There’s Nothin’ More ‘Merican Than a Roadside Rest Stop
The great American road trip isn’t what it used to be. Air travel, as miserable as it is, remains a cheap way of getting around, so people are less inclined to drive vast distances. And that means they aren’t seeing massive concrete dinosaurs or the world’s largest ball of twine and stopping for lunch at wacky rest stops. Ryann Ford undertands this and champions taking the long way ’round in her series The Last Stop.
She’s spent half a decade photographing roadside rest stops across the United States, recalling a simpler, more relaxed time when people would pull over, have some lunch, and take a moment to chat with fellow travelers. “Mom would bring out the camp stove to cook an elaborate dinner, and the family would spend time in nature and slow down,” she says. “That’s something we just don’t know anymore.”
The California native started the project when she moved to Austin, Texas, for a gig with Texas Monthly. She would roam two-lane roads, taking in the kitschy, Western themes and shabby disrepair of roadside rest stops. Some mimicked the shape of teepees. Others resembled covered wagons. All were novelties. “We didn’t have anything like that in California, or at least they didn’t jump out that way there,” she says.
The photographer and her mother started taking week-long road trips each summer to find the funkiest rest stops. Some they tracked down with road maps, others they stumbled upon by happenstance. “You’d be like, ‘According to this map, there’s another one coming up in 20 miles,’” she says. “Then all of a sudden you’d see a sign for a rest stop in two miles and you’re like, ‘Oooo, what’s it gonna look like?’”
Ford visited more than 20 states during the past five years, capturing nearly 200 rest stops with her medium format camera. Some are bemusing expressions of state pride—like the concrete shelter in Flower Mound, Texas, that bears the colors of the state flag and looks a bit like the logo of the Texans football team. Others are minimalist marvels with pitched roofs that conjure the space age. Almost all have gorgeous backdrops—the desert, an expanse of prairie–with their tones and contrasts richly recorded on Ford’s color film.
The majority of rest stops she photographed were built after in 1956, when President Eisenhower signed legislation establishing the Interstate Highway System and mandating roadside stops for weary travelers. “They were ambassadors for the states, because once the interstates were built people would just get on them like they do now and cruise without stopping in small towns,” Ford says. “A lot of times a rest stop was all people ever really saw of a state, so it was a way to be like, ‘Here’s some Texas history.’”
All that changed after the 2008 recession. States needed to cut costs, and the roadside relics seemed to be a great choice, long replaced by drive-thrus and sprawling cookie-cutter travel centers. Ford witnessed that firsthand, sometimes driving hours to a location only to discover the rest stop had been bulldozed. Weeks after she took the picture in Flower Mound, for example, crews demolished the rest stop.
To the photographer’s surprise, some states—including Texas—are building new rest stops. They’re bigger, and often include playgrounds, exercise gear and, of course, Wi-Fi. After all, today’s travelers must charge their phones, check Twitter and Facebook, send emails, and orient themselves with Google Maps. “They’re definitely not cooking meals,” Ford says.