A Photo Essay Documents A Dying Tradition: Roadside Rest Stops

The truest descriptions of a country or place tend to come from foreign voices–think Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who penned a seminal book on democracy after traveling widely throughout the States. Italian-born photographer Nicolò Sertorio isn’t exactly writing political treatises, but in a way, he’s carrying on de Tocqueville’s tradition, by documenting parts of America that most Americans tend to ignore.

Sertorio has spent the last few years crisscrossing the country by car, photographing swollen Phoenix suburbs, quiet Oakland shipping yards, and the pale white backs of Coney Islanders. He collected roughly 5,000 images over the course of more than 7,000 miles. One series from the trip, called Rest Stop, is an encyclopedic collection of roadside shelters–”a dying tradition,” says Sertorio.

These aren’t the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell rest areas that dot modern highways today. These are relics from an older interstate, traveled in a time before most cars had A/C, and lunch on the road usually meant some type of picnic. “I documented all the rest areas that I could find in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Utah,” says Sertorio. Each stop is different. There are many corrugated metal roofs, but there’s also a quirky Spanish colonial and a sculptural Googie shelter that can only be from Southern California. Some of the stops are newer–a gabled timber roof tensioned with metal rods is unexpectedly elegant.

In Passages, his book of roadside photography, Sertorio explains that he’s interested in the human-made detritus–the ads, the poles, and signs–found on American roadways. “We experience them without acknowledging them,” he says. For him, the shelters represent a diminishing tradition of travel by car. “I call it the archeology of a disappearing American ideal,” he says, “of conquest and exploration.”