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Desert phone box becomes a cult icon

AT FIRST it was just a lonely telephone box, stranded miles away from anywhere in the middle of southern California's Mojave Desert. But then it became something else, something a bit special. It became an object of cult veneration.

Or, to put it another way, of internet-generated fetishism - which places it in the same improbable category as the formerly obscure bachelor from Izmir, Turkey, called Mahir Cagri, whose website has witnessed well over a million hits in the last month.The world wide web has made unlikely stars of them both.

But while Mahir's fairly ordinary vanity website has spawned an online fan club and, inevitably, Mahir T-shirts, the Mojave phone box may prove to be the more enduring cult.

Dozens of intrepid explorers have trekked the 15 miles of unmade road from the nearest highway to pay homage to this gloomy outpost of telecommunications. Thousands of people, meanwhile, have dialled the number from as far away as Norway, New Zealand and Albania. At first there was no answer, but recently the line has been humming so loud it has almost always been engaged.

The Mojave Telephone Booth, as it is known to its fans, started out as the sole conduit of communication for a remote cinder mine off the main road from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. But for the past two years, thanks to an impassioned computer programmer from Arizona, it has become a phenomenon unto itself.

The fascination is hard to explain. "Why did I go out to the middle of the desert to hang up a phone?" asks Steve Amala, who describes his experiences on one of the many Mojave telephone websites. "Can't say, really. I've tried to forge an alloy out of some ideas, struggled to come up with a phrase that will support the weight of reason and still shine with adventure, but I can't. Brain cloud."

It seems the craze began when a music fan from southern California spotted the word "telephone" on a map of the Mojave Desert and decided to take a look for himself. He found the glass shot out and the phone book missing but, in a letter to the music magazine Wig Out! reported the phone to be in perfect working order. His account was read by Godfrey Daniels of Phoenix, Arizona, who was immediately transfixed. Mechanically, Mr Daniels began dialling the number every day to see if anyone would answer. Less than a month later, someone did - a cinder miner's daughter called Lorene. Further phone calls finally inspired him to visit himself, and he chronicled the whole thing on his website.

And so the cult was born. As the trickle of visitors turned into a flood, the media became interested, and then the flood turned into a veritable stampede. Heavy rains earlier this year made the road almost impassable, and the highway patrol became so sick of towing people out that they announced they simply wouldn't do it any more.

But still the fans kept coming. In August, the cinder mine was threatened with closure, and the issue was publicised loudly on Mr Daniels' website. In September, he became so famous that computer hackers started messing with his e-mail address.

Not only has the phone survived after vandalism last month put a temporarily halt to calls, its curious cult cachet is now set to mushroom with the release of a film inspired by the phenomenon. A small company called Fiercely Independent Films will release what is billed a suspense thriller next month. The title: Dead Line.