Most travelers think of rest areas as places to pee and grab some greasy food. Ryann Ford sees them as art.
OK, we’re not talking about your typical modern-day rest area.
“Upon driving to Austin (from California), and while shooting various photography jobs all over Texas, I started noticing these cute little roadside tables along the different highways,” Ford, a photographer, told Paste Travel. The first one she noticed was one Route 66.
The old mid-century architecture and quirky themes (she once saw a rest-area in the form of a teepee) won her heart.
She began Google Earth-ing “rest areas” to see what they looked like in other areas of the country. “I came across a news article detailing the closure of many of them due to budget cuts, and they weren’t just being closed, but demolished,” Ford said. She had considered doing a photo project on them before, but this was the deciding factor.
The next thing she knew she was embarking on a road trip across the country in search of dilapidated rest-areas to create a book documenting a golden age for motorists.
Ford spoke to us about her journey and shared a few photos. The Last Stop: Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside will be released by powerHouse books in June 2016.
Paste Travel: Tell us about the beginnings of this project.
Ryann Ford: While doing my research, I read about a rest area just north of Ft. Worth that was “a breeding ground for crime.” Evidently a lot of prostitution and drug deals went on there, and it was scheduled for demolition. They showed a photo of it—it had a roofline mimicking the shape of longhorn horns, and on its sidewalls was the Texas flag. It had so much personality and charm; I just couldn’t believe they were tearing it down. The next weekend I drove it up there to shoot it. A few weeks later I had to drive up there again for work and it was gone.
After that, I got serious about the project and set out to start documenting as many as I could. I think what really drew me to this project was a mix of things—definitely the architecture, but I also just love roadside culture and Americana. I’ve always been big into road trips, especially through the southwest, and I think it’s so fun to be driving along and see how each rest area is different. After learning the history, and visiting so many of them, I have become even more attached to them.
PT: Which was your favorite rest stop and why?
RF: This sounds cheesy, but almost all of them are special in some way. It’s amazing that something as mundane as highway rest stops could have so much character. So much thought went into the design of these things, from the architecture, down to the small details such as barbecue grills in the shape of Texas, or birdhouses with the state flag painted on the side.
I do have my favorites, though. White Sands, New Mexico, was probably the most amazing. The picnic tables there are iconic, straight out of the 1960s, and the landscape is like no place else on earth. It was a hot summer day at sunset when we were shooting, and a thunderstorm had just rolled through, so hardly anyone was around. You couldn’t take a bad picture at that place.
PT: What were you most surprised to find on your trip?
RF: While doing some research on the history of rest areas, I had read about how when they were designed, no two were designed the same. With the introduction of the Interstate Highway System in 1956, this new system standardized highway design coast-to-coast, making all roads across the country perfectly uniform, right down to the thickness of the asphalt and the width of the double yellow line.
The one design element that stayed with the jurisdiction of the states was their rest area design. It was a state’s chance to make an impression on travelers. Rest areas were designed to be unique and provide a window into local regions as motorists passed thru them. Developers designed shelters inspired by regional icons such as teepees, wagon wheels and windmills, and designed buildings that reflected the architectural heritage of the area’s indigenous people.
Upon hitting the road and having this knowledge, it was really fun to in fact see how each one really was different from the previous. It was fun to feel that anticipation and mystery of what the next one down the road would look like. As we traveled we used paper maps and looked for the picnic table icon on the map and drove to those locations. Often times though, we would stumble upon a stop that wasn’t on the map, and that was fun.
PT: If you could do something like this in any other country, where would it be, what would you be searching for, and why?
RF: I have heard that there are similar, and incredible rest stops across Australia. I would love to do a “part 2” of the project documenting the remote rest stops across the Australian Outback. I am obsessed with the desert; this would be my next dream project.
Photos by Ryann Ford, from The Last Stop: Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside, published by powerHouse Books
Maggie Parker is Paste Magazine’s assistant travel editor.