I was on my way to a scheduled tour of the Green Bank Observatory when I noticed an artifact: a rural payphone, still standing in 2021. I was on a reporting trip, but it was purely for novelty that I pulled a U-turn to snap a photo with my disposable camera—which I had packed because cell phones and digital cameras are banned on observatory grounds. As lights flashed in my rearview mirror, it occurred to me that the U-turn probably wasn’t legal.
Green Bank, W.Va., is home to America’s flagship fleet of radio telescopes, which look like enormous satellite dishes—including the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT, or the “great big thing,” in local parlance). Because the telescopes are sensitive to terrestrial electrical interference, the area within a few miles of the observatory is the most restricted section of the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000-square-mile slice of rural Appalachia where radio transmitters, from cell towers to Wi-Fi, are specially regulated by the federal government.
As a sheriff’s deputy approached my van, it dawned on me that I normally rely on digital proof of insurance and registration, which I couldn’t pull up in this part of the Quiet Zone. The deputy couldn’t run my information either—no wireless data transmission—so he handed me a citation and explained that I would need to provide the county clerk’s office with proof of documentation covering the time when it was issued. This would later take weeks of back-and-forth to resolve, as Pocahontas County still processed the relevant paperwork by hand. At the time, I was mostly concerned about running late to the tour. I never ended up photographing that telephone booth.
So it goes in the federally protected dead zone, which journalist Stephen Kurczy exhumes in an expressionistic new work of nonfiction. Part folk history, part gonzo travelogue, The Quiet Zone colorfully annotates an elaborate contradiction: a last bastion of the disconnected world, making its final stand at the foot of a 485-foot radio telescope that astronomers use to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Kurczy finds high drama and dark secrets in the woods, but he also captures the complex beauty of a disconnected way of life that is dying out at an alarming rate.
The Quiet Zones is a slow burn, and Kurczy opens with a wide view of the surface: an administrator details the zone’s complex and uneven enforcement; the local Dollar General store coats its exterior in conductive lead paint in order to be able to use wireless inventory scanners. But then he takes a nosedive, surveying conspiracy theories and prospecting for shards of truth in local rumors about a secret network of bunkers hidden literally underneath the observatory. It sounds far-fetched, until you learn that the Quiet Zone was originally established in part to house a Naval radio telescope intended to surveil Soviet radar and radio signals reflected off the moon. While the project was officially scrapped in 1962, the site later evolved into an NSA listening station called Sugar Grove (Laura Poitras offers a wonderfully meditative snapshot of it in her documentary short Timberline), which sits conspicuously close to some awfully large radio telescopes. Just an hour away, the Quiet Zone also contains the once-secret Greenbrier bunker, built to house Congress in the event of a nuclear holocaust. It’s enough to make you think: Why does the observatory need an airplane landing strip, anyway?
At one point, Kurczy recounts an ominously vague suspicion from one of Green Bank’s residents: “There’s always been a sentiment among people in the community…that there’s something going on over here—that there’s something buried under the mountain.” Kurczy doesn’t break news of a secret bunker system, but he does unearth plenty from the mountain, gradually showing that the Quiet Zone’s conspiratorial intrigue is far less interesting than its unforeseen consequences. At the book’s heart is a series of vignettes of Green Bank’s numerous pockets of oddball America, those seeking the quiet as well as those born of it. A cadre of electrosensitives—people who perceive harmful effects from cell towers, Wi-Fi, and the like—take desperate refuge there; clown-doctor Hunter “Patch” Adams raises millions of dollars for a free hospital, the Gesundheit! Institute, which never materializes; a string of unsolved murders hide in plain sight. One especially driving chapter explores the concept of “mountain justice,” a folksy reverence for the vigilantism that thrives in the region.
Kurczy’s meandering prose readily dips into anecdote and almost never arrives at the point too soon. This yarn-like quality feels necessary in fleshing out most of Green Bank’s subtleties, but falls flat when, for example, Kurczy finds himself recalling the butterfly collection of a member of the nearby neo-Nazi compound. But the arc always bends back around; in this case, Pocahontas County’s white supremacist National Alliance group eventually meets its match in the form of a crusading anti-fascist librarian. The book depicts life off the grid with rough hardships as well as glorious texture, but inevitably prompts the question: What do we lose when we lose the option to disconnect?
“I had come to Green Bank on the presumption that the less connected life was richer,” writes Kurczy at one point, “but I was also staring down a rabbit hole of alien hunters, government spies, and WiFi refugees.” Through a revolving-door procession of surprising characters, Kurczy shows that Green Bank is not only a remarkable town but, crucially, an unremarkable one as well. The Quiet Zone is a haven for eccentrics and doomsday prophets, but what ultimately makes it interesting is that it inhabitants are forced to negotiate a tight-knit space, sharing community with small-town locals in a way that might not happen in a more decentralized part of our interconnected world. It is in many respects a time capsule of a not-so-distant past, of an approach to life that is rapidly slipping from collective memory. The Quiet Zone reveals this by playing with scale in an affecting way, managing to enlarge the stakes even as it zooms in from nation-state espionage to the seemingly mundane.
The book concludes with Kurczy’s account of a battle unfolding over the future of Green Bank’s quiet, with a philosophical referendum on modern hyper-connectivity lurking in the static. An old-school journalist who proudly ditched his cell phone in 2009, Kurczy makes his allegiances clear from the outset. If he mounts a defense of the pre-connected world, however, it is not founded in rose-tinted nostalgia but in the subjective superabundance of a complex community rooted deeply in place.