By Bill Gann
The Mountain Lady
Hearing Toni Seger's voice bounce off the clouds and shake the Earth for hundreds of miles in every direction is quite a memory. This was in the early days when everyone who listened heard her folksy chopped Vermont accent boom out across the Northern Hemisphere.
Back then, she had only spent a few years on her mountaintop at the famous Burro Schmidt Tunnel. Funny that Walt Bickel, even though he was the nearest neighbor in Last Chance Canyon, knew nothing of Toniís broadcast fame. Though Bickel came to respect and admire Toni over time, she never forgot he had once referred to her as, "that damn city woman." Yet almost clandestinely she had become famous in her own right. I could "shoot skip" as they said in radio days and hear her voice all the way to Orange County on a good night.
I would fall contentedly asleep next to my Citizen's Band (CB) radio, happy just knowing she was out there. It was comforting to hear her talking to passing truckers or chatting with others who had also had illegally tweaked their own radio base stations. It was good to know she was living in the wilds without electricity or running water, and that billions of stars lit her footpath to the outhouse. Still, I could hear her voice on the radio. The idea of that captured my imagination.
Years later I would have the same hard-to-explain feeling about the Desert Phone Booth. Something about the story of a lonely phone ringing in the wilderness reminded me of Toni on the CB. Toni broadcasting from the top of the El Paso Mountains and the Mojave pay phone, I file in the same mental folder. These are rare joyous things that happen when technology and the wilderness mix. I think Paul Simon was alluding to this when he sang about ďlasers in the jungle.Ē
The world's most used and remote phone and Toni talking on her base station attracted a following. Some people just canít resist a lonely unanswered pay phone or a woman's voice ringing out from a remote mountain. Those of us who "got" such compelling ideas made well-worn trails to these unusual places. At the phone booth one could talk to people from all over the world. At Toni's one could also make a "donation" and have a beer and conversation with a great character. I would tell friends on the way up Toni's mountain we were going to visit the world's most remote yard sale.
The phone booth was a payphone near an old abandon Mojave mine that still worked. When the world discovered via Internet that this phone existed, everyone called the published number. Some of us found that phone and occasionally went there to answer the endless calls. When Toni talked to the world from her mountain we all listened.
Toni in the Seventies and the Desert Phone Booth in year 2000 were both unique cries in the wilderness. Sadly, the government would act quickly to silence both unusual voices. I suppose Nurse Seger's nightly chatting on the CB radio and nowhere phone calling somehow upset those with control issues.
Some radio-savvy friend must have visited Toni's secluded mountain had indeed rigged her CB unit to put out massive power. Toni had the high ground mountain broadcasting advantage from her perch and she was soon heard all over the West. I suppose that radio wizard couldn't resist the pure beauty of making such a powerful creation. This would eventually lead to a bit of trouble for the mountain lady.
I understood the resulting nightly broadcasts as pure joy. There she was, a retired Navy nurse who in 1963 had moved to the desert with her husband for health reasons. The husband died and left her alone to live out her own life with the bobcats and coyotes. She loved to talk and had something to say, so why not bring her to the airwaves?
I lived in Fullerton in those days and would often point my microbus north. I would follow a course to the high desert with my CB radio tuned to whatever channel Toni was dominating. My legal radio wouldn't broadcast much more than a few miles, but it drew me to the high desert. My old bus used to take four hours to get near the El Paso Mountains and I would feel like I was talking to a movie star when I finally got a response from the lady on the mountain. She may have had a moniker or "handle" back then but I don't remember what it was. She knew me as "Red Beard" though, and would announce to all listing, "It's Bill Gaannnz, the teacher, ya coming to visit?"
Often I would visit Toni but tended call less and less over the years. As she and the Burro Schmidt story became more of an attraction, I tended to spend quieter time around Bickel Camp. Sometimes from Bickel's porch I could look up at Toni's mountain and see the sun dance off hundreds of motorcycles. I wasn't looking for crowds in the desert.
Toni's radio days didn't last all that long, maybe a year or two. The crowds continued for years. Too much freedom of speech makes those charged with governing nervous it seems. Whatever government agency in charge at the time, the FCC I suppose, eventually found her remote broadcast studio and shut her down. Ironic but in the same way, the National Park Service panicked when large groups began to gather and camp at the Desert Phone Booth. The booth was unceremoniously removed and freedom's success was again squelched.
One of the last times I saw Toni was at Bickel's funeral. "Hey it's Bill Gannnz!" she shouted over the crowd in the same booming voice once heard on the trucker's channel. She was wearing these enormous wraparound sunglasses and I hardly recognized her. We were gathered there to return ashes to the dust, and I felt our reunion might have been a bit too loud. "When are you gonna come up and visit me again?" One last time she reminded me of how "Mister Bickel" (as she called Walt) always said she was "nothing but a damn city woman."
She stuffed some money in my pocket and wouldn't take it back saying she wanted me to send her pictures of the ceremony. Shortly after my family visited her crowded cabin. I don't recall sending her pictures of the ceremony. Maybe I did. Just in case, I'll have to post an image or here to settle up with the cosmos.
Toni always claimed that she owned and had patented papers for her mountaintop property. I'm told now that no proper papers or filing can be found today. Still, I believe Toni did own that property or at least thought she did. She knew how to tell a great story but she didn't lie. Itís just a theory but I think the missing papers might be related to an old BLM war against desert folk.
Back in the Eighties the Bureau of Land Management had an area director who seemed to hate the idea of Americans living freely on or near public lands. This awful woman did everything she could to clear old miners off the land. She damn near bulldozed Bickel Camp. A great deal of history, including the Gerbracht cabin was bulldozed and hauled away before that woman was sent packing. Who knows, it might have been quite easy for a government official to gain access to old records. Maybe in the same evil spirited way old cabins were bulldozed, Toni's missing documents were tossed.
Regardless, it doesn't matter now. Chuck Goodenough, Randy Banis, and Charlie Hattendorf have made great progress in saving what's left of the tunnel, cabins and the area's history. Jose Pablano watches over the place and indeed talks to others in the canyon via a CB band walkie-talkie. Though not near as powerful as Toni's massive base station, it's still nice to know the mountain still talks.
|Bill Gann Copyright.|