The land where the internet ends

It's become harder and harder to escape from technology. But there are still places with no cellphones — just stars, solitude, and human connection.

This story originally appeared in The New York Times. Republished with permission.

A few weeks ago, I drove down a back road in West Virginia and into a parallel reality. Sometime after I passed Spruce Mountain, my phone lost service — and I knew it would remain comatose for the next few days. When I spun the dial on the car radio, static roared out of every channel. I had entered the National Radio Quiet Zone, 13,000 square miles of mountainous terrain with few cell towers or other transmitters.

I was headed toward Green Bank, a town that adheres to the strictest ban on technology in the United States. The residents do without not only cellphones but also Wi-Fi, microwave ovens, and any other devices that generate electromagnetic signals.

The ban exists to protect the Green Bank Observatory, a cluster of radio telescopes in a mountain valley. Conventional telescopes are like superpowered eyes. The instruments at Green Bank are more like superhuman ears — they can tune into frequencies from the lowest to the highest ends of the spectrum. The telescopes are powerful enough to detect the death throes of a star, but also terribly vulnerable to our loud world. Even a short-circuiting electric toothbrush could blot out the whisper of the Big Bang.

Physicists travel here to measure gravitational waves. Astronomers study stardust. The observatory has also become a hub for alien hunters who hope to detect messages sent from other planets. And in the past decade, the town has become a destination for "electrosensitives" who believe they're allergic to cellphone towers — some of them going so far as to wrap their bedrooms in mesh in hopes of screening out what they believe to be harmful rays.

This town, in other words, calls out to many kinds of eccentrics. And I guess I am one of them.

I came in hopes of finding a certain kind of wildness and solitude. I live in Massachusetts, and I often disappear into the forests and rivers to clear my head. I've always loved the moment when the bars on my phone disappear. When I'm out of range entirely, floating along in a kayak, time grows elastic. I stare down into that other kingdom below me, at the minnows darting through the duckweed, and feel deeply free — no one's watching; no one knows where I am.

In theory, I could achieve this kind of freedom anywhere by shutting off my cellphone and observing an "internet sabbath." But that has never worked for me — and I suspect it doesn't for most other people either. Turn off your phone and you can almost hear it wheedling to be turned on again.

To experience the deepest solitude, you need to enter the land where the internet ends.

Ten years ago, it was easy to do that. But lately, even in the backwoods, my cellphone springs to life, clamoring for attention.

The off-grid places are disappearing. And that's as it should be. We must wire up rural America; cell service is now a utility almost as essential as electricity or heat. In April, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it will hold the biggest auction of radio spectrum in this country's history; the auction, scheduled for late this year, is part of an effort to spread cell coverage to even the most remote towns ahead of the rollout of fifth-generation networks.

Unfortunately, ownership of the telecommunication grids will go to corporate giants rather than to the communities themselves. But even so, small towns are fighting to be wired up. It's likely that in 10 or so years, the country will be blanketed with signal, from sea to shining sea.

I'm hopeful that when that happens, we might retain just a few quiet places where it's still possible to disconnect.

Activists have already created "dark sky reserves" to protect wilderness from artificial light. In the future, might we also create "privacy reserves" where we can go to escape the ubiquitous internet?

I wanted to find out what it was like to disconnect in the quietest town in America, so here I was, hiking down a dirt road behind the Green Bank observatory campus. I wandered through a meadow and into an abandoned playground. The rusted swings creaked in the wind.

In the distance, the largest of the Green Bank telescopes reared up over a hill like a shimmering apparition, with its lacy struts and moon-white dish. The telescope is so freakishly huge that it looked completely unreal, as if it had been CGI-ed into the sky.

But the quiet was even eerier. Not just radio quiet, but the kind of silence that I hadn't heard in years: no buzz of the highway, no planes overhead, just the rush of wind through the grass. That — along with the lonely playground — made me feel as if I had stumbled onto the set of an apocalyptic TV series.

The spell broke when a truck bumped down the road and disgorged three dogs. A gray-haired fellow stepped out. I hurried toward him and asked if he lived here. He introduced himself as Stephen McNally, a retiree who'd lived in Green Bank for 12 years.

While his dogs chased swallows, I peppered McNally with questions. Did he own a cellphone? He told me he never had. But, he said, lately whenever he ventures outside of the quiet zone, "people tell me you have to get one." Recently, at a hardware store 100 miles from here, he tried to pay with a credit card that he hadn't used in years. That must have tripped some security alert, because the store clerks said that they needed to verify his identify by calling the phone number listed on his account. "They wanted to call me to make sure that it was really me," McNally said. He tried to explain that his phone wasn't in his pocket. It was back in Green Bank, because it was a landline. The clerks couldn't seem to grasp this.

McNally seemed to be of the opinion that the rest of the country, out there beyond the mountains, was losing its mind.

Noreen Prestage, a tour guide at the observatory, agreed. She told me that she had lived in Green Bank for 17 years, happily, without a cellphone. But just the week before, she'd felt it necessary to buy a basic mobile phone so that she could rendezvous with friends and her son when she went outside the zone. "I don't want it," she said of the phone, but if you're going to make plans out there, you have to have it.

"When I walk around my house, I'm silent," she said. "I think people have lost the ability to be present with themselves. There's nothing wrong with sitting on your deck looking at the hills. I don't even have an answering machine."

Because they're hard-wired, answering machines are allowed here, if you want one. And though homeowners must agree to do without Wi-Fi, they can connect to the internet through an Ethernet cable. So when I arrived at my rental cottage in the late afternoon, I found it equipped with a thingamabob to plug my laptop into the Ethernet line. It took me a moment to remember the name of that thing: a dongle. I hadn't needed that word since the '90s.

Also reminiscent of the '90s: I could enter the internet only from one corner of a room — and it was so slow that I half expected to see an AOL logo materialize on the screen.

Nowadays, I often flick on a news podcast when I'm eating alone, but that would have taken too much work with the retro setup, so instead I chewed in a reverie. I began to imagine an alternate reality in which smartphones had never existed. What if, instead of going all-in on mobile phones in the early 2000s, we just hadn't?

Social media would probably have remained in the "Second Life" phase — with people creating clubhouses and personalities that they played around with on the weekends — instead of smartphones fusing together our first and second lives until we couldn't tell them apart.

Now the phone is a magic wand that can summon pizza, or a car, or a friend, or a booty call. We can ruin our lives in the space of a few moments — by buying drugs from China, or with an ill-advised comment at 3 a.m., or by getting tangled up in a stranger's fantasies. Sometimes, pulling my phone out of my pocket, I feel the way I do when I'm standing on the rooftop of a tall building, like maybe some impulse will send me hurtling into the air. It's glorious, to be equipped with all of this magic and danger every moment of the day. It's also exhausting.

At twilight, I parked near a long, low laboratory building and walked through the gates of the observatory, beyond which no gas-powered cars are allowed (because spark plugs). I passed the row of telescopes and found a dirt path into the woods. The darkness dropped, and the outlines of my body disappeared. Baby frogs — peepers — chirped and creaked, filling the air with their own static. Deer crashed around the brush or scooted across the path in front of me, invisible in the dark but for their white tails.

My fingers twitched for the cellphone that wasn't there. And then I remembered a moment years ago, maybe in 2011 or 2012, when I first switched from a "dumb phone" to a smartphone and brought the internet with me into the woods.

That day, I had discovered a rusted "No Trespassing" sign nailed into a pine tree; the sign had been there so long that the bark had grown around it. It was as if the tree-jaws were munching it up, slowly swallowing it. If I hadn't had a smartphone, I would have simply observed this, making a wry joke to myself. But now that I did have the internet itching at me, all I could imagine was the eye-catching photo this would make on Twitter.

Then I stopped myself. What the hell? By turning this thought into a post, I was trespassing on my own most precious solitude.

When we talk about privacy, we tend to think about people spying on us online and harvesting our data. But just as dangerous — perhaps more so — is the way that the omnipresent, in-your-pocket internet can coax us into destroying our own inner wilderness.

That day, the urge to tweet was so acute that I had to wrestle with myself for a moment. And then I decided, "I'm just going to tweet this thought back to myself." And so rather than snapping a photo, I "posted" the image to my own mind. Since then, I have taken innumerable imaginary snapshots.

I'm not the only one struggling with this urge. In many of our national parks, you can yak on the phone as you climb a mountain, post selfies as you dangle precariously over a cliff, and live-tweet your encounter with an osprey. In 2017, Outside magazine reported that Instagram had lost its mind over a particularly photogenic canyon in Arizona called Horseshoe Bend. The red-rock outcropping went viral, and now thousands of people a day swarm over it. Can such places truly be called wild anymore?

About 150 people live in Green Bank, in houses scattered around a two-lane highway or tucked back in the woods. You can get basic groceries at Trent's General Store, but if you want something to go, your best bet is Henry's Quick Stop, a gas station with a supermarket, pizza counter, and red-white-and-blue box where you can leave your tattered American flag for proper disposal. So that's where I went for coffee the next morning.

"Beautiful day," I said to the man in front of me in line. In response, he poured out his life story. He'd been a long-haul trucker until a brain aneurysm put him in a coma; the doctors thought he'd never walk again. But now here he was on his own two feet buying a doughnut, so, yeah, it was a hell of a beautiful day.

The man carried himself oddly, with his chest puffed out and his head swiveling as if to scan everything in the store, from the hunting gear to the Little Debbie display case. I thought his posture must have been a remnant from his brain injury, but then realized everybody seemed to be walking around with the same heads-up attitude. Take away the cellphones, it turns out, and you also take away the cellphone hunch. And with nothing else to do but meet one another's eyes, people talk.

Later in the day, I fell into conversation with a woman who was unusual for a Green Banker, in that she had owned a cellphone for years. Before she moved here, she told me, she'd been the workaholic assistant to a workaholic manager, and "I was 24/7 on call all the time."

"I slept with the phone next to my bed in case my boss had to get ahold of me," she said. "I was tethered to that phone. I didn't realize how much I was on it until I looked at my vacation pictures. All the pictures I was in, I was staring at my phone."

Then, about a year and a half ago, her husband had persuaded her to move here — he's a Green Bank man, "born and raised," and yearned to return home. Nowadays, "My husband and I go to dinner, and we talk all through the night" with no interruptions, she said. Her husband rattles around in an old truck, knowing that if it breaks down, somebody will stop and pick him up. If you need to make a call, you can always stop into the Dollar General and ask to use their landline — but really, when do you need to make a call?

This life is not for everyone, she told me, and she has seen a lot of people up and leave. Maybe 80 percent of people just can't hack it.

I know I'm part of that 80 percent. I belong on the outside. But at the same time, I feel as if something essential to my sanity depends on the existence of places like this.

On my third and final day in town, the observatory's largest instrument, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, shut down for maintenance, and I was allowed to summit it. The telescope is taller than the Statue of Liberty and one of the largest manufactured, steerable objects on the face of our planet. An elevator that jerked like an amusement-park ride took us to the top, where a steel walkway led out onto the surface of the dish, a 2-acre white expanse. I watched a maintenance worker moon-walk across its bouncy surface. He appeared to be lost in a white desert, the blue sky hanging below him like a lake.

Mike Holstine, the business manager and spokesman for the Green Bank Observatory, told me there's so much we can learn from the telescope — from the location of near-Earth asteroids to the way that matter first began to congeal into stars. Such scientific observations depend on signals as weak as "a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a watt," he said.

For years, microwave ovens have been tightly regulated in Green Bank because they can obliterate those barely detectable signals from billions of years ago. But what are scientists supposed to do now that just about every household object — from toaster to battery — is chattering to the internet? Even car tires are beaming out status updates about their air pressure. "That makes quiet an increasingly valuable resource for science," Holstine said. And increasingly rare.

The situation has become so dire that scientists are preparing for what you might call The End of Quiet. Ellie White, a student at Marshall University who has been volunteering and doing research at the observatory since she was 14, told me that experts at the observatory are working on ways to detect and remove unwanted interference caused by, say, a tourist speeding through town in a car equipped with Bluetooth. The idea is to be able to identify the human-made signals and strip them out of the data, so that it's still possible to tune in the most subtle emanations from light-years away. Imagine noise-canceling headphones for the universe.

But who will save the endangered Quiet Zone inside our own heads? What about the thoughts as subtle as the static caused by the Big Bang and the transmissions from the remote galaxies of our memories? Is the ever-present hum of the internet drowning those out, too?

Holstine said that here in Green Bank, "I use the internet, and then I walk away." But on the outside, people are "connected all the time," he added. "They get a text and have to look at it. For a lot of people, the choice seems like it has disappeared. The phone is part and parcel to everything they do, including work. It's the tail wagging the dog."

After a few days here, almost entirely offline, I felt I knew what he meant: The world outside the mountains now seemed mad to me, too.

How can we protect resources like starlight, quiet, and obscurity that have little value in the marketplace?

Astronomers have been thinking about that question for decades, and they have come up with an answer: International Dark Sky Places. In these protected areas, you can wander under a splatter of stars and grapple with the evidence of your own insignificance in a vast universe. The Central Idaho reserve became the United States' first International Dark Sky Reserve in 2017. With 1,400 square miles protected from artificial light, it attracts astro-tourists from around the world.

But we have no similar protections for disconnection, privacy, and offline communities. And if no one advocates for these intangibles, the last quiet places will soon be gone.

In 2012, the National Science Foundation considered a proposal to shut down the Green Bank observatory — and ended up slashing its support by about 40 percent. Nowadays, the observatory depends on private foundations and universities to make up the shortfall.

If the observatory were to disappear, then so too, presumably, would the National Radio Quiet Zone.

When I packed up the car and drove out of Green Bank, I was confident that I knew how to find my way. But almost immediately, I turned the wrong way at a fork in the road and realized I was lost. I decided to savor the experience. After all, how often these days do you have a chance to be lost? The road led me past old rail yards and toward a river, where I plunged in and waded, slip-sliding on the rocks.

Soon I would cross into the land where the internet begins. But for now, I was on this side of the line. For now, I was dark.


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