In every modern horror movie, there is a moment in the film when the victims-to-be realize they don’t have a cell phone signal and thus have no way to contact the outside world for help. On a recent reporting trip, that moment for me happened an hour and a half away from Green Bank, W.V., commonly known as “the town without WiFi.”
This is because Green Bank sits at the very center of a 13,000 square-mile area known as the National Radio Quiet Zone, which is federally mandated to be free of electromagnetic signals. It has laws banning cell phone service, WiFi, and even radio, all in order to support the Green Bank Telescope –the world’s largest movable radio telescope– which enables radio astronomers to listen to sounds in outer space and collect data from the solar system.
“We can see 85 percent of the celestial sphere with this telescope,” one radio astronomer told us. “More than any other telescope on the planet.”
Thanks to some of the telescope’s findings, technological advances like GPS and MRI are possible. But because the telescope is so sensitive, any kind of wireless frequency interferes with its ability to detect radio waves in outer space. Which meant I wouldn’t able to make use of GPS while I was in the town to find my way around.
For a modern day technology junkie, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy spending the week here with my smartphone essentially bricked but here’s how I survived.
SURVIVAL TIP #1: GET INFORMATION FROM REAL PEOPLE (I.E. NOT GOOGLE)
It’s a 3.5 hour drive west from Dulles International Airport to Green Bank but after just two hours, somewhere around the Virginia-West Virginia border, our cell phones started to fail us.
First, the data cut out. Goodbye, work email. “Not exactly a bad thing,” I thought at the time.
Then the signal strength bars went from two to zero, and from there on out, we were officially in the wireless frequency dead zone.
At 6 p.m. Monday evening, under heavy rain, we arrived in Green Bank (Population: 143). We passed by farms, fields, horses, old tractors and pickup trucks.
Encircled by the Blue Ridge mountains, the place is idyllic, but my anxiety levels were spiking due to my cell phone having been rendered useless. It had no signal and a low battery —not that it even mattered anymore.
We made the mistake of arriving hungry. The only food option we saw was a Henry’s Quick Stop gas station, and we couldn’t turn to Google for other options. After we checked into our hotel, we did the IRL version of a Google search and asked the staff where we could eat. They sent us to a bar that served food at a ski lodge otherwise shuttered for the season. Disaster averted.
SURVIVAL TIP #2: DON’T BE LATE TO ANYTHING
Without cell service, scheduling interviews on the fly or letting someone know you’re running late is basically impossible…and, of course, that’s exactly what happened to us. I don’t know how the journalists of olden times did it.
We arrived Tuesday morning at Henry’s Quick Stop (yep, the same gas station where we almost had dinner the night before) to meet Pocahontas County Sheriff, David Jonese. But we were a a little late and the cashier told us we just missed him. Just missed him. There was no way of getting in touch with him.
Using the landline telephone at the store, we were able to confirm his whereabouts, but only because by that time he had driven a half hour outside the town and gotten cell service. We had to reschedule for the following day. Our entire schedule was changing because we ran a couple minutes late and we couldn’t text him, “Sorry! 🚘 On our way!”
SURVIVAL TIP #3: BUY A REAL MAP
Getting lost became the theme on the third day of our Green Bank tour, as we tried to find a location for an interview we had set up before arriving.
We were told the place would be hard to find, so a local woman drew a map and wrote directions for us using a pen and paper. Still, we got lost after making a wrong turn. There was no GPS and no way to call anyone for help. It was hard even figuring out we were lost. After realizing we’d been driving for too long, we backtracked until we figured out where we went wrong.
By sunset, we had finished interviewing Sheriff Jonese and were ready for a real dinner. The Sheriff promised he would find us a place to eat, but to do that, he’d need a landline telephone to make sure that the place he wanted to take us to was open.
The Sheriff went door to door asking people if they had a landline phone we could use. After three tries, he finally found some people who were home and could lend us their phone. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated Yelp as much as I did at that moment.
Using the Sheriff’s verbal directions, we managed to get to the restaurant in about thirty minutes, though it would have been easier relying on Google maps rather than our memory. My stomach and I were just thankful we didn’t get lost.
By the end of the trip, I had finally broken my habit of reaching for my cell phone every chance I got. It took the entire week to realize that being freed from my tech addiction was a good thing. I was listening to people we interviewed, really listening, instead of having one eye on my phone for texts and emails. I was present.
We tend to believe technology can make us stronger, but our dependency on it can be a weakness. Life in Green Bank slowed down, and that was OK. If there’s one thing I learned from my week in the Quiet Zone it’s that in the land of #latergram, everything can wait.
Dan Lieberman is a reporter for AMERICA with Jorge Ramos.