MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE — 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."