Tag Archives: mojave phone booth

gardens, phonebooths, poetics and old maids

I’ve been rereading The Poetics of Gardens, a wonderful, witty, thoughtful book by architect Charles Moore, landscape architect William Turnbull and theorist William J. Mitchell. In two places it references Igor Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music, in which Stravinsky argues that sounds can’t be considered to be music until a human mind has organized them. (John Cage, of course, would argue you blue if you said that to him…) Extending Stravinsky’s argument, Moore and friends argue that a space can’t be considered to be a proper garden until it’s been shaped by human actions.

The situation at the Mojave Phonebooth brings their argument to mind. The Mojave National Preserve purports to set aside a piece of nature for the enjoyment of the general population in a way that mirrors the mission of the Yosemites and Yellowstones of the world. One of the main reasons that we go to these places is to commune with the wonders and pleasures of the world beyond our garden walls and city gates. We go to commune with nature.

But the very names many of these places gives away the real situation, with many of them called “national parks” or “state parks” or “regional parks.” And parks–think of New York’s Central Park–raise expectations of spaces under human control. The removal of the phonebooth was just an obvious symptom of this control, a control that goes througout the natural system, from the construction of roads and visitor facilities to restricting what kinds of activities a person can do in a certain place. Humans are now positioned so that they could exert obvious control anywhere on earth. The Amazon’s getting slashed and burned and there’s comfy year-round housing on the South Pole. And what’ not under control now could be with varying amounts of effort. I’m in some ways a gullible Romantic and I work hard to guard that precious naiveté, but–as much as I hate to admit it–this “nature” thing is now an artificial distinction.

I won’t try to answer the “when did nature end” question, but something’s that interested me is looking at the controls that ended it. It’s been said in various places that one of the methods of controlling something is to name it–Just think of how many mountains bear the names of people that have had political power and abilities to control people and landscapes. A distinct form of naming features is where features in the landscape are given bear names based on their supposed human characteristics.

Over the years I’ve been noticing places that have names like “Indian Head” or “Kissing Rocks.” The place that made me really stand up and take notice (and stimulate my gag reflex) was Chiricahua National Monument, in extreme southeastern Arizona, when I first visited it in the early 90s. Here, a 1930s trail goes through an area known as the “Heart of Rocks,” where there’s a concentration of features 10-30 feet tall bearing plaques labeling them in all sorts of distinctly human terms, using names drawn from a hodgepodge of cultural referents. This is where I saw Kissing Rocks, two just-touching formations with lip-like protrusions. Then there’s “Punch and Judy Rock,” and “Totem Pole,” and “Thor’s Hammer.” Mixed in with these, “Big Balanced Rock,” “Camel,” and “Mushroom Rock” seemed much more benign.

I returned to Chiricahua last Spring and decided that it would be and interesting project to document some of these formations. On the way up the mountain I was explaining what I was doing to a Park Service ranger. Of all the formations, one of the ones that she’d had the most negative reactions to was “Old Maid.” And, down the mountain a ways, be sure to check out “China Boy,” she suggested. Then there’s a whole mountaintop easily viewable from the parking lot at the top of the mountain that’s labeled “Cochise Head,” a questionable homage to Cochise, who held up for several years in these mountains before he was captured.

If you look at the Park Service literature for the park you’ll see “Big Balanced Rock” mentioned, but they’ve downplayed the other names. The plaques remain, however, maybe as a reliquaries to the1930s mindset that came up with most of the names. (The ranger I spoke to thought that Cochise Head might date further back, to the late 1800s.)

So why all these names? Sure, someone was having some fun with it all, but I’m interested in the questions bubbling below the surface. Are humans so scared of or alienated by “nature” that they have to project human traits on it to be able to begin to deal with it? Are we so blind to natural processes and geology that we can only understand it on our terms? Is naming something the beginning of a long chain of controlling actions that ultimately leads to its destruction?

James SOE NYUN: “China Boy,” Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona, 2007
James SOE NYUN: “Cochise Head,” Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona, 2007
James SOE NYUN: “Kissing Rocks,” Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona, 2007
James SOE NYUN: “Old Maid,” Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona, 2007

the mojave phonebooth: part 2, i told you it was weird

[ continued from part 1 ]

My second trip to the Mojave Phonebooth was a few years later when I was leading a photography trip for some fellow photography geeks with the local Sierra Club chapter. My trips are often a little offbeat, particularly for people wanting to pad their portfolios with more photos of rocks and sunsets. (Don’t get me wrong–I still have a weakness for “nature photography” or whatever you call this West Coast, Weston- and Adams- and Porter-influenced way of seeing the world.) The people on this trip were a tad puzzled by my insisting that we visit this phonebooth in the middle of Cima Dome, but I promised them it’d be an interesting detour.

By this point the phonebooth had acquired an international following. I won’t repeat all the details, but through the efforts of a certain Godfrey Daniels, who called and called the phone until he got through to a human being, who logged all his attempts, and who detailed his craziness on the web, the phonebooth began to get a certain reputation for weirdness. People from all over started to make calls to this lost phonebooth, and people would go there to answer them. And then Europe found out. What better thing to represent a romantic European notion of the American West than a lone phonebooth, miles from anything, set in the middle of the desert with j-trees all around it?

My group finally made it there, but we weren’t the only ones that day. A DJ from a Florida radio station was there in a low, battered sedan with “Mojave Phonebooth or bust” signs all over it. He’d been camping out there, taking calls from listeners, and he was looking a little battered himself. In a more deluxe rented SUV was another group of people which consisted of a German film crew and an opera singer. Apparently the opera singer had made a certain reputation for himself by singing arias while standing in the phone booth. Maybe while waiting for La Scala to call him.

We weren’t there long before the phone rang and continued to ring. People from Texas, Florida, Italy, Germany, all over. We didn’t hear the opera singer sing, though the crew got some shots of him standing at the phone, answering a call. Then the film crew turned their attention to my group. Richard got some questions, then someone else, then me. What was I doing here? How did I hear about the phonebooth? Who was in my group? I had no idea if these people were the equivalent of the major American networks, some little cable outfit, or some precursor to Youtube. But what the hell, I’ve been on European television!

The phone booth that day:


Nicole, one of my group, taking a call–in French–from someone in Europe:


Postscript: All this was in the late 1990s, after the Mojave National Preserve came into being officially. The thought of having something so antithetical the mission of a natural preserve rubbed the National Park Service the wrong way, and with the collusion of SBC Pacific Bell (now AT&T) the phone was removed and the phone number ((619) 733-9969) retired forever. While the Mojave Phonebooth was definitely an unnatural feature in the landscape, it was no worse than golf courses in Yosemite or mega-lodges in Yellowstone. But through their greater wisdom the NPS saw it fit to kill off this piece of wacked Americana. So that’s one less thing out in the wilds to makes roaming the deserts such an interesting thing to do.

The Park Service’s action hasn’t ended the weird romance of the phonebooth, however. A film produced in 2006, Mojave Phone Booth, played the festival circuit in 2006 and 2007 and gathered a number of awards.

the mojave phonebooth: part 1, weird at first sight

I first ran across what later came to be known as the Mojave Phone Booth in January of 1993 or 4. I’d been camping that weekend in what was soon to become Mojave National Preserve, and one day was exploring some of the features on the north end of the park-to-be. There the park butts up against I-15 and the thriving tourist waystation of Baker, California, touted on signs throughout town as “Gateway to Death Valley.” Baker is home to what’s claimed as the “world’s largest thermometer,” 134 feet tall–a foot for every degree that made up the hottest temperature ever recorded at Badwater in Death Valley. Baker is also known for the Mad Greek Restaurant, a busy and basically okay eatery that serves up Greek -Mexican-American cuisine in portions that you might expect in a town that owes its success if not existence to travelers heading for that shining shrine of excess, Las Vegas, which at one point in my life was my all-time least favorite swath of soulless human desolation on earth. But enough Vegas-bashing and back to the Preserve…

The most dramatic features on the land are a chain of multicolored volcanic cinder cones. I think of them as single-use volcanoes: Unlike their big brothers that build to some size over long eras, cinder cones mark a short period of eruptions that builds them to a few hundred feet high. And then the eruptions stop, the route to the magma below closes up, and when the ground’s finally ready to erupt again, a new crack opens up, away from the first cinder cone, creating another, separate cone.

Here at the Mojave Preserve there are piles of them–some of them pristine in their perfect pyramidal geometry, others reshaped by mining operations–and they guard the western edge of Cima Dome. Just a few miles south of the world’s largest thermometer, Cima Dome hosts the world’s densest population of joshua trees, and that’s what you notice first. But the feature is called a dome and not a forest, and as remarkable as the j-trees are, growing denser and green as you get farther out on the dome, it’s the geology and not biology that makes this place so amazing.

On a topo map you can easily make out the uniform concentric rings of the dome as it rises over 1500 feet from the lower points around it. In real life it’s a lot more subtle. You look at the ground as it rises, gradually, perfectly, and you get a torqued sensation that something is happening, but you’re not quite sure what. You stare and it looks like you see the curvature of the earth, though instead of flying high over it, you’re standing right on it. Space seems to distort as what you expect to be flat bulges up. Queasiness sets in. Welcome to Cima Dome.

Cima Dome topo

The place has this amazing power and force that the touted 1960s and 1970s earthworks can’t begin to approach. In terms of spatial power, as interesting as they are, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Michael Heizer’s various constructions, and James Turrell’s Roden Crater can’t hold a candle to it. Sorry guys!

So there I was, jeeping through the j-trees and the spatial queasiness, when I encounter a fence, a cattle guard, a power line and a powerline road crossing the jeep track. And next to the road, next to one of the power poles is a phone booth. A phone booth? A dozen miles from anything? A freaking phone booth? But out in the desert you see a lot of…unusual…things. And I stuck the phone booth as another entry in my brain’s cataloging of desert sights and sightings. Little did I know what I’d just seen.

[ go to part 2, i told you it was weird ]