HIOUCHI, Calif. — Every 10 days or so, as he makes the 35 mile drive from the Buddhist hermitage, where he's the caretaker, to Crescent City, Sam Babcock stops to use the pay phone outside the Hiouchi Hamlet general store.
"I can check my messages here," said Babcock of the phone in the isolated community in northwestern California's Del Norte County.
At her espresso cart in the store's parking lot, Gina Van Wormer watches as Babcock and dozens like him "come out and be here for hours. This is it. This is where you have to go if you live out here."
They use the pay phone because they're among the 112,000 or more Californians without regular telephone service. From Hiouchi to pockets of the Sierra Nevada, residents of dozens of communities are unable to make calls that most Americans take for granted.
Although they live in the state that's home to the high-tech Silicon Valley, these Californians can connect to the rest of the world only by radios or spotty cellular coverage. Calls for help to police or fire departments often disappear into the void.
For rescue workers in Charleston View in Inyo County, the lack of telephone service makes it hard to respond to emergency calls, said Bruce Stevenson of the South Inyo Volunteer Fire Department.
That area, heavily traveled by tourists, is a 25 mile drive from the nearest pay phone in Tecopa, Calif., or Pahrump, Nev.
"We've got one curve coming in there that, cross your fingers, no one has been killed on this year," Stevenson said. It's a 30 minute drive to the area "once we got the call, and that's assuming the person has a cell phone."
Even then, Stevenson said, the erratic cell phone service bounces 911 calls first to Nevada dispatchers in Las Vegas, Pahrump or Winnemucca.
One reason for the lack of service is money — telephone companies can't make a profit in these small communities.
It cost Ducor Telephones $1.2 million and two years to bring service to the tiny Sierra Nevada town of Kennedy Meadows, said Ducor's Eric Wolfe. The first phone was installed there in 1999, and now there are 100 customers.
The 23 residents of the Eagle Ranch subdivision in Lake County have been quoted prices up to $250,000 to bring a telephone line into the neighborhood but not to individual homes, said 16-year resident Carol Splain.
"It's a little ridiculous not having phones here," she said. "We drove across country last year, and out in the middle of nowhere on Interstate 80 there's phone service. We're not that far out."
Under a new law, the state is giving $10 million a year in grants to extend service to areas without phones. The Public Utilities Commission will start accepting the applications next summer.
Communities are already looking for grant money. Trinity County wants a $1.25 million grant to install five cellular telephone towers to bring service to one-third of its 13,000 residents, county supervisor Robert Reiss said.
The county's steep terrain makes it impossible for telephone companies to bury transmission lines, Reiss said. The grant would help "tie our county into the outside world."
Without phone service — particularly land lines — residents of this part of California are also strangers to the Internet.
In Del Norte County's Big Flat area, supervisor Chuck Blackburn and his 18 neighbors depend on radio phones for communications, but that's not enough these days. "It's getting to where you have to have computer access, Internet access," Blackburn said.
Radio phones have their own drawbacks. Like CB radios, they allow anyone with a scanner to listen in — which means few things remain secret.
That makes it difficult for respiratory therapist Clark Moore in Big Flat to be on call at the hospital in Crescent City, 45 minutes away. "I just had to get in the car and drive to town when they called," because he couldn't discuss confidential patient information on the radio.
In the northern Sierra Nevada town of Iowa Hills, CB radios connected resident Dawn Rogers with her neighbors and the local gossip. "You could hear all sorts of stuff on it."
Before she got her new cell phone, Rogers said, residents with an emergency either used the CB or fired three shots and "hoped the neighbors heard."
Cellular technology, although not always reliable, has finally brought telephone service to some residents. "This is my first phone, ever," Rogers said.
She enjoys the security of having the cell phone when she drives home at night on a steep, winding seven-mile road. And for the first time, she's able to contact her two teenage sons while she's at work.
The community's K-8 school, with nine students this year, communicated by radio phone for years. Earlier this month, the school's computer was connected to the Internet — through a satellite.