The Mojave Phone Booth

When Doc started calling a phone booth in the middle of the desert, he was sure no one would ever pick up. Footage courtesy of the documentary short "Mojave Mirage" by Kaarina Cleverley Roberto.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, "The End Of The Line" episode; stories about what to do when there's nothing left to do. And our next piece takes place in southwestern United States. Some guys give up on their silly little ideas and other guys, not so much.

JOE ROSENBERG, BYLINE: OK. So this story starts out back in the mid-90s, in Phoenix, where Godfrey Daniels...

GODFREY DANIELS: My given name is Godfrey Daniels, but I go by Doc.

ROSENBERG: He's heading back home after seeing this band, Girl Trouble. And after the concert someone hands him a copy of their zine. Remember zines? If not, don't worry - they're kind of like, a pre-internet miniature magazine.

DANIELS: So as I was walking home, I was kind of flipping through it and 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.

ROSENBERG: And this, for Doc, just made no sense.

DANIELS: I wasn't sure that I believed it.

ROSENBERG: Why not?

DANIELS: Well, I didn't have any reason to believe it. I mean, I don't know if, in the age of cell phones, if it's the same, but, when you were out in the desert in those days you were on your own. You couldn't call people. So the idea that there could be this phone booth just sitting out in an un-contactable place, it was kind of like, if somebody was on the moon, you know, and you could talk to somebody on the moon.

ROSENBERG: Where did he say it was exactly? Like what was the nearest recognizable landmark?

DANIELS: He didn't say. It was a really short little paragraph and there wasn't really any solid information really, other than the number.

ROSENBERG: And so when Doc got home he thought, OK. Why not give it a shot?

DANIELS: And I jabbed in the number and it just rang. And I let it ring for a long time. And I was just imagining making a phone ring out where presumably no one could hear it except the coyotes. But then there was also in the back of your mind, the thought - what if? Like, what if somebody is wandering by? Who would be out there? Who would pick up? It just really grabbed me. And so I hung up and then I just kept thinking about it. I kept thinking about it all night long. I was thinking about as I fell asleep and it just somehow got me to its clutches.

ROSENBERG: And so the next morning...

DANIELS: I called again. I just kind of became obsessed.

ROSENBERG: Soon Doc found himself calling the phone all the time. When friends visited his house he'd twist their arm and make them call it. He even put up a post-it note in the bathroom mirror.

DANIELS: It just said, did you remember to call the Mojave Desert today? But it turned out I didn't need it because I used to call many times a day.

ROSENBERG: Like, how many times?

DANIELS: If I was supposed to be working, I was probably calling at least once an hour. And again this is all assuming that it actually existed, which I had no proof of.

ROSENBERG: Like, on speakerphone? Or, like, you would stop everything?

DANIELS: No, no, no because that would require explanations. I would just, you know, have the phone kind of cradled against my ear. You know, just listening to it ring.

ROSENBERG: Doc knew it was weird to keep calling a number with no one on the other end. But if he was ever pressed about it, he'd say it was like being a ham radio operator. One little person sending the signal as far as he could into the ether, wondering if another little person was out there listening in, waiting to be contacted in that uncontactable place.

DANIELS: So I figured I would be doing this forever. I really didn't think anybody would ever pick up the phone.

ROSENBERG: But then just one month after he started calling...

DANIELS: Just doing my daily call and...

(SOUNDBITE OF BUSY SIGNAL)

DANIELS: I got a busy signal.

ROSENBERG: So Doc actually managed to record that call.

DANIELS: I look like I'm an idiot because I keep saying, wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)

DANIELS: Wow. No way.

And I thought, well, I must have misdialed. So I dialed it again. Then it was a busy signal again.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF BUSY SIGNAL)

(SOUNDBITE OF BUSY SIGNAL)

DANIELS: I realized, OK, either something has gone wrong with the phone company here or somebody is using the Mojave phone booth right now. I was totally hyperactive. My main thing was I didn't want them to get away. Like, I was thinking, I need to catch it right when they hang up that phone. So I just redial, redial. And it rang. And it rang four or five times. And I thought, oh, crap. And then I heard a voice say, hello.

ROSENBERG: Sadly, Doc was only able to properly record his own words at this now historic moment.

DANIELS: But as many times I had called, I had given remarkably little thought if any to what I would say, you know, and I said...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)

DANIELS: Hello. Are you in the Mojave Desert?

And she said, yeah. And I said...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)

DANIELS: You are. OK. This is going to sound like a strange question - why are you in the middle of the Mojave Desert?

She said, I'm making my calls.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)

DANIELS: Oh, like, you live out there? And you don't have a phone?

ROSENBERG: I got to say, when I looked at the transcript it was kind of funny because, like, you think everything is cool. You're like...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)

DANIELS: So what do you do out there?

ROSENBERG: And she's like cinder-mining.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)

DANIELS: What you do with cinder?

ROSENBERG: She's like, cinderblocks. And you're like, that's so cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)

DANIELS: That is so cool. This is so cool that somebody finally answered.

And she said, that she never heard the phone ring before.

ROSENBERG: Can you tell me her name?

DANIELS: Yeah. Her name's Lorene.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)

DANIELS: Lorene, it's nice to meet you. If the phones ever ringing again, pick it up. It'll be me. Alright. Nice meeting you. Bye.

ROSENBERG: Was there any sense of disappointment?

DANIELS: No. No. Disappointment about what? Not at all.

ROSENBERG: Well, let me put it this way. It's almost kind of like the idea that this phone is ringing out there in the desert and anyone could pick up. But then finally picks up and it's just Lorene.

DANIELS: No, no, no, no. See, I look at it the exact opposite way. Somebody did pick up and I had no right to expect anyone ever would. So this was great to hear a human voice in place of the ringing, you know, I mean, this was a payoff. It just encouraged me more. And 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? But of course I had no way to get in touch with her except to find the thing.

ROSENBERG: So Doc calls around, does some sleuthing and a few months later gets his hands on the equivalent of an X-Marks-the-Spot map, showing the supposed location of the Mojave phone booth.

DANIELS: So I thought, oh, we're all set. So my friend and I took off and traveled all the way to the Mojave Desert. And this is in the middle of August. And so it's scorching hot, just scorching hot. Basically as far as you could see you saw Joshua trees and then we saw this little dirt path that was marked, you know, danger, danger, warning, maintained - blah, blah, blah. That was the road we were supposed to take. So we were, you know, we were just going along, going along. At first I thought this is not bad at all. But the further along that we went the road would narrow and the thing was that the sun was going down and in the daytime you've got these grand, huge vistas and you have a sense of where you are. But when the darkness drops it's just what ever you can see right in front of you. And 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. But at a certain point, just barely in the reach of the headlights, I thought I saw a line of telephone poles. And there was a little jut to the left and then a little jut to the right. And I brought the van to the stop with the headlights just shining right on the Mojave phone booth. It was really quite a moment and there's bullet holes in, it there's no glass it's all busted out, it's kind of a wreck, you know, but to me was just - it was beautiful. I needed to hear that phone ring. I needed to hear what I had been causing to happen all this time out there. So I called my friends pager and here I am out in the Mojave surrounded by Joshua trees and lightning and desert and now there's a familiar ring. And it was so loud, it was really loud, the bell was just crazy loud. For me that was kind of the moment, is hearing that phone ring. It was everything that I had been imagining when I was calling.

ROSENBERG: After that, Doc thought the story was over. He did keep calling the booth after all someone else could pick up. But that was just for him. He never really expected anyone else to care until he did something which would have not have seemed risky back in 1997. But which today is obviously very, very dangerous. He gave the booth a webpage.

DANIELS: And in those days the Internet, there wasn't that much on it. So I thought that was about as far as it would go.

ROSENBERG: But yeah, that's not what happened.

DANIELS: Next thing you know I'd go to my P.O. Box and there would be clippings about the Mojave phone booth from newspapers in languages that I didn't read. It just spread. So I thought, well, this is unexpected.

ROSENBERG: And so when Doc and his friends returned to the booth, about a year after his initial visit, when they got there this phone - way out in the middle of nowhere - which Lorene had said she'd never heard ring, it was ringing off the hook.

DANIELS: You didn't have to call anybody. It was just as soon as you would hang up the phone it would start ringing again. It was just crazy. You'd pick it up and, you know, who's this person going to be? Where are they going to be? And you had no idea it could be somebody from, you know, Vietnam or Iran or just anywhere. Some people would call and you couldn't talk to them because they didn't speak English. And again, you know, most of the time it wasn't about the content. You know, you're not really saying anything. It's really not the point. It's just the connection. An old trucker guy called and I think he just wanted to be listened to. He wanted to tell stories about his trucking days. And he didn't seem to have anybody to tell them to.

ROSENBERG: How many calls did you end up taking that day?

DANIELS: It would be over 100 guaranteed. And admittedly you hear the phone ring and after a while it would be like, you get it - no you get it. It's your turn. You get it. We eventually had to take it off the hook so we could sleep.

ROSENBERG: And when they put it back on the hook the next morning so they could leave...

DANIELS: There wouldn't have been a way to leave in silence. I mean, you were going to have to - since it was ringing all the time, you were going to have to drive away from a ringing phone.

ROSENBERG: And people weren't just calling the booth. They were visiting, traveling all the way out to the desert just for the honor of informing callers that yes, the phone booth was real.

ROSENBERG: This is from a short documentary made about the booth. It's just a montage of people from all over the place, taking calls from all over the place.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOJAVE MIRAGE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We're here. Where are you? England. We're from Switzerland. Australia. Right on, bro.

DANIELS: You were presenting yourself to the world in a way that anybody would wanted to could call you. There was no control over who could call that phone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No. I don't think. You used to work for the circus? We're you quadriplegic? Or paraplegic? Quad? Wait a minute, you got fired from the circus because your best friend slept with somebody else? How long were you in a coma? A couple weeks. Yeah me too. I was in a coma for two weeks.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It's kind of fun. You should come out and do this.

ROSENBERG: Did you like the fact that it became popular or would you have preferred it to remain...

DANIELS: No, at first I liked it. The hesitation came about just because once something like that gets out of control then you know that the equal and opposite reaction is going to come. The only question was, when? And then in May of 2000, Lorene's brother on the way out to the mine stopped and answer the phone, because it was ringing of course, and talked to some guy in England. Who said, he was sitting there with his fiancee having tea and crumpets. And he talked to him for a little while. And then continued on to Lorene's. And then in the morning when they were leaving, the booth was gone.

ROSENBERG: In this case, the equal and opposite reaction had come in the form of the National Park Service. It turned out that the booth was almost smack-dab in the center of a new national preserve. And the phone had laid dormant, it hadn't been a problem. The park officials haven't taken kindly to all the new foot traffic or, for that matter, the ringing. By the time Doc figured out what was happening it was already too late.

Did you go out and see this for yourself?

DANIELS: No, no. I didn't go out until I think about, oh, 2009-2010, long, long after. I mean, once I knew it was gone I didn't want to go out.

ROSENBERG: Why not?

DANIELS: Just be too sad, you know. I mean, I have a lot of fun there. (Laughter). You know, it was funny, too. That people did keep going out and they would go and visit the concrete pad that the booth had stood on and a guy made a really nice tombstone for the booth. And everything that anybody brought out there the park service hauled off. And eventually they came out and broke up the concrete pad and took that away, too.

ROSENBERG: So it was like it was never there?

DANIELS: Yeah. When I was there the only thing left was a few pieces of glass from the broken windows. And people would say, yeah well, it's not your phone booth. And I would say, I know, it's not my phone booth, but it's my fault, you know. It wasn't as though I set out to make a phone booth famous, far from it. It's just had I known I might not have done it. I mean, I might still. I don't know, but I might not have.

ROSENBERG: With the booth even hold the same appeal today given that we can now reach anyone anywhere?

DANIELS: No. I mean, that's something that I have thought about is whether it could have happened even five years later. And I just don't think it would have. I mean, that was kind of the magic of being in contact in an un-contactable place. And I don't think you have that feeling now.

ROSENBERG: Did you ever try calling the number again after that?

DANIELS: Oh, of course. Come on, Joe. (Laughing). Of course I did. I mean, they let it ring for a long time. I mean, they left - even though the phone was not there.

ROSENBERG: But, would that even make sense because you're not even making a phone ring anymore in the desert. You're just making a kind of a...

DANIELS: Sure. I would know that. But still it would be like listening to a song that meant something to you. I don't know. I guess I did just like calling out to the booth and hearing it ring in the end.

WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Doc for sharing his story. You can still see the original Majave phone booth webpage in all its glory at dueceofclubs.com. And stay on the lookout as well for Doc's upcoming book about all his adventures in the Mojave. Many thanks as well to Karina Cleverly Roberto and Derek Roberto for letting us share clips documentary-short "Mojave Mirage." We'll have a link to both the website and the film. It's snapjudgment.org. Now, when SNAP returns, it's all well and good to give your all for family and friends, but what about someone you don't even know? On SNAP JUDGMENT The End of the Line episode continues, stay tuned.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.