Once upon a time under the blistering sun in the middle of the Mojave desert stood a lone phone box, ringing and ringing and ringing...
In the late 1990s an Arizona man travelled to Tacoma, Washington, to see a band. While there he got a magazine, and in the 'Letters to the Editor' page he spied a letter from a reader in California. The reader wrote that he had noticed the word 'telephone' appearing on a map of the Mojave Desert, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The reader investigated, finding that there was indeed a lone telephone box standing in the middle of the desert. As a point of interest, the reader included the telephone number: 619-733-9969. The Arizona man was intrigued and soon became obsessed, and the legend of the Mojave Desert Telephone Booth was born.
How it Came to be There
In the early half of the 1900s the western landscape was dotted with mines here and there, drawing remote settlers to dig their riches from the earth. The state of California had a programme that mandated telephone service be available in remote locations for the safety of residents in those areas. The programme resulted in a small number of 'policy stations' - pay telephone boxes in areas you would never think of finding them.
The Mojave Telephone Booth was located approximately 75 miles south-west of Las Vegas, Nevada, at the intersection of two dirt roads about 15 miles from the nearest highway, Interstate 15, in what is now the Eastern Mojave National Preserve. It was probably installed sometime in the 1960s, replacing an earlier booth about 30 miles further out that serviced nearby mining operations. By the late 1990s the phone was still in regular use by local residents, though the booth had long since lost its glass and showed signs of past target practice. For many it was the only phone service they had. The original rotary phone was replaced with a touch-tone model in the 1970s, and the area code was changed in 1998.
The Telephone in Pop Culture
The 'loneliest phone booth in the world' gradually became a hot subject after the phone number had been published on the Internet. The curious would call day and night hoping someone on the other end would answer. At times it might be answered by a local resident, other times by the curious who had gone searching for it just for the purpose of answering a random call. Due to its publicity on the web, calls came in from all around the United States and beyond at all times of the day and night.
Its seemingly arbitrary existence is overshadowed by the activity of risking life and limb to travel into the middle of the desert to answer it! I myself travelled out there and the thing rang non stop! People from all over the Earth called it, and seemed very happy to have someone there answering it.
Pilgrimages to the phone box drew national attention, the phenomenon being reported on in newspapers and radio stations across the US. In September 1999, CNN featured a story on it. NBC correspondent Roger O'Neil also did a feature, even answering a few calls to the phone while filming the segment.
The Mojave Phone Booth was never the only such lone phone box, as the policy station programme placed several remote telephones. It was surely the most famous, though.
Gone, But Not Forgotten
Ultimately, the Mojave Phone Booth was a victim of its own success. The number was quietly disconnected on 17 May, 2000, and the box itself disappeared a short time after. The phone was removed by owner Pacific Bell at the request of the National Parks Service, which had taken over part of the desert in 1994, designating it the Mojave Desert Preserve. The Parks Service cited a negative impact on the environment and a threat to local wildlife due to increased traffic to the phone booth resulting from publicity. Although it is certain that traffic in the area had increased, impact on the environment is debatable and it is possible that the phone's removal was spurred by a local resident tired of the extra traffic.
Regardless of the reason, many were upset to see the box gone, not least of which were residents who were dependent on it for communication. By September of 2000, no trace of its existence remained, not even the foundation or the shattered glass. For a very brief time a 'tombstone' memorial sat in its place, but in short order even that was removed.
The Booth Lives On
The Mojave Phone Booth was the subject of a documentary short entitled Mojave Mirage in 2001. The film features footage of dozens of people answering the phone and talking to people from across the globe, and from it one gets a sense of what it was really all about; the randomness with which people connected. Participants never knew who would be on the other end of the line or what kind of conversation might take place, but it was enough just to be a part of it.
It is possible that the phone box has been the inspiration for various references in televison and film, whenever a character places a call from a lone phone booth in a barren landscape. It was definitely the inspiration for the film Mojave Phone Booth (2006), written and directed by John Putch. The film chronicles the tales of several characters, whose paths intersect at the mysterious, deserted phone box.