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The Quiet Zone: A Town Layered By Its Silence

Melissa Wade

Towards the end of his recent stand-up special, Aziz Ansari asks the audience to clap if they spend too much time on their phones. The majority do. He asks if they’ve ever tried anything to curb their scrolling. Add time limits, one volunteer shares. Delete Instagram, says another. Ansari relates, but laments that we are all caught in the algorithm. That’s why, he announces, he’s joined Team Flip Phone. He pulls out his old-school model. He can call. He can text, but that’s it. He’s broken the addiction. 

In the opening of his debut, The Quiet Zone, journalist Stephen Kurczy claims membership to Team No Phone. “In a sense, my journey…began in 2009,” he writes, “when I got rid of my first and last cellphone.” Kurczy wanted to cut his dependency on the device and curtail the anxiety of constant connectivity. So he did, and doing so made him an outlier. What if, he wondered, there was a place where “people floated above the digital currents that glued the rest of America to a screen?” And so he traveled to Green Bank, West Virginia, at the heart of the National Radio Quiet Zone. What he came away with from his adventure was a multilayered, personal and empathetic portrayal of a unique town more like the rest of us than not. 

In a Youtube video titled, “What is the National Radio Quiet Zone?”, the previous Green Bank Observatory Site Director, Dr. Karen O’Neil, says, “Green Bank is a special site, unique. It is the only place in the world like it.” In 1958, the federal government established the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ) by setting aside a 13,000-square-mile area surrounding the Green Bank Observatory and its steerable radio telescope–—the largest in the world, used mostly to map the cosmos, as well as listen for signs of exterrestrial life. The mandates of the zone protect the sensitive equipment from interference that comes from “all that stuff that many people think of as essential in modern-day life.” O’Neil’s talking about the stuff of connectivity: Wi-Fi, cellular signal, smart devices, computerized cars, even microwaves.

In the broader span of the NRQZ area, there are whole cities with prolific Wi-Fi and cellular signal, but for those living closest to the observatory, especially within a 10-mile radius, the rules demand a greater quiet. Very little cell service, if any. Limited Wi-Fi. Buried power lines. Bans on microwaves, drones, wireless doorbells, even baby monitors. Some may read these restrictions as pitiful, while others see this community of landlines and in-person meet-ups as paradise. Stephen Kurczy came to West Virginia to investigate the possibilities, to understand the quiet, but what he found and intimately offers to readers is a much more complicated and riveting portrait of an unusual small town. 

The book opens with the mysterious death of a woman who was “allergic to Wi-Fi.” She left a note, urging the future: “Please do not let our children grow up in an inescapable sea of invisible, insidious waves.” Residents with electrosensitivity make up one of the most intriguing groups in Kurczy’s investigation. Many people who suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) have escaped to Green Bank, since elsewhere they feel “physically threatened by the electromagnetic radiation from cell towers, smartphones, and even certain lights.” The influx has promoted “quiet real estate” in the area. Kurczy interviews residents with EHS, including their stories in the text, but also questions the validity of the illness, offering his reader the option to make up their own minds, if there is a decision to be made at all. 

Outside the EHS community, Kurczy also interviews scientists and government workers at the observatory, as well as local residents facing the technological bans at their schools, and in their businesses and homes. He also unpacks other groups who have come to the quiet zone since the 1960s: the hippies who find the place spiritual, the famous doctor-clown Patch Adams who claims to be building a hospital nearby for the people, and the neo-Nazis on the hill, plotting a resurgence despite their dilapidated compound. It is the many layers to this place that intrigue. By the end of the book, there are questions as to whether the quiet zone is even really that quiet, if the modern-age is seeping in and taking over, the West Virginia residents too eager to be connected. It isn’t as easy as the “town without cell phones.” 

While other depictions of Green Bank paint the place as off-grid, the reality is far from it. “Of course,” Kurczy writes, “most residents did have cell phones, Wi-Fi, microwave ovens and myriad other gadgets.” He calls the other depictions “disconnectivity porn,” the media’s hyperbole to entertain the public. Kurczy’s four months “on the ground” in Green Bank suggest that the rules are difficult to enforce. The need/desire for the internet is too great. In fact, the Greenbank Observatory has recently promoted themselves as an “advocate of internet access” in their community. 

Overall, Kurczy’s The Quiet Zone offers a sobering reflection of ourselves. Many of us struggle, comedians and their audiences alike, with the everyday conflict in our use of electronic devices. The book offers portraits of real and relatable people with their own personal struggles with the modern world. Green Bank isn’t depicted as an idyllic Eden of escape. Instead, Kurczy reminds us that quiet may not be a bad thing, and that a place isn’t just one thing. Even in The Quiet Zone, where one rule seems to define ordinary life, people and their homes are much more compelling and complicated when we take a closer look. 

Stephen Kurczy

has been a journalist for more than 15 years. From the muddy jungles of Cambodia to the dense rain forests of Brazil, he’s reported stories from around the world for The Christian Science Monitor, The Economist, The New York Times, and elsewhere. The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence is available now from HarperCollins. 

Melissa Wade

is a graduate of George Mason University’s creative writing MFA program, through which she won the Alan Cheuse International Writers travel grant, as well as the Shelley A. Marshall Fiction Award. She is currently working on a novel set in Switzerland and a podcast about discovering new ideas through travel. She lives in Virginia, in a work-in-progress farm house with her husband and pup.

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