Leave Only Footprints by Conor Knighton
Haven’t had a good “my-year-of” book in a while. Here: visiting every national park in the USA – 59 of them, at the time of writing – in a calendar year.
He doesn’t do it alphabetically, despite the “Acadia-to-Zion” subtitle; nor really geographically. And the book is neither alphabetical nor geographical nor chronological. He picks a few parks for each chapter and unites them with a theme (water, love, diversity, whatever).
The style takes some getting used to. I realize 59 parks is a lot to fit into one book, and I would fully accept giving some of them short shrift. But often a chapter will start out talking about one park, and it could be a mere paragraph or two before you have suddenly shifted your focus to an entirely different one. It often left me, “Wait! Wait! What happened to…” I did get used to it, and grew less and less likely to settle in and form an attachment to any particular park description that might start a chapter, knowing that it would very likely be snatched away from me abruptly at any moment. Still, even though it wasn’t till page 245 that we were introduced to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, and by then I was used to the device, I really think this park deserved more than a page. Guadalupe, we’re told, is one of the least visited parks in the lower 48, and contains the highest point in Texas. Then we suddenly start talking about Rocky Mountain National Park. It reminded me of the blancmange Monty Python skit where they start following an ordinary couple down the street with a voiceover and then suddenly shift the camera away saying that because they are so ordinary we are now going to turn our attention instead to…
As a companion, the author is amiable enough with no major tics or annoyances. He’s young and has a broken heart, but that isn’t too intrusive a device. I had a couple of favorite parts:
a) When he goes to Volcanoes National Park and hikes out on the lava flow, like we did a few years ago. “Had no one else been standing out there, I would have absolutely turned back. It felt like I was marching into hell. How on earth was this allowed? It couldn’t possibly be safe. Walking across a field of lava felt like driving over downed power lines or skating to the center of a newly frozen river… But up ahead of me, I saw groups of tourists in the distance. There were even a few rangers walking around, answering questions. I had to zig and zag to get where they were standing, avoiding bits of fresh, bubbling lava that had risen to the surface. It felt like dodging puddles on a sidewalk, except in this case a misstep wouldn’t mean soggy socks, it would mean burning my foot off.”
Sorry for the very long excerpt – it’s just that, YES, every single sentence is EXACTLY how it was! I described it as like marching into Mordor.
b) A beautiful thought as he ends a few days Isle Royale National Park, an island off Michigan’s upper peninsula, accessible only by seaplane or boat. As he’s waiting for the boat to take him back to civilization, a fellow park visitor comments, “It’s pretty great being cut off from the outside world.” Author replies, “I think we’re in the outside world. Everyone else is just cut off from this.”
I am dying to go to more national parks – I have such a hankering lately to go west, and that was the reason I was drawn to this book. I particularly want to go to Yosemite, as well as Yellowstone and Glacier. I’m woefully deficient in park experience. I was surprised, though, that I actually have been to six:
– Volcanoes, HI
– Pinnacles, CA
– Channel Islands, CA
– Badlands, SD
– Wind Cave, SD
– Acadia, ME ( )