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America’s Magnificent Midcentury Rest Stops Were Real Roadside Attractions

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Photographer Ryann Ford’s chronicle of these quirky, forgotten structures showcases a lost age of travel

Shortly after photographer Ryann Ford moved to Austin, Texas, in 2007, she found herself searching for a new personal project. Ever since she’d become a photographer, lonely, abandoned places had a certain draw, and as she hit the road for editorial assignments from publications such as Texas Monthly, criss-crossing the state’s highways and backroads, she found her next subject hiding in plain sight: the architecture of the midcentury American rest stop.

The Last Stop: Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside collects Ford’s photos of these relics of a lost age of travel, before convenience stores and smartphones changed how roadtrippers experience the countryside. Ford found numerous examples of Midcentury resting places, plazas, and outlooks for travelers spread across the Southwestern landscape, with architectural styles ranging from the abstract and geometric to representative shapes seemingly custom built for tourists (Texas has its fair share of shelters shaped like wagon wheels and oil derricks)

"There’s something naturally appealing about the open road," says Ford. "You don’t see architecture and Americana like this anymore. You can tell because I get a great response from both Baby Boomers, who used these structures as kids, and millennials, who love the idea of the open road."

Ford’s new book, which contains minimalist portraits of dozens of these small shelters, with crowds cropped out to showcase the natural scenery, highlights a unique era of American travel and transportation. Starting in the late ‘50s, after President Dwight Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway System, the country’s highway system became more and more standardized as construction connected disparate parts of the country. But while national rules were being laid down for road construction, states were given the ability to create customized rest stops along their own stretches of asphalt.

The boom in travel during this period led to an eccentric variety of structures and shelters. Usually set back from the road to provide the most scenic break for drivers, these structures read like a symbolic, kitschy story of the country, from abstract teepees located throughout the southwest to the space age, geometric picnic tables found at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. Ford was rarely able to pin down the identity of the architects behind these structures, but hopes the book can help bring attention to these quirky roadside gems, which in many cases are deteriorating or forgotten. Capturing photos before they’re gone may help preservation efforts, or at least get more people to appreciate the landscape these shelters were meant to showcase.

"For those who traveled when these were built, it was about the journey, and not the destination," says Ford. "It’s sad that we don’t really see things that way anymore."