Perhaps you’ve enjoyed one of his feature stories on “CBS Sunday Morning.” Maybe you remember him as the host of “The Movie List” on AMC.
Or, if you traveled to a national park, any one of our then-59 national parks in 2016, perhaps you saw him on a trail.
That’s where Conor Knighton spent the entire year.
“Sunday Morning” viewers watched many of Knighton’s park adventures throughout the year during his “On the Trail” series.
But the brief stop the 1999 George Washington High School graduate made at his parents’ home in Charleston, as he zigzagged the country, didn’t make the cut.
It made the book, though.
“Leave Only Footprints,” released in April, chronicles Knighton’s visit to each park, as well as three others that have been added to the registry.
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Knighton didn’t originally plan to spend 2016 walking across freshly cooled lava, learning to scuba dive or tiptoeing through remote forests repeating, “Hey, bear,” in hopes of scaring away anything interested in making him a snack.
But it’s not really a surprise he found his way into the great outdoors, as he says they’ve always been part of his life.
“That’s what’s so great about West Virginia, is there’s so much natural beauty everywhere you look,” he said. “I did not have to try very hard to find my way down a trail, so I was frequently heading off into the woods as a kid.”
Knighton has always chosen to head off on adventure of some sort.
His first truly big solo adventure took him to Yale University — a school that first piqued his interest when he and his fellow eighth-graders were tasked with writing a report about a college.
“Lots of my friends picked a sports team they liked or a program they had seen on TV, but for some reason I picked Yale,” he said. “I was just curious about it.”
The curiosity led to a visit and then early admission from the only school to which he applied.
He wasn’t a journalism major — “CBS Sunday Morning” was a show his parents watched. Knighton instead majored in film studies with a focus on screenwriting.
(Fans of “Gilmore Girls” might have seen him in a short scene filmed on the Yale campus where he was billed as “Billy the Drama Major” or the guy Paris meets just before she meets her future husband.)
He bonded with a small group of fellow West Virginia students in those first few weeks of school — shared interests in pepperoni rolls and Tudor's Biscuit World helped out, he said — and, after graduation, adventured off with two of them to try his hand in Los Angeles.
“I was trying to be an actor at that point,” he said, explaining he soon learned nonfiction TV, i.e., playing host, was something for which he might be better suited. “I was going out for brown-haired guy No. 7 on ‘The O.C.’ and not getting it, but in the world of nonfiction TV, if you can write, if you can think on your feet and if you can ask a smart question, those are all assets.
“And that was a skillset that I would like to think that I had.”
Before long, Knighton landed a job as the host of multiple shows on the now defunct cable network Current TV.
In fact, he was the network’s very first host.
“The first words on Current were, ‘Hello, I’m Conor. Welcome to Current,’ which is a fun trivia fact that I thought people would care about one day,’ ” he said, with a laugh. “Now, I don’t think people realize Current was a channel.”
Knighton left Current after five and a half years, and though there were other jobs and TV pilots along the way and since, including hosting positions with AMC and Biography, his first piece for “Sunday Morning” aired in 2012.
“I did a piece about storage locker shows,” he said of shows like “Storage Wars,” which pit bidders against each other in a quest to gain access to unpaid units.
That first piece led to other opportunities, and, by the end of 2015, Knighton loaded up his own storage locker as he prepared to head out on his year-long national park adventure.
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“Leave Only Footprints” is not a travel guide.
It’s not a bulleted “here’s what to see in each of the U.S. National Parks and the best time to do it” book. Readers explore the park through Knighton’s own adventures, learning the history of the areas, and experiencing the culture through food and architecture and meeting the cast of characters — park rangers, strangers turned friends and even, for a short time, potential love interests — he met along the way.
Knighton’s “vision quest” of sorts was prompted by the demise of his engagement.
“The week the save-the-date cards had been approved was the week the wedding was called off,” he explained, though he goes into more detail in the book’s prologue. “At the time, it was very sad news. I was shocked and very set adrift. I had this plan for what I thought I was going to look like, and when the plan changed, at the time, I went into kind of a self-imposed quarantine.”
He credits his friends with suggesting a change of scenery, though, in hindsight, he said he might have overcorrected with the degree to which he changed.
“I am sure they did not mean go to every national park in the country,” he said. “But that changing of scenery ended up changing my life. It was exactly what I needed, and now I can’t imagine having life gone any other way.”
He said his friends’ prompts, coupled with an article he read about the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, sparked the idea for the park visits and subsequent “Sunday Morning” stories.
He pitched his idea for a story a week, but producers opted to broadcast some of the visits instead of all.
Their decision didn’t matter, though, as Knighton, “ready to be inspired,” was prepared to go regardless.
So, on New Year’s Eve 2015, after the holidays with his family, he headed out on his adventure flying to Acadia National Park in Maine, where he awoke at 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day to hike to the summit of Cadillac Mountain to watch the first sunrise over the contiguous United States.
“(It) really only gives you a couple seconds head start on the year,” he said. “But the year I had planned, I thought I was going to need every second possible.”
From that first park, Knighton crisscrossed the country from California and Alaska to Hawaii and the Dry Tortugas off of Key West, traveling as far away as the National Park of the American Samoa.
“When I began the journey, obviously if you’re signing up to go to all of them, I knew that includes a trip to American Samoa,” he said of the park that took him 7,000 miles from home.
Knighton said he doesn’t have a favorite park, but his first national park adventures were as a teenager when his family flew to Phoenix and explored several western parks. He said memories of that trip made his return to places he hadn’t visited in two decades special.
“Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park in Utah really left an impression on me back then,” he said. “They’re geographically so different than what you would see in West Virginia. It’s bright red and orange sandstone formations. I felt like I was on Mars. To 14-year-old me, it was like I had traveled to another planet. Those remain some of my favorite parks.”
He also mentioned his travels to Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley, which are accessible by four-seater planes and are so remote they sometimes don’t track visitors.
“But boy, once you’re out there, it’s fantastic,” he said.
Knighton said he enjoyed each of the parks for different reasons, explaining he learned lessons from each place he visited and arranged the book accordingly.
“I think one of the advantages of having gone to all of them (parks) and not just some of them is that you’re able to see the threads that tie these places together, so when I sat down to write the book, instead of organizing it chronologically or geographically, I decided to order it thematically,” he said. “Because all of the sudden, Kobuk Valley in Alaska and Cuyahoga Valley just outside of Cleveland had a common link in terms of what they were able to teach me about food and living off the land.
“And the Petrified Forest in Arizona and the Dry Tortugas in Florida both had lessons to teach about forgiveness.”
Though he doesn’t have a favorite, he does have a most memorable.
“I think seeing and feeling the lava at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park stands out as a really memorable experience,” he said. “There are lots of parks with beautiful lakes and mountains and trees, but there is no other park in which you are able to witness Mother Nature giving birth, which is essentially what that is, and you are feeling the heat from the lava, and you’re watching some of the newest land in the country forming right before your eyes.”
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The contents of Knighton’s life, pre-park adventure, remain in storage in California as he currently hangs his hat in a rental in Seattle, Wash.
He says he’s mostly bounced around the country in recent years but had planned to empty the unit and find something more permanent just before Covid-19 hit.
“I make sure to pay the (storage) bill every month,” he said, laughing, adding he remembers what happens to those who don’t pay.
He continues to do stories for "Sunday Morning" and had hoped to do a book tour for “Leave Only Footprints,” which was released in April.
“Had it been a normal summer, I would have been, hopefully, doing some events in West Virginia,” he said. “Doing a signing at Taylor Books in Charleston, but all of that got thrown out the window.”
Releasing a travel book during the earlier days of the pandemic, when many stores were closed, made things even more unusual, he said.
“That was a strange time to come out with something,” he said. “That said, people had more time to read.”
He said he’s heard from people who have planned trips for next year or years to come because of the book. He's also heard from others simply inspired to explore areas close to home.
And he said it's important to remember it doesn't take a national park designation to explore, nor does it take that designation to make a place beautiful.
"If you've been to a place like Shenandoah (National Park), there's a lot of hills just outside of Beckley that look similar," he said. “...There's a lot of mountains in West Virginia I would argue are just as beautiful that just don't have national park designations."
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“Leave Only Footprints” is available in most bookstores and online at Amazon. Audible subscribers can also listen to an audiobook version narrated by Knighton.