- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2000

Alas, 760/733-9969 is dead. Those who dial it just get a long series of phantom rings, followed by official announcement No. 113-T:

"Your party is not answering."

The line has been disconnected. Not long ago, it belonged to the loneliest and certainly the most beloved phone booth on the planet, a metal-framed ancient that had stood like a sentinel in the California Mojave Desert since 1948.

In the past few years, thousands have called the number from such diverse spots as New Zealand, Sweden and the Pentagon. Live radio and TV station hosts have rung in, along with curious children, conference callers, dulcet-toned women and melancholy drunks.

All wanted some quirky "Mojave Phone Booth" cachet the idea they were calling a lone phone, ringing there, many miles from civilization.

In the wee hours of May 17, Pacific Bell and the National Park Service pulled the plug and yanked out the whole booth, leaving only a cement base, a rubber pad and some cinderblocks. Officials just couldn't take the traffic anymore.

Traffic?

Recent months have seen a veritable parade of campers and Jeeps, owned by those who had come to answer the phone, which rang up to 100 times a day.

There was the truckload of white rock, hauled out by fans who spelled out "PHONE" in 8-foot-wide letters so the booth could be spotted from space. There was the New Year's Eve party and the ton of volcanic cinder, brought by creatives intent upon an "earth art" project.

"Litter, potential wilderness damage and, most alarming, we found an unattended campfire at the height of the fire season, by one of the biggest stands of Joshua trees in the country. We had to do something," said Dennis Schram, spokesman for the Mojave National Preserve.

In a clandestine operation, the booth was removed. Overnight, fans retaliated with a letter-writing and phone-calling campaign, now in full swing. The phone booth, they believe, is an "artifact of the desert," and deserves protection along with the flora and fauna.

Lawmakers such as Rep. Jerry Lewis, California Republican, are getting complaints "more than a dozen" so far, according to a spokesman.

Rangers and attendants in the park itself, as well as regional offices of the National Park Service, also are receiving calls from those "who are voicing their disagreement with the decision," according to one NPS spokesman.

"The phone booth was peculiar and isolated," the preserve's Mr. Schram said. "And people get obsessed with peculiar, isolated things."

Indeed. Since 1997, a small, ever-changing population of booth pilgrims ventured out to the desolate high desert where wild donkeys bray and the wind blows to meditate, huddle, party or dance sometimes nude in the shadow of the booth. And answer the phone, of course.

Many kept intricate logs of the calls during their vigils "Amsterdam, New York; New Plymouth, New Zealand; Stockholm, Sweden," went the entry of one man who drove 170 miles to spend an evening answering the phone. He took 50 calls.

The "MPB" became its own cultural force.

The "Cinder Peak" telephone was installed in 1948 for volcanic cinders miners, 14 miles off California Route 15. It was accessible only by a rutted sand road.

Back in 1996, a sharp-eyed fellow calling himself "Mr. M" noted the pin-dot designation "telephone" on an area map, visited the site himself and shared both his experiences and the phone number on an Internet e-zine called "Wig Out."

A star was born.

The booth accumulated fans, including Arizona devotee Gottfried Daniels, who created a Web site (www.deuceofclubs.com); six more followed. The MPB has since been profiled in guidebooks, TV, radio, magazines, scores of newspapers, three art shows and even a feature film called "Deadline."

There is also an official MPB long-distance calling card, complete with a color photo of the booth so much in demand that it is now being peddled as a collectible on several Internet auction sites.

The demise of MPB is getting as much media coverage as its salad days, including a nostalgic news story that aired on NBC Tuesday night.

But devotees are not done yet. While their campaign to reinstate the original booth continues, a search is under way for an alternative most of it organized on line.

The booth pilgrims want to buy and install their own private phone booth at some remote location in California, at the cost of about $2,300. It is legal, they say, in every state but Connecticut, as long as they follow local land and utility ordinances.

It is, one interested party noted at a MPB message board, "an intriguing proposition."

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