Photo Essays

Documenting the Disappearing Rest Stops of the American West

Ryann Ford, Flower Mound, Texas (all photos from ‘The Last Stop: Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside,’ published by PowerHouse Books)

“It’s strange the details you transparently absorb/When you think you’ll never see them again/things like curio shops/that i once despised/now i look on as curious beauty,” wrote singer-songwriter Joe Ely in his 1987 ode to the American road trip, Lord of the Highway. The sentiment applies to the kitschy Americana rest stops along Route 66, small structures with parking, picnic tables, and toilets, many of which are being replaced by fast food joints or demolished as states cut budgets.

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Ryann Ford, Whitesands National Monument, New Mexico (click to enlarge)

While on a solo road trip from California to Texas in 2007, Austin-based photographer Ryann Ford became enamored with the quirky designs of these famous rest stops: faux covered-wagons in New Mexico, metal teepees along the Rio Grande. After learning that these rest stops were endangered, she spent years on the road photographing as many of them as possible, creating an archive of mid-century American design. The Last Stop: Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside, forthcoming from PowerHouse Books, compiles hundreds of Ford’s images shot in New Mexico, Texas, California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, and Louisiana.

“I was drawn to the minimalist scene — a modest little structure set out on a beautiful landscape — and the mid-century architecture,” Ford writes in the book. “I had realized that rest stops were more than just toilets and tables.” Her project echoes efforts to document disappearing roadside architecture in other parts of the world, like the quirky bus stops of former Soviet Union nations. In Ford’s distinctly American photographs, these strange little shelters resemble hallucinated oases against endless empty landscapes, visual metaphors for refuge and rejuvenation on a long open road.

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Ryann Ford, Sonora, Texas
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Ryann Ford, Thackerville, Oklahoma
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Ryann Ford, Monument Valley, Arizona
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Ryann Ford, Lajitas, Texas
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Ryann Ford, Las Cruces, New Mexico
Ryann Ford, Clines Corners, New Mexico
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Ryann Ford, Galveston, Texas
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Ryann Ford, Bonneville, Utah
Ryann Ford, Abiquiu, New Mexico

The Last Stop: Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside will be published on May 10 and is available for pre-order from PowerHouse Books.

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