March 1, 2003

NPS: The Mojave Phone Booth Incident

Neglected SpaceTo Protected Place: An Administrative History of Mojave National Preserve by Eric Charles Nystrom, March 2003

Excerpt from "Chapter Six: Park Management and Administration"

Every national park has had to face problems that arise from visitors' expectations that differ from the course of action required by the Park Service's mission, but Mojave National Preserve has seemingly faced more than its share of these issues, chiefly because of the area's governance under BLM's much more lenient rules less than a decade ago. One of the most unusual incidents began as a minor movement of performance art enthusiasts and their followers rose to international prominence as they worshiped the object of their affection - a lonely telephone booth, at the end of a long string of poles. Park Service employees were amused at first, but chuckles turned to concerns as visitor traffic increased and booth enthusiasts left behind offerings of art and junk, like pilgrims at a pop culture shrine. Concerned about impacts to desert resources, aware of the expiration of Pacific Bell's right-of-way, and unmoved by the apparently frivolous arguments of the phone booth users, the NPS ensured the booth's removal. Booth enthusiasts flooded Mojave headquarters with angry emails and phone calls, and charged the Park Service with only welcoming certain kinds of visitors with open arms, the counterculture's retread of the argument used by almost any group that finds the NPS mission in the way of their personal use of a public place.

A telephone was placed in the California desert around 1948 along a telephone line that stretched from Highway 91 through the east Mojave to Route 66. The idea was to provide local cinder miners with a means of communication with the outside world. The phone itself, known as "Cinder Peak 2," had to be cranked by hand. Emerson Ray, owner and operator of the nearby Cima Cinder Mine, requested the installation of the booth. Sometime in the mid-1960's the phone was replaced with a regular payphone, which was upgraded again sometime in the late 1980s as touch-tone payphones became the norm. [236]

The phone had long been listed on American Automobile Association maps of the area - the word "Telephone" at the junction of a couple of dirt roads. Early visitors to the booth were lured to the area by the apparent incongruity of a telephone seemingly in the middle of nowhere, 15 miles from a paved road. In May 1997, one traveler wrote a letter to a fan "'zine" for the Washington band "Girl Trouble," describing the remote phone. This fired the imagination of Godfrey Daniels, a Tempe, Arizona-based computer programmer and sometime artist, who resolved to call the booth's number every day until he received a response. His breakthrough occurred in late June 1997, less than a month after he started calling, when he reached Lorene Caffee, operator of the local cinder mine, as she made calls from the booth. [237] Daniels, in a transcript of the phone call posted on his website, was clearly thunderstruck by the fact that the booth actually existed, and vowed to visit some day.

Daniels made his first trip to the site in late August 1997, after receiving a Xeroxed map of the area from Dennis Casebier. He got lost, presaging the experience of hundreds who would follow in his tire tracks, and arrived after dark. Still, the booth inspired him:

"It was just as I had imagined it--a lonely communications outpost at the end of a long, long chain of telephone poles. All its glass had been shot out, but I thought it was beautiful. At that moment I felt I might never leave it." [238]

The story of the booth spread rapidly, posted by Daniels on his website and popularized through contacts in the counterculture art world. When he first made a trip to the booth, no one called - Daniels paged a friend so he could hear what an incoming ring sounded like. Most of the commentors on his website were friends from the art world or people who happened across the site accidentally. A series of radio appearances and small news articles, starting as early as 1998 and increased in frequency by April 1999, drew more visitors to Daniels' webpage. The overall tone was still friendly. One writer detailed her plans for an Easter weekend campout, and Daniels replied that he would try to show up. [239] Phone traffic could be heavy if a trip to the booth was publicized in advance. Camping overnight at the booth on his way to the 1998 Burning Man festival, the phone rang almost constantly, enough so that Daniels had to take the receiver off the hook to get some sleep. [240]

Media attention began to spread the word about the funky telephone booth in the middle of nowhere. A visitor in early July 1999 logged three calls in an hour and a half, more than typical but hardly a portent of things to come. [241] As news of the booth spread, the number of visitors to the area also increased. The new enthusiasts came from all walks of life, but they all had the phone booth in common. Andria Fiegel Wolfe, an interior designer from New York, flew cross-country with her sister to answer calls at the booth in their birthday suits. Two southern California men, who had only met online, took a roadtrip to the booth to hang up the receiver when they received constant busy signals. An Arizona man, Rick Karr, acting on orders from the Holy Spirit, spent more than a month camped beside the booth in the middle of summer in 1999. Karr read scripture to astonished callers and documented every one in a logbook, recording over 500 calls. Mike Sims and Ron Kling set up a party at the booth, complete with food and a punk band, to promote their website. [242]

The story of the "loneliest phone booth in the world" was picked up by major news outlets after mid-1999, and the added publicity proved fatal to the booth. Flash News Service first told of the new phenomenon, and the story was subsequently investigated by the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the San Bernardino Sun, and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, among others. When news of the booth, along with maps and directions, appeared in major papers serving populations within driving distance of the location, the increase in visitors to the site was enormous. The Los Angeles Times reported Daniels' plans for a Y2K celebration at the booth, and the deluge of self-invitations from people who wanted to be part of the action convinced Daniels to stay away. Dozens of TV crews, including major nationwide networks, made the trip to the Mojave. The phone would hardly be placed in the cradle before it would ring again. Even David Letterman did a spoof, documenting "the mic stand in the middle of nowhere." [243] Those people who had learned of the booth's existence before the media blitz lamented its newfound popularity. One wistful post noted that "Something kinda dies after Brokaw gets ahold of it...know what I mean?" [244]

Many of the residents of the area did not mind the popularity. Charlie Wilcox, a local with a tow truck, made money from ill-prepared booth visitors who ignored warnings not to take two-wheel drive cars on the sandy roads. However, one nearby rancher, Tim Overson, was not happy with the booth or the unusual people who gravitated to it. His frustration was due in part to the fact that the best road to the phone ran literally right through his front yard, and when people got stuck, they often knocked on his door. Mary Martin noted Overson's method of occasional revenge: "although he won't admit it - he'd go on out and cut the wire." [245]

Nothing prepared Mojave management for the popularity of a lonely phone booth. Pacific Bell's right-of-way for the phone booth expired in 1992, and the company hadn't bothered to renew it. The line wasn't very profitable, and much of the need for the cross-desert telephone link had been eliminated when a microwave tower was installed further south, leaving the Mojave Phone Booth at the end of a long line of poles.

With the increased notoriety of the booth and the extensive activity at the site, the NPS grew ill at ease. In early May, park staff happened upon a campfire at the booth, blazing away unattended. This was the final straw: Park Service officials "had a chat" with Pac-Bell and encouraged the phone company to remove the booth. Without notice, Pacific Bell hauled the booth away on May 17, 2000, leaving the counterculture in mourning and the press writing requiems for the "loneliest phone booth on Earth." [246]

The Park Service was deluged with emails, phone calls, and letters from outraged supporters of the telephone booth. Daniels posted Superintendent Martin's park phone number and email address on his website, and exhorted booth supporters to call: "Do it. Do it. Do it till you're satisfied." [247] Many pro-booth correspondents pointed out the appearance of hypocrisy: "[I]sn't this a form of recreation? I thought our system of National Parks was for recreational use?" [248] Almost all protested NPS claims of environmental damage in the area. Some took issue with other parts of the boilerplate NPS reply, which charged booth visitors with bringing decorative white quartz rock to the site and interpreted a note that one user left at the booth reminding visitors to the keep the area clean as evidence of the volume of trash left behind by visitors. [249] Others were threats, including one bomb threat that sounded serious enough to prompt the Park Service to call the Federal Bureau of Investigation. [250] Many supporters attempted to verbalize their affections for the booth: "It had SOMETHING...something about it was almost mysterious." [251] "Folks...had a possibility to get out for a while from their every day life..." [252] "I'll probably be mourning its death on and off for the rest of my life." [253] The rhetoric of loss, while exaggerated, seemingly reflects a real depth of feeling about the phone booth. The NPS did receive a small number of letters in support of its action, from the National Parks Conservation Association and other individuals who resented the booth as a man-made intrusion inconsistent with the features that were supposed to exist in national parks. [254]

The furor took a considerable time to die down. Almost two years after the booth's removal, the superintendent continued to receive several booth-related emails a week. The incident and the subsequent reaction after the booth was removed illustrate the difficulties posed to the Park Service by the history of the eastern Mojave as a working landscape. When applied to a place that had long been managed for multiple uses, the NPS mission of preservation and protection can seem unduly restrictive to users wishing little resistance to their exercise of unlimited freedom in the form of worshiping a quirky phone booth on public lands.

Last Updated: 05-Apr-2004