How do you define an American icon?

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By George Stone, TRAVEL Executive Editor

It’s fireworks season ... as anyone with a dog knows. According to a 2019 report, Americans shoot off almost one pound of fireworks each year for every adult. Blasts are booming as consumption rates skyrocket. Historians often credit famously short-fused John Adams with conflating Independence Day and gunpowder. The story of how fireworks came to America crackles with global intrigue. Only one state—Massachusetts—prohibits the purchase of consumer fireworks, but many urban areas and wild spaces ban them. That doesn’t keep them (or their dangers) from sparking controversy. A planned display at Mount Rushmore on Friday not only incinerates a decade-long ban on pyrotechnics at the South Dakota monument, but it also threatens to spread COVID-19 and wildfires.

This contentious conflagration illuminates a timely question: Beyond monuments and bottle rockets, what defines iconic America? Photo editor Maura Friedman put this question to 22 National Geographic photographers; the images they shared—inspired by their personal experiences of traveling throughout the country—showcase the nation’s diverse geographies, cultures, and peoples. (Above, trail horses in Montana, overlooking the northern reaches of Yellowstone National Park.)

“Just as there’s no singular American experience, there’s no definitive American tourist stop,” Friedman tells us. “I wanted a route into looking at the country through individual perspectives, as opposed to uniform experiences. What’s considered ‘iconic’ might be different for every person, so I asked each photographer what is America to them? What represents the country?”

In a flash, Friedman had a dazzling array of pictures to pick from, ranging from palm-fringed shores to snow-capped mountains. Among the images (made before the pandemic), some documented national parks, while others focused on cultural experiences and indigenous sites as icons of our nation’s complex history. Photographer Diana Markosian’s image of the “American Riviera” in Santa Barbara, California, references her own childhood in post-Soviet Russia. Matthieu Paley’s portrait of Route 66 captures the fabled glow of the “Main Street of America.” Maddie McGarvey’s image of Ohio’s Marion County Fair is as earnest as apple pie. Here are three more images:

The flag: Above, 20,000 spectators attended the 50th Lumbee Homecoming in Pembroke, North Carolina, in 2018, a celebration of tribal culture including a powwow, parade, and pageant. Pembroke’s rich history of diversity, its struggles with climate change–related flooding, and “the kindness and generosity of its people make it about as American as it gets to me,” says photographer Natalie Keyssar.

The flutter: Butterflies gleam through a window display in New Orleans. “It often feels like I see America from the outside—through a glass, darkly,” says photographer Hannah Reyes Morales. “I see so much beauty in America, but there’s much I still need to learn and understand about it and its many layers."

Witnessing: Families come together at church in River Rouge, a Detroit suburb. “I love this city,” says photographer Ami Vitale, because it’s “dynamic, resilient, filled with incredible energy and hope for a better future.”

“What’s iconic about the American landscape depends on where you’re standing,” says Friedman. That’s especially true in a nation with some 3.8 million square miles to explore. What sites and experiences are iconically American to you? We would like to know; email us here. We hope you have happy, safe, and meaningful Independence Day celebrations this year.

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Today in a minute

No Canada: By overwhelming margins, Canadians do not want U.S. citizens—more precisely, more COVID-19—inside their country anytime soon. And for that, they’re sorry, writes Johanna Read for Nat Geo. Or perhaps not that sorry, eh—half of all Canadians surveyed don’t even want tourists from other Canadian provinces coming around this summer.

As for the Northeast: Former COVID-19 hot spots such as New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are imposing quarantine restrictions on travelers from other states. A joint travel advisory among the three states went into effect last week, requiring a 14-day quarantine for travelers from at least eight states with high percentages of coronavirus cases. Maine has had a similar quarantine requirement for months.

Plantation tourism ... now? As statues and flags saluting a racist era in U.S. history fall, what of the tourist-friendly Southern “plantations”? That’s what the Guardian asks in a provocative essay. Last year, writer Heather Greenwood Davis visited a different kind of plantation for Nat Geo—one dedicated to the experiences of enslaved people across the South. But such sites remain the exception, rather than the rule, the BBC reports. “Have they ever stopped profiting off of the history of enslavement, I guess that’s the better question,” says Kameelah Martin, director of African American Studies at the College of Charleston. “It went from agriculture to a tourist industry.”

Read along with us: Our travel book club just finished Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime and is moving from South Africa to the States and a tale of 200-year-old crabbing community facing extinction. We’re reading Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, by Earl Swift. Feel free to join along!

Your Instagram photo of the day

Take me camping! Photographer Sofia Jaramillo captured the Milky Way shining bright above a campsite in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone was created in 1872 and became the first U.S. national park.

Related: Beautiful photos of all 61 U.S. national parks

Travel on Instagram: Are you one of our 39 million followers? (If not, follow us now.)

Overheard at Nat Geo

Stopping the dinosaur auction: This fast-paced tale starts with a Texas medical malpractice lawyer meeting the president of Mongolia. In a flash he was helping the Central Asian nation attempt to stop an auction of a Gobi Desert dino skeleton in New York. Then federal prosecutors and the FBI got involved. That’s the windup for today’s episode of Overheard, our podcast. Above, tourists looking at the Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton in a museum in Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital.

Related: Would you risk your life to steal a T. bataar skeleton? This person did.

The big takeaway

In defense of the coquí: This tiny brown tree frog from Puerto Rico is endearing to islanders and to your friendly curator, who lived there for three years. On Hawaii, however, the coquí is an invasive amphibian that has disrupted ecosystems. As hard as it is for coquí-lovers like me to understand, invasive species cause more habitat damage than natural disasters—and put native wildlife at risk. Nationwide, more than 6,500 foreign species have moved into the U.S., and half our national parks have reported serious problems. You’re going to have to read the story if you want to find out what volunteers are doing to the coquí to save Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

More park news: How U.S. national parks are trying to combat a history of racism

In a few words

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On Wednesday, Victoria Jaggard covers the latest in science. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Rachael Bale on animals, Whitney Johnson on photography, and Debra Adams Simmons on history.

The last glimpse

No place to swim? If your favorite pool or beach is closed these days, why not try the open water? Writer Ellen Himelfarb reports that in the U.K., “a bafflingly large subset of Brits is devoted to alfresco bathing, in all seasons.” Among them: Marianne Clark (above), a fitness and endurance coach and a member of Brighton’s swimming club. Clark says swimming at sea gives her a sense of liberation. Plus, “I like the frisson of danger that comes with the sea, the fact that the water can be unpredictable.” Readers: Apropos of nothing, SharkFest is coming.🦈

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Jen Tse selected the photographs. Have an idea or a link? We'd love to hear from you at . And thanks for reading!

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