Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside
What started out as a humble Kickstarter project, has since grown to be a fully-realized photobook from powerHouse books. The Last Stop by Ryann Ford is a fantastic collection of parts of America that are disappearing: the humble highway rest stop. Ford set out to document these places before they were gone, much like a documentary historian who is frantically trying to preserve history; the fabric of what makes us who we are. This couldn’t be more true of the great American car culture of the mid-twentieth century, and who better to do it than a person named Ford.
Ford laid out her project summary in late 2014, and her case was this: “Literally, before our eyes, rest stops are vanishing from the landscapes of America. All over the country, rest areas are losing the fight to commercial alternatives: drive-thrus at every exit and mega-sized travel centers offering car washes, wi-fi, grilled paninis and bladder-busting sized fountain drinks. They’re on the chopping block for many states, their upkeep giving way with tight highway budgets. And they’re not just being closed, they’re being demolished. “They’re just toilets and tables” you might say. But if you take a closer look, you will see that they are much more. They have been an oasis of green to walk your dog, have a picnic, study the map. For some, what was seen and read at rest stops could be all that was known of a region’s historical, archaeological, geological, or cultural significance. Many people these days only know of rest stops as a blur from the car window. Many don’t know the historical significance of these quirky little roadside relics.”
Raised in a Southern California mountain town so small it didn’t even have a stoplight, Ford had the freedom to explore and observe from a young age. At age 12, she took her first photo using her father’s old Pentax Spotmatic; at age 18 she enrolled in the renowned Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Photography.
“When I moved from Southern California to Austin,” Ford recalls, “I had to move all of my belongings, so I drove. I had always wanted to make that Route 66 trip, so I tried to drive on it as much as I could from LA to Texas, which is actually kind of tough because so many sections of the road are gone now and at some points you’ll be driving on the pavement or have to go off on the dirt. I hadn’t really thought of the project at that point, but I think I saw a couple of the rest stops and that planted the seed. Then I got to Austin and became a commercial photographer. I shot a lot for Texas Monthly magazine and they would send me on assignments all over Texas, so I really got to see everything from Dallas to Houston, and San Antonio to all the small towns. I drove on a lot of the backroads, and that’s when I think I really started noticing them. There were just these cute little pull-offs, some of them don’t even have restrooms, it’s just a covered picnic table nestled back in the trees or out on this gorgeous prairie. A lot of them looked like they were from the 50s and 60s and I just love mid-century architecture and vintage design. I thought they could make for a really cool photo project.”
The book’s design is well executed and the 10" x 12" trim size of the book gives ample space for the photos. Each rest stop shown in the book has a corresponding geo-tag location and a dot on an adjacent map of where it is located along her journey. In this collection of sites, Ford has created her own visual language, her own typography of this aspect of American culture. Much like projects that document and capture disappearing languages, iconic styles of architecture, and culture — With The Last Stop, Ford does far more than capture the remarkable, effective design of our nation’s road stops; she preserves a moment in the American travel experience when the journey was just as important as the destination itself.
“The rest stops are more than just a place providing service to the public, they represent uniqueness in a world headed toward commercialization. While rest areas were originally designed to provide only the basic amenities of parking, bathroom, and picnic table, developers soon found within them the opportunity to reconnect people with the places they were traveling though, to add some humanity back to interstate travel. We can all relate to rest stops and what they represent as social and architectural icons of Americana. To me though, they are disappearing waysides of memories, anticipation and mystery of what the next one down the road will look like, and lastly they are a relevant benchmark in an era of bygone leisure travel.”
The Last Stop: Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside By Ryann Ford
Hardcover, 10 x 12 inches, 176 pages
All images are reproduced with permission and are from The Last Stop by Ryann Ford, published by powerHouse Books.
This is an edited version of the article published in F-Stop Magazine, June 1, 2016.