Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Excellent written, especially when talking about the parks
Cons: Agenda derails the book a little too often
The Bottom Line:
Journey through the parks
Agenda takes over some
Wish more on the parks
Left Me with Mixed Reactions
The instant I heard about Leave Only Footprints, I was hooked. While I haven’t acted on it, I have thought about trying to visit all of the National Parks, so reading a book by someone to did just that, and did it in a year, was intriguing. I was hoping the book would stick to stories about the parks without using them to preach at us. Sadly, it did have some of that in it as well.
Conor Knighton’s life took a turn on him when his fiancée left him without any warning. As he struggled to figure out what was next for him, he saw an advertisement for the 100th anniversary of America’s National Parks. And so an idea was born – what if he visited all of the official National Parks in one year. Soon he was asking CBS Sunday Morning, who he was a freelance correspondent for, if they would be interested in having him do reports from his journey. Thus a year – and the adventure of a lifetime – was born.
Conor started 2016 in Acadia National Park. This park in Maine is the spot where sunlight first hits the continental United States in January. From there, he crisscrossed the country, going to parks in the order where he could get interviews. There was no set pattern, although for the book, he organizes them by themes. Some are obvious, like the chapters on Caves or Canyons. Others might not make sense until you read them, but the connections are there.
The writing in this book is excellent. It is easy to get lost in the stories he tells, and when he is describing what he is seeing or giving some interesting history, you feel like you are there experiencing it with him. Unfortunately, I felt the book could have used more of this travelogue. Some parks he fails to describe at all, in fact, instead focusing on some of the people he met along the way.
Unfortunately, as I feared, Conor has some chapters that are very little about any of the parks but are more about pushing an agenda. Some of those parks get shafted as a result. For example, we learn that Shenandoah National Park used to have segregated facilities, including a segregated campground. That is wrong. However, that is in the past. It could have been an interesting couple of paragraphs, but that is pretty much all he talks about when it comes to this park, and we learn nothing about what the park looks like or what it is famous for. Likewise, the time spent in Great Smokey Mountains mostly talks about an area added to the park after a dam and lake were built to power factories during World War II, forcing a community to move and cutting them off from their graveyard. Our time in American Samoa mostly talks about how the people who live in this territory are treated by the United States government. The chapter on People spends more time complaining about how crowded the most popular parks are than it does talking about any of the parks it is supposed to be highlighting. Even when I agreed with him, and I often did, I still found this frustrating. This isn’t why I picked up the book.
But when he is talking about the parks themselves, this book shines. I’ve decided there are a few parks I don’t need to visit personally – some of the ones in Alaska are too remote for me, for example. But I really want to visit Isle Royal during the summer, and I need to take a trip to Great Basin at night for some star gazing soon.
Along the way, we also get to know Conor better as he shares some stories from his own life. Most of the stories from people he met along the way are just as interesting.
There are inserts with pictures a couple of times in the book. I wish there were more, but I will take what I can get.
Most of all, this book left me jealous. I haven’t really been able to travel for a couple of years now, and I’m ready to get out there and travel. I’ve got to start planning some of my own trips to these parks. I wish I could do what he did and just take off for a year, but I don’t have the funds to go that, so I will have to do them a bit more piecemeal. Still, this book has reawakened my desire to see more of America’s parks and America itself.
On that level, Leave Only Footprints succeeded spectacularly. If you are interested in America’s National Parks, I definitely do recommend the book. I just wish it had focused on them more.