BAKER, CALIF. — It keeps people awake, it is the source of many a road-trip wager, it is the most dominating landmark in a place devoid of dominating landmarks, it is proof positive that anywhere — even the middle of nowhere — can be famous for anything.

It is the centerpiece in the center of the Mojave Desert.

If you've ever traveled the I-15 freeway between Salt Lake City and Southern California you have seen it.

New York has the Statue of Liberty, Paris has the Eiffel Tower, London has Big Ben, and Baker, Calif., has The World's Tallest Thermometer.

Technically, it isn't a thermometer at all. It is an electric sign built in 1991 by the Young Electric Sign Co. of Salt Lake City. It weighs 76,812 pounds, is held together by 125 cubic yards of concrete, and stands 134 feet tall, a symbolic measurement in tribute to the 134 degrees recorded in nearby Death Valley in 1913 — the highest temperature ever recorded in North America. Ostensibly, 134 is both The World's Tallest Thermometer's maximum height and temperature.

People are always asking Ruby, the Park Service attendant who works in the air-conditioned information center next to The World's Tallest Thermometer, what happens if the temperature ever goes higher than 134.

"I tell them, 'Don't worry about it,' " says Ruby. "If it gets that high, I won't be here."

Ruby has been a ranger in the desert for the past 14 years, and the highest temperature in Baker she's seen in that time has been 120, while Death Valley has managed a 129.

Not a lot of places can make Baker look cool, but Death Valley, which is another 113 lonely miles off the interstate, manages to routinely pull it off.

The desert is a beautiful place, with powerful sunrises and sunsets, unique landscapes and an amazing array of wildlife.

But Ruby will tell you that the most-asked question, year in, year out, is always the same.

"Hey, how hot is it?"

The World's Tallest Thermometer not only answers the question, it also serves as a lure to travelers to pull off the freeway for a minute, fill the tank with $1.95 gas, and maybe enjoy a slice of strawberry pie at the Mad Greek or the Bun Boy, restaurants that are owned — and this is no coincidence — by the same person who owns The World's Tallest Thermometer.

Baker's very roots are centered in traveler hospitality, dating back to the town's beginnings in 1925 when a dirt road was built over what was essentially the old Spanish Trail and a man with the hardscrabble name of E.B. Failing set up a man-made desert oasis that sold food and gas to people bound for Las Vegas or Los Angeles and who were certain, by the time they ran into E.B., that they'd never see either one.

Eventually, the road was paved and, finally, turned into the four-lane divided freeway that exists today. The superhighway has changed things. Las Vegas is still 91 miles to the northeast, just like it's always been, and Southern California is the same 120 miles away as in 1925, but with a decent tailwind and light traffic, neither place is much more than one boxed Jimmy Buffet CD set away.

All of which helps explain the motivation behind construction of The World's Tallest Thermometer. To stop cars cruising at 70 mph or more, you need to first get their attention. The World's Tallest does just that, shouting out the temperature in neon lights so bright and high you really can't miss them.

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.