GREEN BANK, W.Va. — Three miles from the Thompson family home is a radio telescope wider than two football fields and taller than the Statue of Liberty. The big metal dish — almost 17 million pounds of steel, wiring and ingenuity – listens to the skies, tracking pulsars and collecting radio waves from the far reaches of the cosmos.
It is a one-of-a-kind marvel of science, the crown jewel of a futuristic federal observatory complex. But for Josh Thompson, it’s just something he can see from his backyard, past the lettuce patches and cornfields. That is, when he cares to look.
“I don’t really think about the telescope,” he says. “It’s here. I’m here.”
Josh’s wife, Melia, likes to joke that if she ever broke down, he wouldn’t even notice.
On a September visit, that seems to be the prevailing attitude in this West Virginia slice of “The Quiet Zone,” a 13,000-square-mile stretch of rural America that also straddles parts of Virginia and the Maryland. It stopped in a bygone era — before 97 out of 100 Americans owned a cell phone — because it’s the only place in the country where cell service is banned by federal mandate.
The telescope and other sensitive instruments in the observatory are disturbed by electromagnetic fields. The Federal Communications Commission prevents companies from erecting cellphone towers nearby, so it’s quiet enough for the observatory to detect the light clouds of hydrogen that persist among the galaxies, and perhaps one day, signs of intelligent life. Only static readings are broadcast on most Allegheny Mountain radio stations. In the observatory campus, even microwave ovens are prohibited.
“If you were looking for us online, you’d think you were going to be in the twilight zone, like you had to drop your phone at the county line,” Melia said, “Or you’ll be hunted down for taking an iPhone from your pocket.
You won’t. Many people at Green Bank carry smartphones – Melia has one; Josh said he never would – but there’s usually no signal for them to pick up, essentially reducing the gadgets to fancy calculators in their back pockets.
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Yet modernity is creeping in: Like others in town, the Thompsons have landline and wired internet – something the Observatory has tried, and failed, contain. Melia uses her iPhone to make internet calls over private Wi-Fi networks and send emails for the family’s produce store, Homegrown Harvest, the only fresh grocer 22 miles away. Green Bank Elementary is equipped with touchscreen whiteboards; the library has a row of desktop computers, near the children’s section, connected to the Internet.
But many in town are happy to balance the demands of technological progress with nostalgia for an older lifestyle. They are, aided by a twist of regulation, preserving an existence where neighbors chat on porches and kids play outside until dark.
Josh likes this. After all, that’s all he’s ever known.
He grew up in Green Bank, destined to take over the scattered plots of farmland his grandparents purchased over the decades, buying them piecemeal to avoid going into debt. Melia came 16 years ago from the city – St. Louis and McLean, Virginia – to work as a government contractor for the observatory. (She won’t say anything about her old job. “Top secret,” she whispered.)
They met, fell in love, and Melia never left.
The life of the Thompson family is largely disconnected, but the disconnect brings them closer. Moriah, 12, adores his goat, Itsy-Bitsy. His younger brother Isaiah is more concerned with his John Deere tricycle than an iPad. Their parents have discovered that life without a phone is, at least, an incentive to be punctual. “You can’t text someone to let them know you’re late because you got caught up in a conversation at the gas station,” Melia said with a smile.
The disadvantages are not lacking. News from the outside world seems to filter in a little slower than other places, from the few television stations it can pick up on the air and from weekly editions of The Pocahontas Times newspaper. Emergency services can arrive even more slowly, and sometimes not at all. In August, Melia hit a deer in her car and injured her rotator cuff. She waited an hour for the police, then gave up and drove home.
Yet, on both a large and small scale, a life mostly free of TikTok and Facebook sounds quite charming.
“You don’t come to Green Bank to make a living,” a store customer told Melia recently.
“You come to Green Bank to live,” she replied.
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