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Taking only memories - ‘Leave Only Footprints’

April 13, 2020
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If you’ve ever paid a visit to one of this country’s National Parks, you know that there is a surfeit of awe-inspiring natural wonder in the U.S., albeit one that is perhaps not given quite the degree of respect that it deserves. It’s hard to imagine standing in one of these majestic places and not feeling overwhelmed by its beauty.

Now imagine doing that for ALL OF THEM.

That’s Conor Knighton’s travel guide/memoir “Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-To-Zion Journey Through Every National Park” (Crown, $28), a book whose subhead is both accurate and insufficient. Knighton, a correspondent for “CBS This Morning,” does precisely what he says – he goes to every single National Park (though a couple more have been established since his 2016 trip.

Zigzagging through the country over the course of the year – sometimes with his sage photographer sidekick, often alone – Knighton offers up a loving look at our national natural pride. But it’s an internal journey as well, with Knighton also spending this time dealing with the aftermath of his breakup from his fiancée and other personal turmoil.

Knighton starts his journey literally as early as possible, joining a handful of die-hards who spend their New Year’s Eve making their way to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Maine’s Acadia National Park, all of them seeking to be the first to see the sunrise. It’s an apt beginning, providing a spot-on illustration of the cheerful relentlessness that Knighton brings to the entire trip.

He makes an interesting choice, opting against laying the book out chronologically. Instead, he groups his visits thematically, with chapter headings that offer a bit of insight as to their contents. While one could argue that something is lost without the linear retelling of the story, there’s something really compelling about the connections he’s choosing to emphasize instead.

He leads off with “Sunrise” and closes with “Sunset,” but it isn’t all that straightforward. There are chapters with titles like “God” and “Forgiveness” and “Mystery” and “Love” to go along with “Caves” and “Canyons” and “Trees.” By attaching like to like, Knighton is able to delve deeper into the thoughts and feelings being generated by these experiences; the story seems fuller not just despite being told largely out of order, but BECAUSE it is out of order.

Winding through it all, alongside his vividly and passionately rendered descriptions of his experiences in these places, a thorough introduction to the National Parks writ large and the people – past and present – responsible for creating, maintaining and protecting them. The people who teach and continue to constantly learn about these incredible settings.

Standing in sandy silence in one of the quietest places on Earth or looking up into one of its darkest skies. Standing atop mountains and beside lakes. In deserts and forests and on islands and in caves. And everywhere, the people – the people who seek to celebrate these places and the people whose literal job it is to do so.

There’s also a healthy amount of Knighton himself sprinkled throughout, to the reader’s benefit. His sense of humor – largely self-deprecatory – is never far from the surface, even as he relates the more emotionally fraught aspects of his life (and maybe a few Tinder dates). Still, he manages to be consistently present in the moment; his introspective moments are tied just as indelibly to his surroundings as his joyful noise.

(Shout out to Efraim, the photographer who accompanied Knighton on parts of this journey and who managed to drop a handful of insightful and delightful pearls of wisdom over the course of the book. Every big journey could use an Efraim.)

In addition, one can’t help but take into account our world’s current circumstances as well. As the situation doesn’t allow for us to venture out to see these incredible sights for ourselves right now, there’s something to be said for hearing a well-told account of said sights. Obviously, someone else’s story isn’t the equal of your own first-hand experience, but the view through Knighton’s eyes is definitely a good one.

“Leave Only Footprints” is an engaging and captivating piece of travel writing, packed with the small details that really drive the reality of a place. Conor Knighton makes for a charming and entertaining guide, offering a smart and funny look at our country’s network of natural wonder and one man’s journey of a lifetime.

“Take only memories, leave only footprints.” – Chief Si’alh

Last modified on Monday, 13 April 2020 13:05

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