Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park

by Conor Knighton, 2020

Really fun, and funny, memoir by Conor Knighton on the year he took to visit all 59 National Parks. He started on January 1 in Acadia to watch the sun rise, and he ended at Point Reyes National Seashore to watch the sun set on December 31, 2016. He is trying to recover from a broken heart – his fiance jilted him just a few months before their wedding day, and then she goes and marries someone else just 4 months later. Heartbreak. He takes us along for the journey as he slowly recovers, forgives, and finds himself and a new hope for the future. He is a journalist for CBS Sunday Morning and they agreed to foot the bill for most of the journey. It’s a delight to read. He’s funny and the information he gives along the way is so personal, you feel like you are there with him, through each park and on the road, or plane, or boat to get to each one. Really enjoyed this book! It was a recommendation from the Library’s monthly memoir/biography email.

Some favorites:

  1. First of all, I would like to go to all of the National Parks, except for the really remote ones in Alaska.
  2. “Hot Springs National Park is in the middle of a city.”
  3. “We need places such as Everglades National Park where we may be more keenly aware of our Creator’s infinitely varied, infinitely beautiful, and infinitely bountiful handiwork,” Truman said.
  4. In Lake Clark National Park in Alaska, he came across the Samaritan Lodge, a charity for veterans with PTSD, through an organization called “Operation Heal Our Patriots.”
  5. “Like Muir, I still mostly envision God through the lens of my Protestant upbringing. In its most basic sense, I’m drawn to spirituality for the sme reason Chaplain Jim thinks that veterans need it in their lives: I want to feel connected to something greater than myself, and I do feel that. But I no longer think there’s one specific path that leads to enlightenment or salvation.” (I was sad to read that line and hope and pray he finds the truth of salvation, Jesus, before he dies. This was written in the midst of the horrible time of Trump and Evangelical Christians who have caused so many to turn away from Christianity, throwing out the baby with the bath water.)
  6. Regarding Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, “I’d been told this was the quietest place in the country.”
  7. “The revving of engines, the occasional honking of horns, a radio turned up a bit too loud–not only are these sounds annoying, they’re harmful to wildlife. Imagine a bird in a tree, attempting to whistle its song. If the sound can’t travel as far because of all of the cars traveling below, that bird isn’t going to be able to find and seduce its mate.”
  8. He tells us about Bear School in Katmai, and how he hears, “Hey bear, hey bear,” all day long for days in the distance. “Since bears do not speak English, literally any noise or sound would serve the same purpose. Singing a song, perhaps, or chanting the names of lesser-known U.S. vice presidents. “Hannibal Hamlin!” “Schuyler Colfax!”…”At Bear School, we also learned the difference between grizzly bears and brown bears. Grizzlies are considered a subspecies of browns and live in interior areas like Yellowstone. Brown bears, like the ones at Katmai, have access to coastal food sources and are typically bigger than grizzlies. Katmai’s browns are enormous.”
  9. In Sequoia National Park, he tells us that Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act to protect the trees in 1890. Once a Sequoia takes root and grows, their only real threat is us. In the park is “Big Stump Grove,” which he feels should be required viewing for all as it is the former site of the Smith Comstock Mill. “There, massive stumps line a two-mile trail, remnants of the giants that once towered over the meadow. While few tourists ever visit this part of the park, it should be a requirement. Walking past the stumps felt like walking through a cemetery–seeing what had been lost helped me appreciate what had been saved.”
  10. The Redwood Trees have interlocking roots that keep the giants from toppling over: “That may be their most human quality of all. Like us, the trees are stronger together than they are on their own.”
  11. In 1902, when Crater Lake became a park, “the park’s first geologist, Joseph Diller, wrote about a tree that he had noticed floating around the lake in an “erect position.”” They studied and tracked it and found it zig-zagged across the lake, seemingly at random. They call is the Old Man. It’s still doing so on Crater Lake. What a mystery! In 1988, a crew of scientists tied up the Old Man so they wouldn’t accidentally run into it at night. A terrible storm blew in and lasted until they untied the Old Man. Scientists think the stump is 450 years old. As to why it floats straight up, no one has quite figured that out. “He’s a reminder that sometimes, it’s fun…to be stumped.”
  12. In Big Bend National Park, he tells about a border town, Boquillas, that exists solely for the tourist business from across the border. It was shut down in 2002 when the border closed, but it was allowed to reopen to border crossings in 2011. The restaurant, Jose Falcon, is where they ate and it sounds very tasty. “Boquillas is so far from the rest of civilization, it would be an odd choice for drug-runners to pick as a crossing point. The journey to get here from anywhere else on the Mexican side is long and treacherous. There’s also nowhere to hide. If shady characters ever did show up in Boquillas, the entire town would know, and it would be in everyone’s best interest to report them. The last thing anyone wants is for the border crossing to close again–there’s far too much to gain from keeping Boquillas open and accessible.” Also, he tells about a Texas senator in 1935 who suggested Big Bend become an international park, a “peace park,” that would be jointly managed by Mexico and the U.S.A. and “It’s hard to imagine any sort of international peace park happening with Mexico today. Not with all the talk of building a “big, beautiful wall” that would divide our two nations. But as I discovered at Big Bend, a big beautiful wall already exists on our southern border.” The Santa Elena Canyon: “…a pair of massive limestone cliffs stretching fifteen hundred feet to the sky, framing the river below. Solid and serene, the walls were built for free by Mother Nature, millions of years ago.”
  13. American Samoa National Park – “…established in 1988, is spread out over three separate islands. The bulk of it is on Tutuila, the largest island, where 95 percent of the population lives. It protects miles of beautiful, rocky coastline and a lush tropical rain forest, full of fruit bats and colorful crabs. The coral reefs are teeming with aquatic life, and the islands are internationally famous for having some of the cleanest air in the world.” He talks about the unfairness of Samoans not being U.S. citizens by birth, like Puerto Ricans, Guamians, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Northern Mariana Islands. For some stupid reason, the U.S. Supreme Court did not consider Samoans worthy of U.S. citizenship. If they want to vote, etc., they have to apply for U.S. citizenship like a person from another country. He gives the example of a Samoan who served in the U.S. Army for 20 years, served in Vietnam and earned 2 purple hearts, and is not considered a U.S. citizen.
  14. “By 2030, Glacier National Park is predicted to have no glaciers left.”
  15. He’s very funny: “When I arrived to check in for the hike [in Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska], our guide asked if I’d brought my own crampons or wanted to borrow some. I didn’t know what crampons were–they sounded like Tampax that somehow made your period worse.
  16. In Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, he writes another funny line after the ranger talks about dinosaurs he’s never heard of: “Like most Americans, my dino knowledge went extinct after the “Fourth Grade Era.”” There is thievery in the Petrified Forest National Park, and they have tried different strategies to prevent it: First, with warnings and fines and signs, which didn’t work and couldn’t be enforced. Second, with a gift shop selling the beautiful, petrified wood. People often mail back the stolen wood, but it can’t be put back anywhere in the park once it has left its site–it loses all value–so they have a “Conscience Pile” where all the wood that was stolen and returned is placed.
  17. Great Basin National Park in Nevada is a dark sky park and the Milky Way is brilliant there. It’s on Highway 50, the “loneliest road in America.” “At an age when most kids think they’re the center of the universe, the stars of Great Basin helped remind this kid that he wasn’t. That none of us are.” Light pollution can be eliminated so easily, with the flick of a switch. “Every year in Florida, millions of sea turtle hatchlings die when they waddle off in the direction of artificial light sources along the beach, mistaking the glow of condos for the light of the moon. Frogs, who croak at night to find a mate, may never realize it’s night if it’s too bright outside.”
  18. Saguaro National Park, in Tucson, is also a dark sky park, even though it’s in a city of a million people. Tucson has light curfews, rules regarding lumen levels, and all lights point down. Saguaro National Park closes to vehicle traffic at dark; they padlock gates — to prevent theft of the giant Saguaros, which sell for $100 a foot. You can still walk into the park at night, though. The best thing to do, if you are in the park at night, is to turn off your light, just stand still, listen, and look at the stars. “Recently, we’ve started to think more about how the bright lights from our screens are affecting our bodies. But I wonder how the lights from our cities might be affecting our souls. As people, we arrived on the planet with a “dark mode” pre-installed, but for the past century, we’ve been turning it off. In an effort to see our own world more clearly, we have obscured our view of other worlds and–quite possibly–of the divine.”
  19. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota – the bison are plentiful. Roosevelt was concerned at the rate the bison were disappearing in 1889. “He was right to be concerned. When Roosevelt took office in 1901, the bison was nearly extinct–an estimated three hundred remained in the entire country. Thanks to protections he put in place as president, well over three hundred thousand of them now roam across North America.”
  20. “In Alaska, they call snowmobiles “snowmachines.”… To have such a mighty mountain honor William McKinley, a five-foot-seven Ohioan who had never so much as set foot in Alaska, seemed silly.” Talking about Denali, the mountain in Alaska, which the natives called Denali, “the High One.”
  21. While on the road, he used Tinder and dated a few women. His cameraman, Efrain, said of one whose playlist was fantastic: “Every song, dude. Every song is good. Marry her.”
  22. He met a girl on the trail in the Pacific Northwest, and she was a doctor and a health nut, while he was snacking on Lunchables. They met for dinner: “Perhaps she might like to get dinner with me the next night? No processed cheese product involved, I promised. They don’t make Dinnerables.” The relationship didn’t work. He describes it like this: “I guess it’s kind of like the subtle difference between a state park and a national park. State parks are great, right? But once you know places like Yosemite are out there, then it’s hard not to want something that feels like that. I want a relationship that feels like a national park.
  23. In Gates of the Arctic there is a town, Anaktuvuk, which “literally translates to “Place of Many Caribou Droppings.” In Alaska, living in a shitty village is something to brag about.” He goes hunting with a young Alaskan who once stayed away for three days and nights hunting caribou. His mom was worried. “Tell a kid to “come home at dark” in Alaska, and they might not show up till September.”
  24. Talking about 14ers: “There are fewer than one hundred mountain peaks in the United States with elevations of at least fourteen thousand feet, and more than half of those 14ers are found in Colorado.”
  25. He includes a discussion on diversity and the lack of it in our National Parks. Blacks do not feel comfortable visiting our National Parks, and for good reason in the South. Oprah Winfrey visited Yosemite. Patagonia used a black person in their ads. Just seeing yourself doing things in nature can make it easier to happen, and that needs to happen in America.
  26. On Isle Royale where there is no cell phone connection: “My few days on Isle Royale were the equivalent of a hard reset. After spending so long without touching my phone, I was reminded of how easy–and how beneficial–it can be to go even just a few hours without it. Really, the idea that I would look away–even for a moment–from surroundings so awe inspiring seemed insane. I’d be missing the forest for the tweets.”
  27. Yellowstone in the winter is as quiet as the Great Sand Dunes. “The thick blanket of snow absorbed all the extra sound, and now that the rest of the tour group wasn’t fidgeting near me, I let that blanket fully envelop me. I couldn’t hear a thing.”