In the process of creating The Last Stop: Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside, photographer Ryann Ford traveled to 21 states and shot more than 400 rest stops. Her seven-year quest was fueled by an appreciation of the structures’ architecture and design, not a sense of nostalgia.
“I grew up in California where the rest stops were utilitarian, not whimsical or functionally elegant,” Ford, who earned her B.A. from the prestigious Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, said. “While my family took road trips when I was a kid, memories of picnicking roadside are not a significant part of my childhood experience.”
Ford will host a book signing at Townsend Provisions, a carefully curated boutique featuring vintage cowboy boots and home wares and hand-crafted American-made goods, she co-owns with her fiancé Nick Mosley, in Round Top (101 Bauer Rummel Road). The signing will take place on Friday, September 30 from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. Books can be purchased at Townsend Provisions or at www.thelaststopbook.com .
The rest stops first piqued her interest as she drove from California to Austin when she relocated in 2007.
“I was drawn to the mid-century architecture of the vintage picnic areas,” Ford said. “They were so photogenic and beautiful—and very often were set in a minimalist landscape. They just screamed, ‘Photograph us.’”
The rest stops continued to catch her attention as she crisscrossed Texas and the country on assignments for Texas Monthly, Southern Living, Garden and Gun and other publications. While her professional gigs kept her busy, Ford, as photographers do, was searching for a passion project.
One night, at the height of the 2008 recession, she googled “rest stops” and was surprised to find a huge cache of news stories. Rest stops across the country were in jeopardy as states slashed their budgets to cope with the economic downturn.
Through her research, Ford learned of the imminent destruction of an iconic rest stop just outside of Flower Mound, Texas. Its roof lines mimicked the curve of longhorn’s horns and the walls were adorned with Texas flags. She made a special trip to photograph the rest stop. One month later, it was gone.
“I couldn’t believe that all of these roadside symbols of Americana were systematically being demolished,” Ford, who traces her initial interest in photography to a Pentax camera her father brought back from his service in Vietnam, said. “The realization kicked me into gear.”
For several years, she kept her project under wraps, amassing a collection of images as time and opportunity allowed. Then, the New York Times caught wind of her work and published a series of the photographs in its weekend magazine. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
Ford then began searching for a publisher. Photography books are notoriously expensive to print, so the publisher encouraged her to launch a Kickstarter campaign to help cover the production costs. While Ford was leery of the prospect, the fundraising campaign took off, raising $36,000 from 400 donors. In the process, it created a gallery of well-wishers who were invested in her success.
“The fundraising campaign rallied so many people behind the project,” she said. “This book was their baby, too.”
After a year-long production schedule that allowed her to work alongside noted Texas book designer D.J. Stout, the book was released in May. Ford has been caught up in a whirlwind of promotion and wide-spread acclaim.
“The photos affect different people different ways,” Ford said. “For Baby Boomers and those a little older, it strikes a chord of nostalgia as they remember rambling across the country with their families. Younger people respond to the lure of the road—the promise of discovery that comes with a road trip. And, then there are those who are simply captivated by the uniquely American design and architecture that the rest stops embody.
“For me, it’s satisfying to know that my work resonates with many people on many levels.”
by Lorie Woodward Cantu
photos courtesy of Ryann Ford