Along with Willie Nelson and cow pastures, rest stops are an integral part of spending time on the American highway. When the auto boom of the mid-20th century brought with it the advent of road trips (the fun kind), families took to the highways. But the 1920s didn’t yet include such roadside amenities as 7-Eleven or McDonald’s, so picnics had to take place on scrappy tree trunks, at best.
According to a 1957 story in American Road Builder magazine, a young county engineer in Michigan noticed the problem in 1929 and decided to take roadside facilities into his own hands by building a wooden picnic table for the public. When the Michigan State Highway Department started receiving letters of gratitude from happy picnickers and travelers, they authorized the building of more rest sites.
After the war, in 1956, U.S. highways underwent a major redesign with the Federal Aid Highway Act. From coast to coast, highways were cleaned up and given that homogeneous look that still exists today. New ordinances called for safety rest areas. Luckily, each state got to determine the aesthetics of their own facilities. Much in the same way that painted “Welcome!” signs began to appear on state lines, rest stops became venues for states to exhibit some brand identity.
When photographer Ryann Ford moved from California to Austin, Texas, six years ago, she took notice. “I would drive around Texas for different commercial jobs and notice these roadside rest stops. We didn’t have them in California, and some were even from the 1950s and 1960s,” she tells Co.Design. “One day I Googled them, and I found out that all these different rest stops were being torn down. I was like, alright, this is it. New project.”
Ford, for whom commercial work shooting architectural spaces constitutes the bulk of her work, has ventured on road trips for the past four summers, all for the singular purpose of capturing the roadside relics before they face demolition. She shot hundreds of rest stops, mainly in southwestern states, where sweltering heat makes shady areas a necessity. Over the course of those four years, Ford already started to see the structures disappear. “At the height of our recession, money was so tight that different budget cuts couldn’t afford these,” Ford says. “The numbers to keep them up are something like $16,000 a month, because of emptying trash, mowing lawns, and cleaning them.” Some rest stops had also become hot spots for highway prostitution and crime.
Now that rest stops are giving way to commercial enterprises that serve up burgers and fries along with shade and toilets, this unique glimpse into American culture will be lost. The bulk of Ford’s rest stop subjects evoke midcentury architectural design, but the standouts dig even deeper into local nostalgia. Teepees, longhorn-shaped roof structures, and wagon wheels are all in high form. Ford’s personal favorite is a stunning pit stop in White Sands, New Mexico: “It’s crazy: You’re just driving to the middle of the desert, you turn in to this park, and it’s like you’re in the middle of a blizzard. And there’s a cool little 1960s picnic table there on that landscape.”