There could be worse timing than releasing a travel book in the middle of a global pandemic, but television host and 1999 George Washington High School graduate Conor Knighton shrugged it off with a laugh.
“Not only did I release a travel book when nobody was traveling,” he said over the phone from his apartment in California. “I released a book when every bookstore in America was closed.”
The 39-year-old Charleston native took it in stride. Whether traveling or not, people were discovering “Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park.”
The New York Times included “Leave Only Footprints” in its list of summer reads.
“Ironically, people have responded to it because these are places they couldn’t go visit. It’s been a virtual trip to the parks,” Knighton said.
And the book is a kind of comfort during anxious times, he added.
“I think it’s just reassuring to be reminded the National Parks are out there,” Knighton said.
The “CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent took on the project to see all 59 of the nation’s state parks following heartbreak.
In 2015, he’d been engaged to be married, but then the relationship ended. For a while, he’d moped around his apartment. Friends told him he just needed to “get back out there,” that he needed a change of scenery.
“I don’t think they meant go see very national park in the country,” Knighton laughed. “I far over-corrected.”
The idea for the quest to spend a year traveling came after the National Park Service announced plans to celebrate its centennial in 2016.
Initially, Knighton thought it might make a cute story he could do for “CBS Sunday Morning.” The magazine show, he said, was one of the few places where a story like that could be done, but as he was composing the email to send to the show’s producers, he stopped. He deleted the message and started over.
“I outlined this far more ambitious, kind of outlandish pitch for them,” he said.
The television network said yes — sort of.
They were willing to let him do television travel segments on some of the national parks, about a third of them. These became “On the Trail” for “CBS Sunday Morning.”
The rest Knighton paid for out of his own pocket, so just before the start of 2016, Knighton quit his L.A. apartment, sold a bunch of his possessions, and put the rest in storage.
Then he plotted a course for the next year.
“I gave up any semblance of a social life,” he said. “But in a way, I was at my most social. I was constantly meeting people.”
He met people from all walks of life and park rangers with some of the most unusual jobs in America — the kennel manager at Denali National Park in Alaska who was in charge of the team of sled dogs the rangers kept, and an aquatic archaeologist in Florida who researched old shipwrecks.
“I was interacting with folks from all over the country,” Knighton said. “I expanded my social circle by not having a social life, if that makes sense.”
In Canyon Lands National Park, he met Tony and Linda Oyster, a retired couple who had given up their permanent address to wander.
“He was a business executive in Florida. On his 60th birthday, he walked out of his company and stepped into his RV. His wife was waiting for him in the parking lot,” Knighton explained.
The Oysters had been on the road for 10 years.
Throughout the year, Knighton learned about America’s National Parks, got tips from fellow travelers for what to see and do when he went to other parks, took some lessons in living along the way (encountered a couple of bears) and healed from a broken heart.
“It ended up being just what I needed,” he said.
Getting to 59 national parks in one year was a Herculean task, but so was condensing the experiences of 12 months into one book.
“I should have been more prepared for that,” Knighton said. “I frequently make five-minute television segments when we’ve shot hours and hours of footage.”
Every national park gets a mention, he said, but some parks are just covered more.
The parks are also organized, not so much by geography, as by a series of themes. Knighton paired Dry Tortuga National Park off the coast of Florida with Petrified National Forest Park in Arizona under the theme of forgiveness. He linked Yosemite National Park in California and Lake Clark National Park in Alaska with the idea of spirituality.
The book is a personal journey, not a travel itinerary, and West Virginia, which has no National Park within its borders, still gets the occasional mention.
“I gave a shout out to Spring Heights, a church camp I went to in Spencer, West Virginia,” Knighton said.
West Virginia figures into the DNA of “Leave Only Footprints.” Knighton said the state is the foundation for his love of nature.
“I trace a lot of that that back to my childhood,” he said. “I think it’s hard to grow up in West Virginia and not be an outdoorsy person. You’re surrounded by so much beauty.”
Knighton didn’t see his first national park until he was 14, he said. His family took a trip out west. They flew from Yeager Airport to Phoenix, Arizona, and then explored the Grand Canyon, as well as Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon in Utah.
“It kind of opened my eyes to how diverse the scenery in the country is,” he said. “It was just a different type of beauty and kicked off my love of travel.”
Since the completion of his year of traveling, Knighton has revisited some of the national parks in his book (and seen at least some of the new additions. There are now 62 national parks).
He said that was one of the great things about seeing the national parks, while they essentially remain the same year after year, there still different things to discover each time you visit.
“Seeing the Great Smokey Mountains in October is very different than seeing it in March or February,” Knighton explained. “It’s not a one-and-done experience.”
He’s also since been to the national parks of other countries, which he found fascinating, since the idea of setting aside vast tracts of beautiful land for the enjoyment and enrichment of its citizens is kind of an American idea.
“It’s been called America’s best idea,” Knighton said.
The year spent traveling was a good year, but he said he didn’t think it was the kind of project that he’d repeat, but he wouldn’t trade what he got out of it.
“I think it really changed how I think about nature, my relationship to nature and my relationship to spending time in these preserved places,” Knighton said.
Getting out and seeing a national park would be time well spent for just about anyone.
“Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park” by Conor Knighton. Crown, 323 pages. $28.