A sometimes little-noticed piece of roadside America is quickly fading from the nation’s landscape.
Humble, solitary rest stops were commonplace off highways across the United States during the middle of the last century. They were products of a culture where the freedom of traveling by car was celebrated and the experience of the journey was just as important as the final destination.
With restaurants and gas stations at almost every highway exit and with states needing to cut expenses, many of the old rest areas are being closed and more often than not, demolished.
Austin-based photographer Ryann Ford’s interest in America’s road stops was sparked in 2007 on a solo trip from California to central Texas. Along the way, she was awestruck by the recurring sight of these quirky pieces of Americana that were being abandoned and forgotten.
Mock adobe dwellings in New Mexico. Depression-era stone houses in Arizona. Teepees in Texas. Ford set out on a five-year mission to discover the stories behind these playful structures.
With a medium-format camera in tow to document her findings, she racked up nearly 22,000 miles to capture images of 158 rest stops in 17 states.
“Over the course of this project, I’ve come to realize just how important these little slices of Americana are,” Ford explains. “For the past 58 years, they’ve given us rest, relief, hospitality and nostalgia.”
She notes when interstate highways were first built, rest stops were a way to connect people to the places they were traveling through. “They gave small towns a chance to show their cultural significance. From teepees to wagon wheels, no two are ever the same.”
Ford says what started as a photo series quickly turned into a larger project to archive this important part of American history before it’s lost forever. The result is a beautiful photography book titled, The Last Stop: Vanishing Relics of the American Roadside.
Since her photos were first published, Ford says she’s received feedback from people all over the country who remember visiting the rest areas on family road trips and thank her for documenting “one of the great memories” of their childhood.
“The response revealed that people feel this project is in some way preserving their history too. It may be inevitable that these stops are ultimately lost. But this book insures that these roadside gems will live on.”