Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Photographer Ryann Ford has been traveling around the country documenting roadside rest areas before they're gone for good.
During a move from Los Angeles to Austin six years ago, photographer Ryann Ford kept coming across 20th century rest stops, each one different from the other. Humble in stature, these traditional rest areas, despite their charm, have become a relic of America's roadside past, unable to match the conveniences of modern day travel centers with their fast food restaurants, wireless internet, and large bathrooms.
On her website, Ford expresses disappointment in the nation's increasing preference for homogeneous travel centers, allowing rest areas to lose "the fight to commercial alternatives." We talked with her about her ongoing rest stop project, why they're so special to her, and the modern day travel centers that are replacing them along America's roads:
What inspired this project?
I started noticing these cute little roadside tables along the different Texas highways. We had the giant interstate rest areas in California, but it wasn’t until living here that I really started to notice rest areas. I noticed that a lot of them looked really old, some had cool mid-century architecture, some were really quirky, like they were shaped like a teepee or an oil derrick, or had a theme to them depending on the region you were in.
One night I decided to Google “rest areas” to see what they looked like in other areas of the country and I came across a news article detailing the closure of many of them due to budget cuts - and they weren’t just being closed, but demolished. I had considered doing a photo project on them before, but this was definitely the deciding factor.
While doing my research, I read about a rest area just north of Ft. Worth that was “a breeding ground for crime.” Evidently a lot of prostitution and drug deals went on there, and it was scheduled for demolition. They showed a photo of it - it had a roofline mimicking the shape of longhorn horns, and on its sidewalls was the Texas flag. It had so much personality and charm; I just couldn’t believe they were tearing it down. The next weekend I high-tailed it up there to shoot it. A few weeks later I had to drive up there again for work and it was gone.
After that, I got serious about the project and set out to start documenting as many as I could. I think what really drew me to this project was a mix of things - definitely the architecture, but I also just love roadside culture and Americana. I’ve always been big into road trips, especially through the southwest. After learning the history, and visiting so many of them, I have become even more attached to them.
What surprised you about these places as you discovered them?
While doing some research on the history of rest areas, I had read about how when they were designed, no two were designed the same. With the introduction of the Interstate Highway System in 1956, this new system standardized highway design coast-to-coast, making all roads across the country perfectly uniform, right down to the thickness of the asphalt and the width of the double yellow line.
The one design element that stayed with the jurisdiction of the states was their rest area design. It was a state's chance to make an impression on travelers. Rest areas were designed to be unique and provide a window into local regions as motorists pass thru them. Developers designed shelters in forms that drew on regional imagery such as teepees, wagon wheels and windmills and designed buildings that reflected the architectural heritage of indigenous people.
Upon hitting the road and having this knowledge, it was really fun to in fact see how each one really was different from the previous. It was fun to feel that anticipation and mystery of what the next one down the road would look like.
Do you have a favorite rest area from shooting this project?
This sounds cheesy, but almost all of them are special in some way. It’s amazing that something as mundane as highway rest stops could have so much personality and charm. So much thought went into the design of these things, from the architecture, down to the small details such as BBQ grills in the shape of Texas, or birdhouses with the state flag painted on the side.
I definitely do have my favorites though. White Sands, New Mexico, was probably the most amazing. The picnic tables there are iconic, straight out of the '60s, and the landscape is like no place else on earth. It was a hot summer day at sunset when we were shooting, and a thunderstorm had just rolled through, so hardly anyone was around. You couldn’t take a bad picture at that place.
It was also surprising to see that yes, these places aren’t really used anymore. There are still a decent amount of people that stop to use the restroom at some of the stops along the big interstates, but hardly anyone uses the roadside tables, or the picnic areas without a bathroom, other than the occasional trucker to pull over and take a nap. It was strange to see what disrepair some of them were in – some had benches that were broken in half, caving in roofs, and a lot of them had piles of household trash in the trashcans that looked as if it hadn’t been emptied in weeks.
While shooting this project, we used a lot of these rest stops. We brought along food in an ice chest and picnicked at a few of them and it was really fun. It was often really peaceful, as there was no one around, and as you can see from the photographs, the picnic tables are often placed in really scenic locations, so it was a beautiful place for a picnic. Some of the tables were placed really far back from the road, and far apart, so each little site had a good amount of privacy, almost like your own little campsite.
I am also surprised how fast they're disappearing. As I drive around Texas and the southwest on various trips, I almost always come upon a recently closed or demolished rest stop. When they are demolished, it’s as if they never even existed. All of the structures are flattened and taken away, the dirt smoothed over, and nature quickly takes back the land.
The teepee rest area in Thackerville, Oklahoma, was definitely a favorite too. It was closed down and fenced off, but we found a farm road just past the rest area that took us around back. It looked like it had been closed for years, some of the giant oaks had fallen on a few of the teepees, and it was winter, so the trees were bare, and beautiful fall leaves covered the ground. It was silent, and the amazing teepee structures stood against a gorgeous field. I’ve always had an eye for minimalism, so I particularly love the tables that sit out on a stark landscape.
Is there a part of the country, a roadway or even a state that seems to still have a decent amount of these rest stops?
In my experience, the areas that are the most rural, or desolate, still have the most roadside picnic areas and rest stops. I've focused my attention on the southwest, and of the states in the southwest, Texas still has most left. As you get closer to Texas’ urban areas, there are less and less rest areas, and that’s where I am seeing the majority of the demolition. I guess they figure since you are so close to a town or city, why have a rest area?
You seem to have a strong dislike for the travel center. Can you envision a point in the future where we find them as endearing as these aging rest stops you're capturing?
It’s not that I dislike travel centers, it’s just that they are highly commercialized, and when you are at one, you have no idea where in the country you are since they all look the same. In a way, they are a step up from rest areas, with amenities like wi-fi, multiple restaurants, showers, etc., but they lack that local charm, and you miss that experience of being outdoors, enjoying a view and surroundings that is unique to only that region.
It’s hard to imagine a day that these mega travel centers would be nostalgic, but who knows, maybe in the future as we all fly around in our personal flying cars, we’ll look down at the old highways and travel centers. I guess after enough time passes, anything can become nostalgic.
All images courtesy Ryann Ford. Her portfolio can be viewed at RyannFord.com.