, grouping together similar parks under one heading; these headings can be as straightforward as “Volcanoes” or “Mountains”, or as unexpected as “Love” or “People”. For me, it felt like the individual parks and his time in them weren’t necessarily described in much detail. Instead, each park was given a broad overview before being compared to another one, interspersed with Knighton’s epiphanies and inspiration from his experiences. The book was still effective, but it seemed like the ambitious scope of the project sacrificed a sense of narrative in order to keep things concise.

However, the humor is on-point and Knighton is relatable, with an infectious enthusiasm for our national scenic heritage. If you like travel narratives, hiking, the National Parks, or historical figures like Teddy Roosevelt, I recommend you try this book.

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