International travel is absolutely awesome, but it’s all too easy for young travelers to forget that we have a wildly diverse backyard of our own worth visiting. To be fair, it’s more of a series of backyards, expertly managed by the U.S. National Parks Service, but it has been around for almost 100 years. Plenty of Americans are die hard park enthusiasts, but it often seems like the fresh-out-of-college set is quick to go literally anywhere else. But potential vagabonds take note: From the Everglades to Zion, we have a lot to offer a wayward traveler here in the U.S. And with over 400 parks, chances are there’s one closer to you than you think.
On August 25, 2016, the National Parks Service will turn 100 years old. To help get you excited about that, Conor Knighton took the reigns and hit the road. The CBS reporter learned about the upcoming centennial, approached his bosses with a hair-brained idea, and the suits bit. Knighton now spends his days bouncing across the country showing you a different park every Sunday morning and explaining why you should give a damn in his series, “On The Trail.”
The Yale graduate who helped launch Current-TV isn’t a razor-tongued Bourdain-type, he’s just a passionate dude who likes being outside. But, he’s doing something that we can all be inspired by — upending his quiet life and exploring our stunning, diverse, enormous backyard.
What’s the goal of “On The Trail”?
I’m spending the year hunting down fascinating stories set in and around National Parks. It’s no surprise these places are beautiful — my goal is to showcase how interesting they are. If I’m doing my job right, the pieces shouldn’t feel any different from any of the other diverse segments that air each week on Sunday Morning. They just happen to be set in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.
How’d the series come about?
I’ve done a number of stories for Sunday Morning — pieces on history, art, celebrity profiles. I’ve always been based out of Los Angeles, and I’ve always flown to wherever the story might be. Last year, knowing that the Park Service Centennial was coming up, I started to pitch a piece pegged to the 100th Anniversary. But then I thought…why not do a SERIES of stories? A YEAR LONG series?
From that moment on, I became a little obsessed. I wrote some absurdly long emails to my bosses in New York, sketching out what I was thinking and how we might pull it off. Example pieces, a possible route, all of that. I pushed send, feeling good I’d at least gotten it out of my system. I was convinced it was good idea, but I was also totally convinced it would never happen.
But they were intrigued, and we started to chat about what a series of parks segments might actually look like. It quickly became clear I’d basically be living on the road full-time. I think they assumed that might be a deal breaker. For me, it sealed the deal — before I even got an official “yes,” I’d put my stuff in storage, sold my car, and headed out On the Trail.
It seems a lot of Americans forget to travel in their home country. How would you encourage people to get out and explore the parks?
Well, big picture, park visitation is up. 305 million visitors went to park units in 2015 and 2016 looks like it’s going to break that record. So, more Americans are going to National Parks than ever before. But a lot of them are going to the SAME parks. There are some lesser known parks (Great Basin, Isle Royale) that don’t get as much traffic, but are still pretty amazing.
We just did a piece on the “Mighty Five” — the five National Parks in Utah (Bryce, Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, and Zion). With those, the secret is out. Zion, in particular, may be getting TOO popular. Crowding is becoming an issue.
And it’s worth mentioning that, while I’m focused on the 59 NATIONAL PARKS, there are 411 National Park UNITS. That includes everything from National Seashores to National Battlefields and Monuments. No matter where you live, one of those isn’t too terribly far away. You don’t necessarily need to fly to Yosemite just to have a park experience.
I’ve noticed so many foreign visitors at the parks. We’ve definitely got something special here — people are planning entire vacations to the U.S. just to check out our parks. That’s a pretty big endorsement.
Why are they important to see?
Until Elon Musk figures out a way to get us to Mars, Bryce Canyon is about as close as you can get to having that kind of experience. Haleakala Crater in Maui looks insane. So many of these parks offer one-of-a-kind landscapes or wildlife viewing opportunities. So hopefully that’s a strong enough selling point.
A lot has been made of how the Parks were “America’s Best Idea,” but, traveling around this year, I’ve really started to appreciate how true that is. Other countries don’t — or didn’t — do this. Spending time in a National Park makes you proud to be an American.
And then, of course, there’s the nurturing benefits of nature. Guys like John Muir or Edward Abbey have said all of this far better than I ever could. Getting out into these wild places is good for the soul.
How’d you spend your free time growing up in Charleston, W.Va.? How did that help prep you for what your doing now?
Charleston is the biggest city in West Virginia, but it’s far from a “big city.” It’s got a very small town feel, and it’s surrounded by nature. I spent most of my childhood outside — hiking, playing tag, running around… My parents took us camping starting at a pretty early age, and I loved it. I think I was mostly excited to get to pee in the bushes.
Growing up in West Virginia definitely gave me a love of nature. But it’s also a state full of some first class story-tellers. Their tales may have been questionably true, but I got some early exposure to some really interesting ways of presenting a story, and more importantly, to some really interesting people. The CBS News headquarters are in NYC, I’ve lived for 12 years in California. But I think my storytelling sensibility is more a product of West Virginia than anywhere else.
Has your feelings toward the National Parks changed now that you visit them for work?
First of all, I’m VISITING NATIONAL PARKS FOR WORK. That’s ridiculous. My biggest feeling is one of gratitude — I feel so lucky to be able to have these experiences. With each park, I can’t help but be wowed by the scenery — it never gets old — but I definitely experience certain aspects of the park through the lens of television producer.
A gentle breeze feels great for most visitors, but it wreaks havoc on our microphones. At Mammoth Cave, a bald eagle swooped down in front of me and grabbed its prey. My first thought was, “were we rolling?” (We weren’t.)
Fortunately, I’m hitting several of the parks just for my own enjoyment. That’s what I do on my days off, I hit a park that may not be getting the full-on Sunday Morning treatment. Those are days of just hiking and getting lost. So it’s a nice mix of on-the-clock park experiences and pure tourist time.
Do you miss “roughing it,” in the traditional sense?
I haven’t been back to the CBS office since we launched the series, so I’m doing everything from the road. And yeah, that means I need reliable access to electricity, fast wifi, FedEx… I need a quiet room to record a voice over in, and I need a reasonably safe and dry place to keep our equipment.
So, most nights I’m hanging out in hotels just outside the parks. I have friends who would definitely consider some of these small town motels “roughing it,” but it’s a far cry from pitching a tent. I definitely WANT to camp more, I’m going to take some time this summer to do that, but I’m mostly making a mental checklist of spots to go back to. There’s a “chickee” — a little platform out on the water — you can camp on at the Everglades. I don’t know when, but I’m definitely heading back to do that at some point.
Do you feel creatively satisfied checking out the parks in the way you have been?
So satisfied. Maybe a bit creatively overwhelmed. Each park has SO many possible stories to tell, the challenge is really just drilling down on the best one. I’m doing my best to make sure each piece feels different from the last one. It would be so easy to just take a “wow, isn’t this place beautiful” approach. But these, hopefully, are interesting stories about art, culture, architecture, biology, history… They’re not stories just about places.
I also get to interact with people in a way I’d never have a chance to as a visitor. I’ve yet to meet a boring ranger — they all have fascinating personal stories. Most of those don’t make the broadcast, but I’ve come to to really enjoy those moments, shared over lunch or out on a hike.
What have been the standout moments, thus far?
Scuba diving an “underwater trail” at Biscayne in Florida was pretty amazing. Walking across the Rio Grande — legally — into Mexico from Big Bend National Park is unlike any other National Park experience you can have.
What’s the best bit of wisdom/advice you’ve gotten recently?
Out west, I realized I was going to be passing several awesome spots (Vermillion Cliffs, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley) that I wouldn’t necessarily have time to see. It felt like a shame to be so close and not go, and so I considered doing a whirlwind detour. I was explaining my plan to a friend, who texted back: “You have to leave stones unturned, you can’t exhaust the whole country in one trip.” That sounds obvious, but it was the exact advice I needed to hear.
Even with each park, “seeing it all” is a fool’s errand. Appreciating the small moments and taking time to truly experience the parts you ARE able to see during your visit, that’s the way to do it. You can always go back. The parks aren’t going anywhere, that’s what makes them so special.
The Mad Ones is a reference to a famous quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”
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