Books

I went to the quietest place in America. The locals want wifi

Limited mobile reception and wifi sounds like heaven, right? Not quite, as journalist Stephen Kurczy discovered when he visited America’s National Radio Quiet Zone.

Limited mobile reception and wifi sounds like heaven, right? Not quite. Illustration:Joseph Joyce

Surrounded by wifi and mobile reception, you are always available, reachable and answerable to anybody and anything demanding your attention.

You try to break away. Try to take a phone-free walk. Try to change your relationships with your device by turning off notifications, imposing screen limits or visiting a digital detox retreat.

We all still feel lured back online, feel the hand instinctively reach for the smartphone, feel some crazy internal urge to check email and Twitter and check out from the reality in front of us.

I’m as guilty as anyone, even though I haven’t owned a smartphone since 2009.

Initially this was a decision out of frugality. It has since morphed into an obstinate refusal to carry what I believe is a devilish device that hijacks our attention with addictive apps, undermines democracy by viralising conspiracies and reinforcing echo chambers, and inhibits our ability to live in the moment.

In search of a better way to live – or at least a place where I wouldn’t be considered strange for not being married to a smartphone – I went to America’s National Radio Quiet Zone.

It’s an area where mobile phone service and other wireless communication systems are curtailed and at times altogether restricted by state and federal laws, all for the sake of protecting the quiet around the United States’ oldest national radio astronomy observatory, in continuous operation since 1956 in Green Bank, West Virginia.

The area attracted a wave of hippies and back-to-the-landers in the 1970s, among them a clown physician named Patch Adams

Green Bank sits in one of the most sparsely populated counties east of the Mississippi River, an area 21 times the size of London but with only three traffic lights, one newspaper, one high school and about 8,000 people.

There’s no highway. It’s mostly forest, surrounded by a ring of mountains that help block the outside world’s radio waves. If you want to get away from it all – as the astronomers needed for their work – then Green Bank is calling.

After my first visit in early 2017, over the next several years I spent about four months living in the area, discovering a much more nuanced place than has been reported in the media, as I tell in my book, The Quiet Zone.

Turns out, lots of people have wanted to get away from it all, giving the Quiet Zone a kind of magnetising pull.

Around the same time the astronomers settled in, the US military established a nearby base where to this day the National Security Agency (NSA) operates half a dozen radio antennas that intercept millions of calls and texts every hour. It’s considered the country’s largest eavesdropping bug, and its work is only possible because of the quiet.

The area also attracted a wave of hippies and back-to-the-landers in the 1970s, among them a clown physician named Patch Adams (later made famous by a 1998 film starring Robin Williams).

Then came a notorious white supremacist named William Luther Pierce, leader of a neo-Nazi organisation that was soon operating a multimillion-dollar business out of the Quiet Zone, selling racist literature and hatecore music. Pierce’s writings – notably The Turner Diaries – have inspired dozens of hate crimes worldwide, and in many ways his influence can be credited to the fact he was able to retreat to a quiet area where he wouldn’t be bothered by law enforcement.

The latest group to seek refuge are people with a mysterious illness called electromagnetic hypersensitivity who believe they are physically harmed by mobile phone towers, wifi routers, smartphones and many other modern devices emitting electromagnetic radiation, be it a microwave or a coffee maker.

To them, Green Bank is perhaps the last place where they can get away from the world’s noise.

The Quiet Zone: Unraveling The Mystery Of A Town Suspended In Silence by Stephen Kurczy is out on September 16 (Dey Street Books, £20) Cover: Waterstones

I spent hundreds of hours with each of these groups, as well as the everyday farmers, teachers, students and families that populate the area, in an effort to understand life in an ultra quiet place.

I climbed atop the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. I snuck a glimpse of the NSA’s spy facility. I tracked the neo-Nazi organisation’s bumbling efforts to launch a revival.

And I found trouble in the Quiet Zone. Locals want wifi, smartphones and mobile phone reception, to the chagrin of both the electrosensitives and the astronomy observatory, which is also battling waning financial support.

It’s getting harder to police the Quiet Zone, leading to an erosion of the quiet that many people have sought.

Rather than finding an antidote to the ills of modern society, I found an eclectic community at the crossroads of an older way of life and the new forces of technology.

What does it mean to live quietly today? And can that quiet endure? If an isolated community deep in the Appalachian mountains can’t resist the wireless revolution, what does that mean for anyone wishing to live a quieter life?

The Quiet Zone: Unraveling The Mystery Of A Town Suspended In Silence by Stephen Kurczy is out on September 16 (Dey Street Books, £20)

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