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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Truth About the Quietest Town in America

This story is adapted from The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence, by Stephen Kurczy. 

Seventeen antennas protruded from Chuck Niday’s Dodge Ram 2500. It reminded me of the wraith-hunting vehicle from Ghostbusters, and its aim was similar. Ghosts are all around us—at least in the form of invisible waves of electromagnetic radiation emanating from power lines and Wi-Fi routers, flying through walls and zooming across the sky—and Niday’s job was to track them down. His truck’s main antenna picked up signals from 25 megahertz to 4 gigahertz, while smaller antennas operated as a direction-finding array. “Through some method, which I believe involves witchcraft,” he said, “it comes up with a direction for the signal we’re looking for.”


Niday was heading out on patrol of Green Bank, West Virginia, to keep tabs on radio noise that might interfere with the half-dozen giant, dish-shaped telescopes looming behind us at the nation’s oldest federal radio astronomy observatory. Operating electrical equipment within 10 miles of here was illegal if it disrupted the telescopes, punishable by a state fine of $50 per day. Further safeguarding the observatory was a surrounding 13,000-square-mile National Radio Quiet Zone—an area larger than the combined landmass of Connecticut and Massachusetts—which limited cell service and all kinds of wireless communications systems. Theoretically, you couldn’t turn on a smartphone in town without alerting Niday.

We hopped in the truck. Wiring snaked from the roof down to a stack of electronics and computer monitors in the cab. “Footloose” played on an AM/FM radio. Niday adjusted the dials on a computer to look for signals in the 2.4 gigahertz frequency: Wi-Fi. He shifted into drive.

As we exited the observatory’s parking lot, the truck’s computer monitor started bleeping angrily. Before we reached the main road, we picked up 13 wireless signals. Within a half mile, we found 66 signals. Niday’s gadgetry was going berserk. But instead of jumping out of the truck to ticket Wi-Fi offenders, he simply took note of the sources of radio noise and kept driving, unfazed.

Within five miles, we tallied more than 200 signals, some coming from the homes of staff living on the observatory’s own property—a blatant violation of the facility’s regulations. As I observed from the backseat, I wondered, How is this called the quietest town in America?

I had first come to Green Bank a few months earlier, in March of 2017, on something of a pilgrimage with my girlfriend (now wife), Jenna.

Driving into town, we passed the area’s quiet authority: the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, a 485-foot-tall tangle of white beams holding a giant dish the size of two football fields. This washbasin for Godzilla sat at the bottom of a 4-mile-long valley surrounded by mountains nearly 5,000 feet tall, which created a natural barrier against the outside world’s noise and helped isolate this remote area. Three-fifths of the surrounding county was state or federal forest, thick with mountain laurel and, in warmer months, teeming with mushrooms, ramps, ginseng, goldenseal, and sassafras. Its 941 square miles had a total of three traffic lights, one weekly newspaper, one high school, and a couple roadside pay phones.

The population density of about nine people per square mile was the lowest in West Virginia and one of the lowest anywhere east of the Mississippi River. Going to Walmart was a hundred-mile round trip that required traversing some of the Mountain State’s tallest peaks. Outsiders were considered “flatlanders” or “come-heres.” Locals were “mountain people” who lived in evocative-sounding hamlets such as Stony Bottom, Clover Lick, Thorny Creek, Briery Knob, and Green Bank, with that last name holding an almost mythical allure as a place where the grass was greener and life fuller. Four hours from Washington, DC, Green Bank sounded like a modern-day Walden that could free Jenna and me from the exasperating demands of being always online and reachable. Visiting was to be a respite from our digital lives.

In fact, the quiet had attracted a number of outsiders over the decades. The early astronomers’ ranks had included Frank Drake, who in 1960 conducted humanity’s first formal search for extraterrestrial intelligence using a Green Bank telescope. Secretive military operations also found fertile ground in the Quiet Zone, enabling the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on radio communications from a nearby station in Sugar Grove. During the counterculture revolution, hippies and back-to-the-landers flooded the county in search of a quieter way of living, among them a long-haired doctor named Hunter “Patch” Adams who purchased 310 acres with the stated mission of opening a free medical hospital. Up the road, an infamous white supremacist named William Luther Pierce would also find refuge, purchasing a 346-acre mountainside to build a combination country retreat, business headquarters, and militia base from which to inspire a “white awakening.” 


The area had also attracted a sex cult, a racist serial killer, and, most recently, people with a mysterious illness called electromagnetic hypersensitivity who described feeling ill when exposed to iPhones and smart meters, refrigerators and microwaves. (At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, some people similarly claimed that cell towers and 5G cell service were somehow linked to the outbreak, particularly in cities.) In essence, they were allergic to modern life. Many were convinced they had nowhere to go but the Quiet Zone.

My own journey to the Quiet Zone had begun in 2009, when I got rid of my first and last mobile device, a silver Samsung flip phone. I had been working for the Cambodia Daily, a scrappy rag in Phnom Penh, and my cell phone had come to feel like an extension of myself. I slept with it. I ate with it. It was a social lifeline. It was also a source of anxiety. Desperate for a callback from a source, I would stare at the device, willing it to comply. I heard phantom rings and felt phantom vibrations. I was as dependent on my phone as a baby on a pacifier. The day I left Cambodia, I dropped my phone in a garbage can.

Back in the United States, I put off getting a replacement. It was a decision initially based on frugality, then fueled by stubbornness. I don’t like when people tell me what to do, and everyone was telling me to get a smartphone. Weeks without a phone turned into months, then years. I worked for the Christian Science Monitor in Boston, then moved to New York City to report on finance, then relocated to Brazil as a foreign correspondent, all without a phone. I signed up for a free Google “phone number” to make calls using my laptop. I used Skype. I got an iPod for podcasts. In emergency situations, I borrowed others’ cellphones, using them in the way people once used roadside pay phones. I recognize mobile devices can be useful—I just think they should be used sparingly.

I’ve come to see my phonelessness as a matter of personal liberty, a kind of Fourth Amendment fight for privacy and “the right to be let alone,” as phrased by the Boston lawyers Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis in a famous Harvard Law Review article from 1890. The two railed against “recent inventions and business methods,” such as “instantaneous photographs” and “numerous mechanical devices” that “invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life.” What would they think of smartphones and their abuse of our attention and privacy? I saw myself as a disconnection crusader, a Don Quixote for the digital era, toiling against the tyranny of always-on mobile devices. (Never mind that Don Quixote was delusional.)

My mission was as futile as fighting windmills. Cellphones hardly existed two decades ago. By 2019, eight in 10 American adults owned a smartphone; in my own demographic of Americans aged 30 to 49, 92 percent owned smartphones. Whenever I walked into a public restroom, a guy at the neighboring stall held a device in his free hand. A colleague so vigorously swiped and typed on her iPhone that she injured her wrist and came into the office wearing a brace. My mother, a teacher, was encouraged to tweet from the classroom. My father, a minister, contended with congregants answering their phones during services. Jenna carried two smartphones, one personal and one provided by her employer so she could be reached any time of any day. “You can’t miss nobody in 2017,” the comedian Chris Rock said during a stand-up routine that year. “Not really. You can say it, but you don’t really miss the motherfucker, because you’re with them all the time. They’re in your fuckin’ pocket.”

This loss of radio quiet has coincided with a loss of audible quiet. In 2000, the director of the US National Park Service passed an ordinance on “soundscape preservation and noise management” that called for parks to document and work to preserve natural sounds. The directive expired in 2004. Three years later, when the iPhone debuted, Science reported that human-made noise pollution was “pervasive” in America’s protected areas. The acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton believes a dozen places remain in the United States where a person can hear no man-made sounds for 15 minutes. More than annoying, such noise has been shown to increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and even cancer. The concurrent rise in radio noise has also had deadly effects, with heavy smartphone usage tied to depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation, teen suicides, and, unsurprisingly, motor vehicle accidents.

Wouldn’t there be fewer car crashes and deaths if it was impossible to drive and text at the same time? Wouldn’t all of us sleep better if we lived in a place without constant connectivity? Wouldn’t our lives be richer and our communities stronger if we weren’t always online? And if all these benefits of a less digitized life were true, wouldn’t Green Bank and the surrounding Quiet Zone be a kind of utopia?

Those questions led me into Appalachia, over snowy mountain passes and down steep switchbacks, into the rugged backcountry of Daniel Boone and Stonewall Jackson, to the heart of the National Radio Quiet Zone, in search of an alternative to our tech-obsessed, phone-addicted, attention-hijacked, doomscrolling society. When I first arrived in 2017, the observatory was hosting some 30 media visitors a year, with a regular stream of articles being published about the so-called Quietest Town in America. Busy days could see three film crews crowded atop the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, all competing for footage of that most endangered of things: quiet.

After my initial visit to Green Bank with Jenna, I returned about a dozen times over the next three years for a series of extended stays, popping in so frequently that people asked if I’d moved there permanently. I joined a book club, helped build a house, foraged for ramps, and went target shooting with a 7-year-old. I frequented a small country church where the wall-mounted “Register of Attendance and Offering” was never updated; it always said there were 11 attendees and $79 in tithes, contributing to the feeling of time standing still, of being drawn into a quieter dimension.

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It was also a place of contradictions. Soon after my patrol with Chuck Niday, CNN’s medical journalist Sanjay Gupta drove into Green Bank for an episode of Vital Signs. “National Radio Quiet Zone,” Gupta said to the camera, “that means there’s no cell service, there’s no Wi-Fi, there’s no radio. It’s just really quiet.” On his heels, Katie Couric visited for a National Geographic series. “Green Bank is a town where technology is almost completely banned,” she said in a bright voiceover when the series aired, later opining, “People here seem happy to follow the law of the land.”

Even the state’s highest-ranking officials fed into the quiet hype. “All people within a 20-mile radius of the facility cannot have any device that emits a noticeably high amount of electromagnetic radiation,” Senator Joe Manchin would write in a 2018 op-ed. “This includes WiFi routers, cell phones, and even microwaves. Yet, these faithful West Virginians have sacrificed all of these luxuries for the advancement of science.”

Teresa Mullen rolled her eyes at such language. The Green Bank resident and high school teacher had a microwave. She had a smartphone. She had Wi-Fi. She knew where to get a cell phone signal. “It’s not like we’re living some bohemian lifestyle,” she told me. Such was hardly a secret. A house across the street from the observatory had Wi-Fi with the network name “Screw you NRAO,” an unsubtle middle finger to the observatory’s calls for quiet. Green Bank’s health clinic had Wi-Fi. So did the senior center. “We’re not supposed to,” said John Simmons, the county’s director of senior programs and a former county commissioner, “but I think all that stuff about the noise levels is fabricated.”

As I dug into the issue, I found myself wading into a legal debate. Observatory staff and scientists initially told me in no uncertain terms that the facility could push back against any source of radio interference in town, be it Wi-Fi or a smartphone, a microwave or a malfunctioning electric blanket. But when I raised the issue with scientists and officials in the greater radio astronomy community, I was told that West Virginia’s law against radio noise was essentially toothless, meaning Niday had no power to crack down on Wi-Fi, smartphones, microwaves, and other reportedly “outlawed” electronics.

I would eventually bring the debate to Anthony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, Virginia, which oversaw Green Bank’s operations from 1956 until 2016, when the two entities split. The NRAO still operates telescopes around the world and has a vested interest in maintaining the Quiet Zone. Beasley agreed there was ambiguity to the Quiet Zone regulations. But he said the argument was somewhat removed from reality. Even if the state and federal laws could be interpreted in their strictest possible way, it still wouldn’t make financial or logistical sense to hunt Wi-Fi up and down the valley. For a cash-strapped observatory fighting to merely stay open, why hire lawyers to prosecute Wi-Fi-users when that money could go toward scientific equipment, staff, and research?

“You’ve got to decide which hill you’re going to die on,” Beasley said. “Taking someone to court and potentially getting some kind of class action lawsuit going would be an incredible waste of time, in my opinion.”

On that point, everyone agreed. It was impossible to stop the wireless revolution.

During my patrol with Niday, we would have found even more signals had we driven a few miles toward his house. Even the Quiet Zone cop had Wi-Fi. “Technically” it wasn’t permitted, Niday admitted, “but I know how to break the rules.”

By 2019, Niday would tally about 175 hotspots within two miles and more than 350 within a 5-mile radius—more Wi-Fi signals than homes, if that was even possible. The 2.4 gigahertz frequency band had become so polluted that astronomers had lost access to that window into the radio universe. Rather than a clean reading of cosmic radio waves, a chart would show an imperceptible scribble of noise from the town’s Wi-Fi.

The Quiet Zone was being breached. I felt that I’d stumbled into a pivotal place in the world and, perhaps, in the history of humanity: an area endangered not by climate change or gentrification but by the Fitbit on your wrist, the iPhone in your hand, the anticollision sensor in your car, the human desire to have what everybody else has. Would Green Bank be able to preserve the quiet? And if it couldn’t, what did that mean not just for my own quiet fight, but for anyone’s hope of finding refuge from the noise?

Updated 8-4-2021, 11:30 am ET: This story has been updated to correctly refer to a 2.4 gigahertz frequency band, not 2.4 megahertz, as previously stated.

Adapted from the book The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence, by Stephen Kurczy. Copyright © 2021 by Stephen Kurczy. From Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

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