Reaching Way Out

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With only the lazy 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 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 who dials in from the road. 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.

Here comes a curious caller now:

"Hello? Hello? Is this the Mojave Phone Booth?" asks Pher Reinman, an unemployed South Carolina computer worker.

Told by a reporter answering the line that he has indeed reached what cult followers call the loneliest phone booth on Earth, he exclaims: "Oh my God, I can't believe it! Somebody answered! There's actually somebody out there!"

Calling to See What Happens

Like Reinman, callers everywhere are connecting with the innocuous little booth located not far from the California-Nevada border, along a winding and treacherous dirt road accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicle.

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, of course, 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.

"For us," wrote screenwriter Chuck Atkins of his recent trek to the booth, "it was about driving into nowhere for no good reason, meeting fellow netizens who shared our sense of childish glee at the coolness of a phone booth in the middle of nowhere."

Indeed, this public phone, first 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 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.

It has evolved into a worldwide listening post straight from the mind of a Rod Serling or a David Lynch, captivating countless callers.

There's Preston Lunn of San Bernardino, whose wife reluctantly let him take a long-distance shot at reaching someone at the phone, a call he made "just for the hell of it, just to see what happens."

There's Debbie, the 20-year-old baby-sitter from Boston whose older sister, "the one who goes to college," told her about the phone. Bored, with her infant wards asleep, Debbie decided to take a chance and telephone the desert.

"So, what's out there?" she asked tentatively. "Just, like, cactuses and a dirt road and stuff?"

And there's Atlantan Jim Shanton, who heard about the phone "from one of the ladies on our pet skunk e-mail list." Added Shanton: "And I was just crazy enough to call. For me, this is like calling Mars. It's that far away from everything I know."

'If You Call It, They Will Come'

What callers reach is just a shell of a phone booth, actually--its windows long ago blasted out by desert gunslingers desperate for something to shoot at, its coin box deactivated so that only incoming calls and outgoing credit card calls are possible.

But fans have taken the neglected old booth under their wing. Outside, they've posted a sign that reads "Mojave Phone Booth--you could shoot it, but why would you want to?" Next to that is another placard reading: "If you call it, they will come."

On top of the pay phone perches a nude Barbie doll. Scratched into the booth's metal frame are its longitude and latitude coordinates. Inside, along with plastic-coated children's magnets spelling out "Mojave Phone Booth," are mementos such as candles and license plates. Visitors have covered the booth's bullet holes with Band-Aids.

Nearby, fist-sized stones form the phone's number along with a huge arrow pointing to the booth. The message can be seen from the air so, as one Mojave phone fan put it, "even aliens can find it."

The booth-oriented Web sites multiplied when their creators saw the phone on other sites and--after calling numerous times--decided to document their own pilgrimages to the desert phone.

There's the lighting designer from New York who was so thrilled to finally reach the Mojave phone that she stripped naked "and ran around like a giddy little girl."

And two L.A. writers, who later chronicled their trek to the Mojave, headed out just to return the receiver to its cradle after learning the phone was off the hook. They arrived to find the phone temporarily out of order.

Rick Karr, a 51-year-old spiritual wanderer, has no Web site, but says he was instructed by the Holy Spirit to travel to the desert and answer the phone. The Texas native recently spent 32 days camping out at the booth, fielding more than 500 calls from people like Bubba in Phoenix and Ian in Newfoundland and repeated contacts from a caller who identified himself as "Sgt. Zeno from the Pentagon."

"This phone," he said with a weary sigh, "never stops ringing."

While she would not provide statistics, a Pacific Bell spokeswoman said the phone experienced "very low outgoing usage."

Still, the booth is sometimes used by locals to conduct business or check messages.

"I've passed that old phone booth just about every day for more than 20 years now and I've never given it as much as a second thought," said Charlie Wilcox, a sun-wrinkled 63-year-old tow-truck driver who has become the booth's unofficial tour guide. "And I'll be damned. Now it's a celebrity."

Phone booth callers, Web site creators and Internet intellectuals alike are trying to figure out just why this far-flung phone has gripped the imagination of those who come across it.

Some say calls to the booth are an attempt to create community in a disconnected world. Others view the calls as pure phone fetish, a sort of long-distance voyeurism.

The Attraction of Exotic Isolation

"It's the kick of reaching out and touching a perfect stranger in a completely anonymous and indiscriminate way," said Mark Thomas, a New York City concert pianist who created a Web site listing the numbers of thousands of public pay phones worldwide, including the Mojave Desert phone.

Many of the phones on his list are located in urban areas--such as the one at the top observation deck of the Eiffel Tower--and Thomas said the Mojave Phone Booth may attract so many callers because of its exotic isolation.

"You could make a chance contact at any pay phone, but the odds of reaching someone out in the desert are incredibly remote," he said. "That's why people call."

Others say calls to the phone are made out of sheer boredom.

"It's the get-a-life factor," said UCLA sociologist Warren TenHouten. "Some people just have nothing to do, so they pursue shreds of information that have no value. It amuses me, but there's something pitiful about it too. I mean, what's the most interesting thing that could happen by being so mischievous as to call a public pay phone?

"Someone answers, a person you have absolutely no connection with. You exchange names and talk about the weather. What a thrill."

One of the 60 callers greeted by a reporter on a recent visit acknowledged that he was shocked anyone was there to answer.

"I thought I'd just call and wake up the coyotes," said a purchasing agent from San Bernardino County, who buzzed the phone from work. "Modern times are passing us by and it's just sort of romantic--just the idea that it's out there."

Daniels, a Tempe, Ariz., resident, is considered the father of the phone booth. He was hooked in the spring of 1997, after reading of the Mojave phone in the cryptic letter to the magazine "Wig Out."

The 36-year-old, who once ran for the Arizona Legislature and tried to start a country called Oceania, had discovered a new adventure: He began calling the booth every day. And he forced friends to call whenever they visited him.

After weeks of long-distance dialing, someone picked up.

"I was probably more surprised than he was that we were having a conversation on that phone," said Lorene Caffee, a local miner who answered the Mojave line in 1997.

Daniels transcribed the conversation on his new Web site. Later, after making several trips to the phone, he included such features as a 360-degree view of the surrounding desert from atop the phone and pictures of a bust of composer Richard Wagner--which he carries with him on his travels--inside the booth.

Soon came the call blitz. On one two-day trip to the booth, Daniels answered 200 of them, including a confused connection from Albania during the war in Kosovo.

Daniels plans to return on New Year's Eve to take Y2K reports from around the globe.

"I like the fact that you can have people who have never met or never will meet and they have this little intersection," he said. "Two people who have no business talking to one another."

Surprised to Get an Answer

Since most callers don't expect an answer, they gasp when a visitor actually picks up, many quickly hanging up like teenage telephone pranksters.

One call answered by a reporter came from 17-year-old Jan Spuehamer of Hamburg, Germany. "This is costing me a lot of money, but I think it is very funny," Spuehamer said. "One magazine article said you have to be very lucky to have someone pick up this line. Because this is the loneliest phone in the world, no?"

And so people keep calling the Mojave Phone Booth. And visiting.

On a drive home from Las Vegas, Wade Burrows and Brian Burkland impulsively decided to visit the booth. They walked around for 10 minutes scratching their heads, finally leaving behind their own memento: a car license plate they both autographed.

Said the 21-year-old Burkland: "Dude, this is, like, so cool!"

Then Burrows, a San Bernardino pizza deliveryman, placed a call from his favorite desert phone booth.

"Hey, Mom," he said, holding a cigarette burned down to the filter. "You'll never guess where I'm calling from--a phone booth in the middle of nowhere."

He paused, listening.

"Why am I out here? Well, Mom, that's a long story."

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Lonesome Phone

In the middle of the desert stands a phone waiting for a caller, any caller. Someone might answer. More often, no one will. But interest in the solitary booth has spread worldwide via the Internet, where several Web sites pay tribute to the lonely phone.

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WEB SITES THAT FEATURE THE MOJAVE PHONE BOOTH

http://www.cardhouse.com/g/moj/mojave.htm

http://www.illuminatrix.com/mojave

http://majick.skunkworks.cx/articles/mdpb-1.html

http://www.wrdsnpix.com/990525.htm

http://www.deadpan.net/mpb/why.htm

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