Forlorn desert phone rings day and night

Isolated booth gains fame, thanks to the Internet

September 26, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, Calif. -- With only the Joshua trees and hovering buzzards out here to bear witness, this isolated expanse of high-desert plain could well be among the quietest places on the planet.

By day, the summer heat hammers hard, and the dull whistle of the wind is the only discernible noise. Come nightfall, the eerie silence is often pierced by the woeful bleat of a wandering burro.

But wait. There's another sound.

Along a line of wooden power poles running to the horizon in both directions, 14 miles from the nearest paved road, a solitary Pacific Bell pay phone beckons with the shrill sound of impatient civilization.

Then it rings again. And again. And yet again, often dozens of times a day.

The callers? A bored housewife from New Zealand. A German high school student. An on-the-job Seattle stockbroker. A long-distance trucker. There's a proud skunk-owner from Atlanta, a pizza deliveryman from San Bernardino and a bill collector from Denver given a bum steer while tracing a debt.

Receivers in hand, they're reaching out -- at all hours of the day and night, from nearly every continent on the globe -- to make contact with this forlorn desert outpost.

They're calling the Mojave Phone Booth.

Callers everywhere are connecting with the innocuous little booth located not far from the California-Nevada border.

Out here, where summer temperatures soar to 115 degrees and cattle often wander by en route to a nearby watering hole, there's rarely anyone on hand to answer the calls, but persistent phoners don't seem to care. If someone does pick up, so much the better.

Some of those who do answer are previous callers who, for unknowable reasons that make sense only to them, also feel compelled to visit the booth.

This public phone, installed in the 1960s and operated with a hand crank by nearby volcanic cinder miners and other desert denizens, has been popularized by the globe's most advanced communications system, the Internet.

The craze began two years ago after a high-desert wanderer noticed a telephone icon on a Mojave road map. Curious, he drove out from Los Angeles to investigate and wrote a letter to a counterculture magazine describing his exploits and including the phone number. After spotting the letter, computer entrepreneur Godfrey Daniels became so captivated by the idea that he created the first of several Web sites dedicated solely to the battered booth.

Since then, word of the phone has been beamed to computers virtually everywhere.

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