Two dusty tracks cross in the sun-blasted Mojave Desert; there, perched on the edge of nowhere are concrete blocks where a famous phone booth used to stand. It was there for miners in the 1960s with its hand-cranked convenience, in the 1970s it was upgraded to the newfangled touch-tone technology and it was there for no-one. The area around was abandoned by all but dust, and the phone booth waited. The phone booth was shot, no-one knows when. After the unfortunate incident it began to live a full life, going from a lone watcher to an obsession and a small icon.
Decades passed it by uneventfully until 1997, a map, and a character known only as ‘Mr N’ decided to meet. The anonymous Los Angeles resident was absently scanning a map of the nearby area when he noticed an anomaly – a blemish, a dot in the Mojave. Printed next to it, the word ‘telephone’.
Taking the discovery as a call to action Mr N set off in a Jeep and in pursuit, wearing a fine pair of wingtip shoes. He navigated to the nearest bit of tarmac, 15 miles away, then turned off into the dust, following the faint track and the mark on a map. Surprisingly enough he found the thing and decided to test it.
Eventually he returned home and wrote about the discovery in a letter to a small underground magazine he subscribed to. He finished by writing ‘it works’ and included the number so that anyone could call the desert. The number was (760) 733-9969. In spite of all chances the phone company had left the thing connected despite the minuscule number of people it could service. Fortunately for the phone company a lot more people started to use it. Some used it more than others.
26th May 1997, Godfrey Daniels read the letter and became fixated upon it. His house slowly gathered notes to remind him. “Did you remember to call the Mojave Desert today?” blared the note stuck to his mirror. He had the equipment he needed to tape ever single call. Recording him repeating the time and date of the call while the phone rang out over an empty desert. He made every visitor to his house call the booth at least once, and he said he was ‘prepared to call for years.’ Years were not necessary, the desert sent some ears.
20th June 1997 and Godfrey was making his daily call when he heard something other than idle ringing out. A busy tone. Must be the wrong number, Godfrey hung up and tried again, and the same tone rushed down the line into his ear and onto magnetised spools of recording tape. Years he was prepared for, but less than a month was phenomenal luck.
He called the phone repeatedly over 3 minutes until it finally rang normally. Then a female voice answered. After a hurried introduction he quizzed the local and found out much, starting with her name, Lorene Aiken. Over the constant clicking on the line he learnt that she lived out in the desert and mined volcanic cinder to make into cinder blocks. Additionally he found out that she rarely visited the booth and she disliked Vegas. After some minutes Godfrey finished with a single remark.“If the phone’s ever ringing again, pick it up. It’ll be me.”
“I’ll do that.” Lorene responded. Then the line went dead.
Godfrey considered things. The encounter only increased his focus on the booth. He would keep calling, and on his way to the Burning Man festival he would make a visit. Riding the high of his success he began to spread the news that would make the booth famous, and ultimately destroy it.
The Line to Fame
Dark fell over the edges of day, and on the 27th August 1997 and Godfrey followed a line of telephone poles. At the end he found it, the booth was waiting and he felt as though he might never leave it. The feeling left him when the skies opened on the trio. With Godfrey in the dramatic downpour was his friend Mark and a marble bust of 19th Century German composer Richard Wagner.
Two of the three took it in turns to make their calls to every conceivable person they knew the numbers for, then they passed on. Burning Man was calling them, and they would return anyway. then they moved on.
Coming back from the phenomenon of Burning man they did much more, cleaning it up and then partially covering it with glow-in-the-dark paint. Then they finally left for an extended period of time, taking pictures and a bucket full of broken glass with them. That was it, until fame struck.
The internet heard of the booth, that combined with word of mouth and together the world came to know of the shot-out box. It and Godfrey became minor celebrities and people began to contact him. So in 1998 he returned to the booth, this time he would receive calls, not dial them. Being a good sport, Wagner went along with him.
The event was announced in the LA Times newspaper and hundreds of people tried to call. When Godfrey arrived on site he had a surprise in store though, another person was at the booth, receiving calls from people expecting to talk to Godfrey. They got along famously and the pair answered 171 calls that day. In high spirits they used pieces of quartz to spell out ‘PHONE’ in letters 15 feet long. Then they, with Wagner, celebrated in the freak snowstorm that struck them in the desert. The Mojave then pulled in others.
One of the new figures to turn up claimed to have been sent by the Holy Spirit. In his personal mission he answered 500 calls over 32 days, including repeated ones from a person claiming they were from the Pentagon; apparently they said the phone booth was a ‘military installation’. The news travelled around the world; the phone never stopped ringing. A housewife in New Zealand, bored German Teenager and a proud skunk owner were among the people to whom the news spread. The booth was even discussed by the New York Times and was featured on the television networks NBC and CNN. That was the end of it.
Amid the furore, the hustle and bustle, crowds were tramping through previously isolated areas of the Mojave desert, marking it, polluting it with light and noise. In this gaggle of human communication the phone company announced plans to remove the booth. They claimed that the high number of visitors was damaging the environment. Devotees cried foul.
The damage was minimal, they were careful to clean up after themselves, and no-one had even come to check what had happened to the environment around the phone. Some suspected people living nearby had complained to the phone company. Either way the backlash didn’t stop the inevitable. 17th of May 2000 the phone booth was removed and destroyed. Leaving only a few concrete blocks in its place. Soon after a colourful tombstone was placed on the site with its name and life span inscribed on the front. Godfrey Daniels was enraged but there was nothing he could do, it was done.
The headstone was removed soon after by the phone company. There ends the tale. People got on with their lives. The booth was destroyed and its number permanently decommissioned. Ring the number now and there is no reply, wait for year even, and no-one will answer you. The silence goes on.