Situated in the middle of the Mojave desert, over a dozen miles from the nearest pavement, a lone phone booth sat along a dirt road, just waiting to become an international sensation.
Godfrey (“Doc”) Daniels read about this booth in a brief letter to a zine editor, which contained its phone number (760-733-9969) and little else. He didn’t know where it was. He didn’t know if it actually existed. So he called it. No one answered, but he was undeterred. He continued to call and recruited his friends to do the same. The mystery became his obsession, and he started dialing the number several times a day, everyday. Then, after about a month of dialing, he got a break in the case: a busy signal. Frantic, Doc dialed back until he got the open line again, and this time, someone picked up: a cinder miner who had no phone of her own. They chatted for a while, mostly small-talk, and in his excitement, Doc forgot to ask where the phone booth was.
Doc did eventually track the booth down and went for a visit. He even paged a friend for a callback so he could hear it ring for himself. That trip could have been the end of the story if it weren’t for the internet. The year was 1997, and the web was still relatively novel. Doc wanted to commemorate the time he spent devoted to this phone booth, so he created a webpage for it. And it totally took off. People sent him news clippings from international papers and magazines that profiled the phone booth.
Doc and his friends returned a year later to the Mojave Phone Booth. And the phone, once silent, was now ringing off the hook. They would take turns answering it and talking with the the people on the other end–and the instant they replaced the receiver, the ringing would start again. The callers were just part of the equation. Travelers started making pilgrimages to the site of the phone and picking it up as well, talking to whomever happened to be dialing in for hours on end. Like some accidental prototype of an internet chat room, it became a place for anonymous interaction and unexpected conversations.
While popular with callers and tourists, the phone booth, located on a nature preserve, was becoming a nuisance to the National Park Service. The booth rang constantly, disturbing the wildlife, and it brought in additional traffic as well. This obscure structure had exceeded its design intent and capacity, and was now too famous for its own good.
The booth was removed in 2000, but people kept coming, treating the concrete slab where it once sat like a tombstone, leaving offerings in memoriam. Eventually, the slab was also broken up and removed, leaving no trace of the booth’s existence. Attempts to commemorate it with a plaque were also thwarted, time and time again.
As a phenomenon, the booth’s popularity arose from a perfect storm of chance and timing, spurred along with a dash of obsession. Had it made its online debut any later, the booth might have lost its novelty in our interconnected world or it might have been drowned out by the onslaught of other memes–any earlier, and the sparseness of the web would have limited its viral potential. In hindsight, Doc still wonders about his decision to give the booth a webpage, which led to its rise but also to its ultimate downfall. At the end of the day, though, it is because of that website that it became one of the only phone booths that people were sad to see go. To find out more, check out Adventures with the Mojave Phone Booth, or call the number for yourself and see what happens: 760-733-9969.