Book + audio excerpt: Conor Knighton’s “Leave Only Footprints”

In his new book, “Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park” (Crown), Conor Knighton recounts his year-long trek through America’s National Parks, many of which he documented in reports for “Sunday Morning.”

You can read an excerpt below, as well as listen to Knighton read this excerpt from his audio book recording of “Leave Only Footprints”:

Yellowstone was the world’s first national park. The first sentence on the park’s website makes sure you are aware of that bit of trivia. To be first is to be remembered.

Every journalist wants to be the first to publish a story. Every company wants to be the first to market with their product. Every kid in my first-grade class in West Virginia knew local hero Chuck Yeager was the first pilot to break the sound barrier. Who was the second? They didn’t teach that in school.

Crown Publishing

But first does not always mean best (although in Yellowstone’s case, it just might). Still, a first kiss, a first love, a first date – these are the moments that we memorialize, even if they end up not being all that great. First equals special.

That may be why there are so many spots that claim to offer the first view of the sunrise in the United States. The sunrise marks the first light of a new day, and town tourism bureaus across the country claim that they alone are where you can see that light before anyone else. Of course, with the sunrise, being first is just a matter of seconds.

Guam bills itself as “Where America’s Day Begins.” Out in the middle of the Pacific, closer to Japan than to Hawaii, Guam is fourteen hours ahead of the East Coast, since it lies just west of the International Date Line. But to count Guam as the first sunrise almost seems like cheating, especially since, fifteen hundred miles farther east, there’s Wake Island, an Air Force base where the sign on the runway once read “Where America’s Day Really Begins.” Dang, Wake Island. Way to throw a little sunrise shade.

After passing over Asia and Europe, the sun eventually shines on Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park in Maine. From mid-September through mid-March, this is where the first rays of sun are said to hit the contiguous United States. Even that honor is true only during the winter months, since the tilt of the earth affects the sun’s position on the horizon. In the summer, Mars Hill, Maine, sees the first light. (And since both spots are pretty remote, Eastport, Maine, advertises itself as the first city to see the sun rise.) Perhaps there’s a reason an asterisk looks just like a sun.

Anyway, as far as I can tell, on January 1, the highest peak of Acadia National Park is the first place in the contiguous United States to see the sun rise. The first sunrise on the first day of the year. And so that’s where I decided to kick off my quest to see every national park in the country. I knew it was going to be a busy year – I wanted to get a head start.

In the summer, tour buses can drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain in a matter of minutes. But in the winter, the road shuts down. Everything shuts down. In the nearby town of Bar Harbor, even big chain hotels put up “See you next spring” signs. Only a few restaurants stay open, feeding the locals who have decided to brave the winter.

Those who stay have a national park to themselves. Acadia gets 80 percent of its visitors in just four months of the year, but it’s gorgeous in the winter – crystal blue lakes become bright-white ice-fishing destinations, hillsides become ski runs, and the road that leads to the top of Cadillac Mountain, covered in snow, becomes a dangerous, slippery hike.

Conor Knighton visits the highest point on the Eastern Seaboard, and the first place where sunrise hits the U.S. CBS News

Excerpt from “Leave Only Footprints” by Conor Knighton, published by Crown, a division of Penguin Random House. © 2020. Reprinted by permission.

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