The travel media company didn’t jettison the custom this year; it took a different tack. In October, the staff contacted dozens of literary and cultural figures and asked them to write about a place in the United States that holds great meaning for them and for the country collectively. (A few of the entries are as-told-to interviews.) Last week, Frommer’s published nearly 20 essays online in a collection called “Best Places 2021: Great Authors on Our America.”
“We are not pushing travel this year,” said Pauline Frommer, co-president of FrommerMedia and editorial director of its guidebooks. “We reached out to writers we love and asked them to tell Americans about their country and culture, and what they should be proud of. We hope this can heal some of the divides.”
The contributors are a diverse lot, including best-selling authors (Fannie Flagg, Susan Choi, David Sedaris), historians (Rick Atkinson, Daniel Okrent), a singer-songwriter (Dar Williams) and a leader of the women’s rights movement (Gloria Steinem). Their destinations are equally eclectic and, in many cases, surprising.
“I thought Gloria Steinem would pick something feminist,” said Frommer, “but she went with a Native American place.” Steinem’s selection: Serpent Mound Historical Site, an earthmound in her childhood state of Ohio. “The New World is also the Old World,” she writes of the sacred site that predates European settlers by thousands of years.
Okrent, a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in history, used his 200 words to envision the reaction of Ellis Island immigrants to present-day U.S. citizens, writing that they “could not have possibly imagined you, their descendant, now as fully American as anyone whose family has been here since the Mayflower.” Cheryl Strayed, author of “Wild,” highlighted the rugged Oregon Coast, commending the region for its inclusivity. “Anywhere you go, all up and down the coast, there’s a feeling that this natural wonder belongs to all of us,” she told Frommer’s staff writer Jason Cochran.
Many of the entries contain a sense of immediacy or urgency, such as novelist Kim Johnson’s piece on the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.; Choi’s reflections on the Manzanar National Historic Site in California, an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II; and National Book Award finalist Lydia Millet’s musings on Avra Valley in Arizona, which is under threat by a proposal to build an interstate. “So we’re uncertain of how long our valley will persist — whether the day will come when we’ll have to leave, following the coyotes and foxes and owls,” she worries.
For comic relief, Sedaris checks into the Little America Hotel, a “five-star motel” in Salt Lake City. He urges guests to eat at the coffee shop on prime rib night and to greet other diners on the way out. “Tell them I sent you,” he says in closing.
“These destinations should help Americans understand their country and neighbors better,” Frommer said. “They fill in the American story.”
Frommer and her father, Arthur, who published his first guidebook, “Europe on $5 a Day,” in 1957, also submitted a piece together. Frommer said her father picked Independence Hall in Philadelphia, a timely attraction. “Balance was the key goal,” she said of the Founding Fathers. “They worked together to created a United States.”
In previous years, Frommer said, the purpose of the list was to encourage future trips. In these unusual times, however, travelers don’t need to leave home to really see the country. “I hope people will file these places away and go later,” she said, “but sometimes it’s okay to just know about them.”