NEW YORK (AP) — Conor Knighton didn’t take the easy route when he proposed a “CBS Sunday Morning” story on the National Park Service’s centennial.
His idea approved, he’s in the midst of a yearlong journey to spend time in each of the 59 national parks. His “On the Trail” reports air every two weeks, and this Sunday’s piece about Depression-era park improvements will be the show’s cover story.
Knighton, 35, gave up his Los Angeles-area apartment, put his belongings in storage and is spending much of the year in budget motels and a Subaru provided by the segment’s sponsor. And he swears that he’s loving it.
“When I’m at these parks, I constantly have to remind myself that 99 percent of the people who are there are on vacation,” he said by phone from outside Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. “They planned a year for this. And I’m there for work?”
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His goal was to avoid the sort of stories you might see at a park’s visitors’ center, realizing they would quickly become boring.
Knighton began his journey by hiking in the dark on New Year’s Day to a mountaintop in Maine’s Acadia National Park to catch the first rays of sun to hit the U.S. mainland in 2016. He produced a story about what happens to a park, and the surrounding communities, during the desolate offseason.
He’s donned scuba gear to examine underwater shipwrecks in Florida’s Key Biscayne, shown how time has changed the appeal of the hot springs in Arkansas and detailed the competition for tourists’ attention at caves in Kentucky. One story examined overcrowding in Utah’s four national parks, although Knighton concluded, “There are worse places to be stuck in traffic.”
“It’s a very weird headspace to be in,” he said, “because I’m constantly trying to experience the park where I am, I’m writing a piece for a park that I visited two months ago, and I’m planning a piece for a park that I’m visiting two months from now.”
Rand Morrison, executive producer of “CBS Sunday Morning,” acknowledged some skepticism but praised Knighton for delivering interesting stories. Getting a sponsor calmed worries about how much it would cost.
“It helps that he was willing to basically camp out for the year,” Morrison said. “We’re hardly spending lavishly.”
Knighton said one of the saddest moments came “when I realized it made financial sense to sign up for the Chili’s rewards program.” He’s been trying to sample native cuisine and, since most dishes are bad for him, hiking a lot to keep weight off.
He drives to most destinations — parks in Alaska, Hawaii, the Virgin Island and American Samoa are exceptions — and travels only with a cinematographer.
“I’m at peak ’90s music knowledge right now, because that’s the only station (we) … can agree on,” he said.
Knighton said he’s enjoyed getting to know lesser-known parks, like the rock-climbing mecca Black Canyon in Colorado, and is eager to go to American Samoa.
“Half the work is done for me because I’m just mentioning that they exist, and for half of the country, that is news,” he said.
Knighton said he knows how he wants to wrap up his year, but is keeping that a secret. While his plan was to be out for a year, Morrison is a little more flexible. He said he’s willing to cut it short if he feels the stories have run their course, or even go longer.
“It hasn’t run out of gas yet,” Morrison said.
Follow David Bauder at twitter.com/dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder