America’s Vanishing Rest Stops

Photographer Ryann Ford captures the eerie beauty of the primitive picnic table and shade set-up

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The rest stop is a man-made oasis. Some are fancier—WiFi is now offered at many, along with various fast food and gas options—but the primitive set-up of a bench and shade (and sometimes a random barbecue pit) can bring tears to the eyes after a hundred-mile stretch on the interstate. It’s the latter that caught the attention of Austin-based photographer Ryann Ford—beginning with an unusual red, white and blue rest area she spotted in Flower Mound, Texas, off the I-35. It was demolished only a few weeks after she took the photo.

Kickstarted into reality, Ford’s project to archive these older rest stops has now arrived in the hardcover photo book “The Last Stop: Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside.” Some of her photos focus on more symbolic rest stops—a foot wash in Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats; a litter barrel in Lamesa, Texas with its own official blue highway sign; a red fire hydrant “pet area” in Benjamin, Texas. But most feature picnic tables underneath a structure providing shade: recalling a pre-drive-thru era when families had to prepare and bring along meals to sustain themselves on their longer journeys.

“For the first three years of the project, it was my mom and I that traveled together, and for the remaining years, it was my fiancé and me,” Ford tells CH. “It was quite strange to head out on a trip with the main goal being only to get amazing shots of rest stops. With this goal in mind, we woke up before sunrise each morning to hit the road and get the best light on the first rest stops that we came upon. The end of the days were similar, as we often shot until just after sunset, and then scrambled to find a hotel, often exhausted.” She further recalls, “Some of the rest stops were in very scenic destinations, so it almost felt like White Sands, for example, was the destination, but it was strange that we were only there to shoot the tables, whereas everyone else was there to take in the scenery, sled down the dunes, or picnic.”

The eeriness of the empty benches, void of any resting drivers, speaks to their overall infrequent use—and also asks the question: when was the last time we took a true break from racing through whatever we were working on?

Photographs by Ryann Ford, from “The Last Stop: Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside, published by powerHouse Books”