The concept could not be simpler or more profound: Place a disconnected telephone in the woods, available to anyone who needs to talk to someone who cannot hear them. It could be final words never spoken to a lost loved one, parting words to an ex, a secret that refuses to be contained, or a simple shout of frustration that would otherwise be held in. That concept became a reality in November along a little-used trail at Priest Point Park in Olympia.
In a back corner of the wooded park, a rotary telephone and sign are attached to a humble slab of plywood, which itself is affixed to the back of a towering western red cedar. Callers have privacy in the solitude of the woods, and the trunk of the tree shields them from the main trail.
Lori Provoe used the Telephone of the Wind to talk to her son Tyler, who died suddenly this March at only 27 years old.
"He was here on Friday and gone on Saturday," she said. "After leaving the hospital, I was in a fog. In retrospect, there were so many things I wish I'd said to him, but I didn't. When I talked on the phone, I didn't have anything formulated in mind to say. I knew what I was going to say would flow, and it did."
That is precisely how the Telephone of the Wind was intended to be used.
Corey Dembeck, a local travel journalist, created the Telephone of the Wind and placed it in the park in November. The idea came from a podcast he heard about a disconnected rotary telephone installed almost a decade ago in Otsuchi, Japan. That Telephone of the Wind was placed on a hilltop near the Pacific Ocean in 2011, shortly after a massive earthquake struck, and the ensuing tsunami washed tens of thousands of people out to sea, presumed dead. As residents grieved for those they had lost, mourners would line up by the hundreds to speak into the phone to their missing loved ones. They spoke to them about both meaningful and mundane matters: Life ambitions; updates on the schoolwork of sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters; news of engagements and weddings.
This November, Dembeck had recently lost his grandfather and both his parents over a short period of time. Then he learned of the sudden, tragic death of a friend's four-year-old daughter, Joelle Sylvester, to whom the Telephone of the Wind is dedicated. That spurred him to action.
"Our families are close. Not long before Joelle passed away, she had just been playing and singing with my daughter," he said. "She died in the early morning. We found out at eight or nine that morning, and I had the phone up by noon. It was a really hard day."
He describes the phone's first use, which was his own call.
"I called my mom, who passed away recently," he said. "It's a little awkward at first, but I walked away, feeling better. It's almost therapeutic. I picked up the phone and dialed some random numbers. At first, you feel kind of stupid, but then you start talking and the emotions just kind of come out in a way that you didn't really expect. I didn't know what to say. I didn't have anything prepared, so I said, 'Hi,' and gave her some recent updates on my life."
Provoe said using the phone to talk to her son had an immediate effect.
"From that one instance of using the phone, I felt relief. I felt joy, talking to Tyler in a formal way. It was like I had just opened the floodgates to the acceptance stage. I can move on. It was symbolic of reaching out and touching someone. I know that's from an old phone commercial, but I think this gives it a whole new meaning."
At the end of a year when it seems that everyone has lost something – whether a person, a career opportunity, a business, or just a sense of normalcy – the Telephone of the Wind offers the chance to share that experience of loss out loud, without judgment. While born out of the need to say things to people who had died, Dembeck said the Telephone of the Wind is bigger than that.
"It gives you the privacy to say those things you need to say," he said. "You think about things, but if you can't talk about it to someone else, you'll never say them out loud. It helps get out a lot of that unresolved stress."
Having been installed in the park without permission, the future of the phone is up in the air, but Dembeck is optimistic.
"Looking back, I probably should have told the park staff about it, but it's been here for a couple of months now, so I think they probably know about it. If it stays up a little longer and people are getting use out of it, I'd like to make it sturdier so it can be around for a while longer."
If it remains in place, Provoe said she will be back to talk to her son Tyler again.
"Was the telephone a working telephone?" she said. "No. Did I shed a few tears? Yes. Was it healing? Absolutely, yes. Will I be back again? You betcha."
If you go:
- The GPS coordinates for the phone's location are 4704'03.1"N 12253'30.1"W.
- It's an easy walk from most parking lots in the park, but the closest is the Samarkand Rose Garden parking lot. It's only a few minutes' walk from there.
- Please be respectful of the plant life at the park. The telephone is located on a small trail, and no off-trail hiking is necessary to reach it.
- When using the phone, please be respectful to others by keeping your call brief if others are waiting. When waiting to use it, please be respectful to the one making a call by giving them distance and privacy.
- Please be respectful of the telephone itself. It's sturdy but not indestructible.
- Bring your own hand sanitizer or sanitizing wipes to use on your hands and the telephone, and pack them out with you when you leave.