After Knighton and his fiancé broke up not long before their wedding, he was searching for a project that would help take him out of his head while still allowing him to work. He convinced the studio he did contract work for to help finance a year of traveling to all of the US National Parks. The book is part memoir of that time, part history of the parks, part sociological study in as wide-ranging areas as first people culture, diversity in parks, climate change, and technological modernization (or not) within parks.
I found this book on a random Audible sale, at the same time that I found Becoming Odyssa, which I read last month. It was one of those two-for-one sales, and I already had a primary book chosen. Both of these audiobooks are read by the author (never my favorite thing!), and from the two descriptions, I was more inclined to get Becoming Odyssa. However, Conor Knighton is actually quite a good narrator – likely because he has trained in speaking for TV – and so I ended up choosing Leave No Footprints (and then getting Odyssa in print from the library).
When I began the book in mid-March, I did worry that the memoir portion (also not my favorite thing) would take center stage. I worried that the broken engagement, told from the guy’s POV, would take on an air of wounded-white-man-pride, and plague the book with privileged whining. Yes, I’ve grown wary of White American Man stories, and memoirs in general, and so I approached the book with an abundance of caution.
However, the book did not come across as naval-gazing or bitterness from a man who didn’t receive his due. Knighton approaches the project professionally even as he undergoes personal pain. He acknowledges his privilege while, say, working with a photographer who crossed from Mexico to the US in a kiddie pool as a toddler; and while talking with Black park rangers who struggle to be accepted into the park world and to get other Black Americans to visit the National Park system. Knighton is self-deprecating, quick to point out when he does stupid things, and eager to listen and learn. Those things make the narrative interesting.
It also helps that much of the book is focused on the parks themselves, not on the memoir bits. Yes, this is Knighton’s journey through the parks, but the parks take center stage. The book groups them not by geography but by shared commonalities that then feed into the theme of each chapter (history, sociology, technology, endangered species, first people culture, climate, etc). I learned so much, far more than I could ever share here. Over my month of listening to the book – I took it slow, to digest all the bits and break off to do extra study about what I was learning – I really got to know the parks far better than, say, through my photo-journal book from National Geographic (gorgeous, but short on real info).
Y’all know I love hiking. My hiking group is set to visit a National Park in October – Big Bend, the closest to us (400+ miles, 6 hours driving). It’s the only National Park that I’ve ever visited despite being 42 years old, because 1) poverty and 2) San Antonio is sooooo far away from everything. I’ve long wanted to visit others, but tbh, I only really knew about a few of them, the big famous ones. Now, I have a better idea of what I do and don’t want to prioritize (top priority: Glacier National Park, Montana, because GAH the ice is receding fast!), and how many National Parks don’t fall within my scope of interests (Everglades? No thank you. Not walking, anyway!). The book ended up being a slight practical guide in addition to all the rest.
The title of the book is taken from the phrase “Take only memories, leave only footprints,” but eh, I like this version better, and use it as my personal philosophy within all kinds of parks and trails: Take only photographs, leave only footprints.
Performance: As I said above, the book is read by the author, and he does a great job with the narration. The audio production is quite good, and I highly recommend it.