Nobody died. No one got sick. But this is a sad story just the same.

It is about a phone booth. In the Mojave Desert. “The loneliest phone booth in the world,” they called it. It sat by itself, miles from anywhere, in a dusty stretch amidst scrub brush and dirt. Its windows were shot out. Its door was long gone. Its hinges showed decay from the harsh desert climate.

But it worked.

The phone booth, not far from Death Valley, originally was installed many years ago so that miners could have contact with the outside world in case of emergency.

Times changed. Miners left.

The phone booth remained.

Until this month. This month, the phone booth was eliminated. It suffered a modern fate, a 21st-Century calamity, a force so destructive that even the most sturdy of structures could not withstand it, let alone a little old phone booth.

I am not talking hurricanes. I am not talking floods. I am not talking hail, wind, thunder or lightning.

I am talking Internet.

Spanning the globe

Everything these days winds up on a Web site, from body parts being auctioned off on eBay to a 24-hour camera in a woman’s dorm room.

So it was inevitable that the loneliest phone booth in the world became a Web destination. And it did. News was posted. Pictures were downloaded. The phone number was given out. And people from all over the world began calling at all hours just to see who would answer.

Web surfers in the Netherlands, Africa, South America, Australia — people with no chance of ever getting to this California desert — nonetheless wanted to bring a piece of it into their living rooms. Once upon a time, we accepted the idea that certain places were out of reach. Now, nothing is farther than our fingertips.

So Internet junkies called up the lonely phone booth Web site, and they chatted and fussed and dialed the number incessantly. And when someone would answer, they’d say important things like: “Hi! Who’s this?”

And soon the loneliest phone booth in the world became a destination. And curiosity seekers began driving 2 hours from the Nevada border to find it. They took pictures. They’d make calls. (“Hello, Mom? Guess where I am! . . .”) They hounded local ranchers for directions. They left rocks at the booth with painted messages.

Eventually, there were so many cars, some of which got stuck and needed assistance, and so many visitors, some of whom vandalized the booth, and so much disturbance of the natural environment, including a campfire that blazed out of control a few weeks ago, that the National Park Service folks said,
“Enough.”

They contacted Pacific Bell. The technicians came out with a truck. They lifted, loaded and hauled it away.

The loneliest phone booth in the world expired, just outside Death Valley, of very unnatural causes.

Nowhere to hide

Now, maybe you see nothing significant here. Maybe you see another public nuisance taken away, case closed.

I see something terribly sad. I see the blessed peace of empty spaces being sucked up by an insatiable microchip appetite.

If a phone booth in the middle of a hot, quiet desert is so internationally pestered that it has to be obliterated, then where do we go to get away from things? What corner of the planet isn’t snapped up by a camera, thrown into cyberspace and instantly chewed upon by a screen-addicted population?

Personally, I like the idea of disappearing. I like the idea of finding beautiful corners of the world, painting them in memory, feeling compelled to make more efforts to get out into the world and see it.

Instead, we have a population that thinks it has been there and done that by clicking. Every private place must become public fodder. Every whisper must be shouted. We’re becoming a lazy planet chock-full of voyeurs so ready to live vicariously that a phone booth that served almost no one was destroyed by overindulgence.

If you dial the phone booth’s number these days, it just rings sadly. But in a few days, you will get a recording.

And, in this overly connected world, hearing the words “this number has been disconnected” may be the saddest ring of all.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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