Ryann Ford photographed classic rest stops across the United States
Because of recent cutbacks, many American rest stops have been closed or demolished
Before multilane freeways accelerated their way across its landscape, America drove at a gentler pace, stepping off the gas to soak up the scenery.
This was a state- and county-road world of two-lane blacktop ribbons stretching to the horizon, of epic Jack Kerouac road trips, of small towns in the middle of nowhere.
And of rest stops – lovingly crafted pauses that act as showcases of regional history or natural wonders as well as places to picnic or take a break.
It’s a world that’s largely been lost to progress and faster living. But away from the major highways, some of the old rest stops survive – although they’re vanishing fast.
Photographer Ryann Ford has been documenting this dying slice of Americana since a 2007 move to Austin, Texas, rekindled memories of family road trips as a kid.
“Shortly after I moved here I would get sent on commercial assignments for magazines around Texas, and so I was driving a lot of the back roads and highways,” she says. “And that’s when I started noticing these little roadside rest stops and tables.
“We had them in California, but they weren’t quite as historic and photogenic.”
Ford was immediately struck by the “mid-century architecture” of these structures – many built as part of an interstate road-building program initiated by President Eisenhower in the 1950s.
Rest stops: ‘They’re so photogenic’
“I’ve always been a minimalist, and when you see these little tables set down on the landscape, they’re so photogenic,” Ford says. “The more I saw of them, the more I thought this would be a really, really good photo series.”
Ford realized she’d have to move fast. Her research revealed that in many states, rest stops were being torn down as recession cutbacks meant no cash to pay for their upkeep.
“When I Googled it back in 2009, all these articles started popping up about how, all over the country, the rest stops were being closed and demolished,” she says.
“After seeing how cool they were and finding out about their history, it was really disheartening to see what was happening.
“That really motivated me to make this a project rather than just shoot it for fun.”
Modest monuments to travel
It’s a loving tribute to these modest monuments to travel.
Her images show picnic tables, toilets and shelters – clearly built to last – dwarfed by the majestic panoramas of the American landscapes they’ve served for decades.
“They really give the traveler a sense of a bygone era,” Ford says.
“We don’t travel like this anymore. Now we’re just trying to get from point A to point B as quick as possible, whether it’s a direct flight or the fastest highway. And even when we do need to make stops, they’re just drive through, quick and easy.
“Back in the day it was more about the journey than the destination, and families would really stop to take their time, make a meal and enjoy where they were traveling through.”
Many of the rest stops, she points out, were also built to show off what a state had to offer and were decorated with paraphernalia such as wagon wheels, teepees and even rockets.
“They really gave something you don’t see any more,” she says.
Ford clearly isn’t alone in her appreciation.
She funded her book via the Kickstarter website and was “blown away” when it easily clocked up pledges of more than $35,000 in a matter of weeks.
“I think the project has a lot of broad appeal,” she says of the orders that have come in from across the States as well as Europe, Asia and Australia. “There are the baby boomers who remember them, the millennials who don’t remember visiting them as a kid but are drawn to the vintage look and the modern architecture.”
Ford says she’s encountered plenty of backlash against the demolition of rest stops.
“A lot of states, Texas specifically, have actually built some new rest stops,” she says. “They’re nice, with great modern features, and Wi-Fi and tornado shelters.
“But it’s kind of bittersweet because they don’t have that historical charm. And with all that new technology, they’re just not as much fun.”
This article was originally published in May 2016.
Ryann Ford is a photographer based in Austin, Texas. You can follow her on Instagram. Her new book, “The Last Stop: Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside,” is published by powerHouse Books.