Before national chains like McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts largely supplanted them as destinations for relaxation and amusement, publicly funded rest stops were an integral part of driving for interstate travelers.
Ryann Ford started paying attention to rest areas while on assignment for Texas Monthly. After doing some research online, she learned how rest stops developed alongside the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, but were being closed or demolished as the recession shrunk state budgets.
“You’d think these picnic tables were pretty cheap, but there’s a lot of monthly maintenance costs to mow the grass and take out the trash. A lot of states just started with barricading them off and closing them. They didn’t tear them down at first, thinking the recession would get better,” she said.
Fascinated by the rest stops’ unique looks—many designs pay tribute to the geography, geology, and history of the state they represent—and concerned about their imperilment, Ford set out to document as many of the structures as she could. Five years later, she’s documented more than 150 of them in more than a dozen states, and is currently raising funds on Kickstarter for a book of her photographs called The Last Stop.
“When I started it, I was mostly interested in creating pretty pictures. But as I got more into the project, and I put it online, I started getting emails from people. Baby boomers who remember going to these rest stops and eating their sandwiches there back in the day wrote to me to share their stories. I realized that the project was a lot deeper than I had ever thought,” she said.
Since Ford began her project, some rest stops have reopened as the economy has improved. Still, as others remain closed, the call to overturn a law banning commercialization or privatization of rest stops on interstates built after 1960 has intensified. While such a move would likely better ensure drivers have a place to answer nature’s call, Ford said this unique slice of American culture would suffer.
“That McDonald’s where you’re eating your Big Mac could be Anywhere, USA, and you have no idea where in the country you are,” she said. “When families stopped at these rest stops, they got to slow down and it and it was more about the journey than the destination.”