The Phone Booth in the Middle of Nowhere

Pictured above is a whole lot of nothing. It’s a map — a screenshot from Google Maps’ satellite view, via here — and there’s really not much there. The red flag is at the intersection of two dirt roads which is not too far from another intersection of two dirt roads. There’s not a lot of traffic on any of those roads; no one even bothered to give either of the intersecting roads a name, and there’s no Google Street View of the intersection because the Google Street View camera car never bothered to go there. It’s in the Mojave National Preserve and not all that hard to get to, though; if you wanted to visit, it’s only about a two-hour drive from Las Vegas and about a three-hour, thirty-minute ride from Los Angeles. It’s not quite clear why you’d want to bother, though; to drive the point home one last time, there’s nothing there. 

But until May of 2000, that wasn’t quite the case. There was something there: a working phone booth. Here’s a picture.

A phonebooth in the middle of nowhere probably isn’t the most useful thing, beyond making us consider philosophical questions such as “if a phone rings in the desert, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” It’s so absurd that if someone told you there’s a phone booth in the middle of the Mojave, you’d probably assume it was a joke. But not Godfrey “Doc” Daniels. In the mid-1990s, he was at a concert in Phoenix, Arizona where he picked up a fan zine and started flipping through the pages. As he later told NPR, “on about the third or fourth page there were a couple of letters to the editor. And one of them mentioned that there was a phone booth in the Mojave Desert miles and miles from any pavement, just sitting by itself.” 

Doc’s curiosity about the phone booth got the better of him — while he doubted that it was real, he wanted to be sure. And the nice thing about phone booths is that you don’t need to go anywhere to check on it; all you need to do is call the number. And the zine article published the phone number: 760-733-9969. So Doc started calling.

And of course, no one picked up, because the phone booth is in the middle of the desert. So he called again, and again, and again, with the same results. He didn’t give up, though, and about a month after his quest started, something different happened. Atlas Obscura explains:

Then, one day, against all odds, Daniels got a busy signal. In a frenzy, he called until the busy signal gave way to a ring, and a woman answered on the other end, solving the mystery of for whom the phone rang. Lorene, a cinder miner who lived off the grid, used the esoteric Mojave Phone Booth for her calls. Rather than ruining the mystery, Lorene‚Äôs existence further delighted Daniels, providing crucial details to fuel his obsession. 

If you listen to the NPR story linked above, you can hear his side of this magical conversation with Lorene starting at about 5 minutes and 45 seconds in; Daniels had the foresight to record his call (but only his end of it). What you won’t hear him ask, though, is how he, too, can visit the phone booth; as he told NPR, “the instant I hung up I kick myself because I had forgotten to ask her what was probably the most important question – which is where was the phone booth?” The quest continued.

He ends up finding a map that has the location specified on it and, of course, he and a friend decided to trek out to perhaps the world’s least convenient phone. (Ironically, the adventure itself made the phone booth potentially very convenient; as he told NPR, “we were ringed by storms. There was lightning almost in every direction. So then I started to think, if we have any kind of a problem unless we do find the phone booth we have no way of, you know, letting people know we’re really in trouble.”) And finally, they discovered the phone booth — riddled with bullet holes and with the glass long smashed — and made a phone call to another friend, asking the friend to call them back.

Daniels returned home with his adventure now complete and with a new purpose: he wanted to share his joy with others. A new-ish invention, called the Internet, was the key. He created a website (archived here) sharing the booth’s location and phone number. Anyone who wished could call the number at any time, and the more adventurous could make the pilgrimage to this odd little spot in hopes of hearing the phone ring. The website went viral and people started calling in larger and larger numbers, which incentivized people to visit the phone booth, which incentivized even more phone callers to call, which led to more site visits. It was a great example of people connecting with people for the sake of connection. 

Unfortunately, it also led to a noticeable increase in traffic in the Mojave National Preserve, which the National Park Service wasn’t really happy about. And, it turned out, Pacific Bell, which operated the phone, wasn’t up to date on the fees it owed the NPS to operate the booth. In May of 2000, Pacific Bell removed the Mojave Desert Phone Booth.

But the story didn’t end there (except for Lorene, I guess). Pacific Bell retired the booth’s number but in 2013, a telephony enthusiast named Jered Morgan managed to obtain it and set up a conference call line. If you dial 760-733-9969 right now, you’ll be connected to it. (There are 9 sub-lines; you’ll be asked to pick one by hitting one through nine on your keypad.) And you’ll also get a somewhat creepy text message saying “do you want to know how deep the rabbit hole goes….” with a hexadecimal string after it; if you reply back (I wrote “Ok”), you’ll be invited to a text-based chat with further instructions. 

As for the actual location of the phonebooth, there’s now really nothing there. For a moment, someone placed a gravestone (seen here) on the site, but the NPS removed that, too. Oh well.

 

Bonus fact: In 1952, Fred Rogers — better known as Mister Rogers — proposed to his wife-to-be, Joanne, by letter. When Joanne received the letter, she wanted to reply right away, so mail wasn’t a great option. She didn’t have a phone so she used a phone booth, and it didn’t go as swimmingly as one would like. Biography explains: “Joanne rushed to a payphone to respond to the proposal. However, she was nervous, so when Fred answered the phone she focused on some phone booth graffiti and greeted him by saying, ‘S**t.’ Fortunately, Fred laughed. She then agreed to marry him.”

Double bonus!: If calling strange phone numbers seems like a good idea, but being connected to a conference call with random other people isn’t your thing, don’t worry! There are other options than the 760-733-9969 number above. For example, try (719) 266-2837. You won’t have to talk to anyone — but be careful if you press 3 on your keypad afterward, it may chew you up. (And yes, this isn’t the first time I’ve shared this.)

From the Archives: Off the Hook: Another story about phone booths, but this one’s title is also a pun because the story is also a story about fishing.