I was sitting at my favorite corner table, enjoying a cup of coffee and a plate of bacon and eggs. While scanning the front page of the Record-Eagle, I noticed a man sitting alone at a table facing me. He was looking my way and talking but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I wondered why he would be talking to me, since I had never seen him before.
As it turned out, he had a hands-free cellphone and was carrying on a conversation with someone else. The dialog continued throughout his meal. After paying the bill he took his conversation into the parking lot and probably on down the highway. I wonder if he remembered what he had eaten for breakfast. Have we become obsessed with always being electronically in touch?
Sometimes I long for the good ol’ days when there was one phone in the house and my belt didn’t have a cell attached to it. A Facebook was a picture album, a text was a school book, and tweets and twitters were heard in the morning when the birds woke up. I remember the sound of a dime being dropped into the slot of a payphone and the friendly voice of a local operator asking if she could be of service.
A place like this exists in the United States, surprisingly, and it is only 700 miles from Fife Lake. Green Bank, West Virginia, with only 143 residents, is the quietest populated place in America. Hidden away in the middle of the Allegheny Mountain Range, nestled in a green valley, it is centered in a 13,000-square-mile area designated as the National Radio Quiet Zone.
Green Bank is the home of the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, referred to as the GBT for short. The telescope weighs 17 million pounds and stands 500 feet tall. Its steerable dish-shaped antenna is large enough to hold a football field. The locals say that GBT stands for “Great Big Thing.” In addition to being the world’s biggest steerable radio telescope, it’s also the largest moveable object on land.
The purpose of this behemoth is to allow scientists to study deep outer space. It detects objects so far from Earth that the light they emit cannot be seen, yet their naturally occurring radio waves can be analyzed and studied. These radio signals are very faint and extremely sensitive to locally generated electronic interference.
The Federal Communications Commission in the 1950s created the National Radio Quiet Zone. Cellphones, wireless Internet routers, Bluetooth devices, garage door openers, wireless phones, microwave ovens and any devices emitting interference are banned within this vast swath of land. Green Bank, West Virginia residents and the 25,000 annual visitors to the area are required to live under these electronic limitations.
Most of the people who call Green Bank home don’t mind the restrictions imposed on them. Neighbors greet each other, stop to chat or roll down their car window to visit with friends. There are telephone booths available so visitors and kids can phone home, no need for cellphones. Instead of games on wireless devices, board games like Monopoly and Scrabble are popular. Homes have telephones which are plugged into a wall jack; they never get lost in the couch cushions or need to be recharged.
To find locally generated radio frequency interference, a specially designed truck drives through the area, bristling with antennas like something out of Ghostbusters. If they detect an unwanted signal coming from a home, farm or business they stop and politely request the device to be turned off. Locals refer to these folks the “RFI police.”
I’m sure the lifestyle would not be for everyone, and even though I have not been there, I imagine Green Bank to be reminiscent of Mayberry, featuring the quiet lives of Andy, Barney, Opie and Aunt Bee. Stepping back into simpler times has a certain appeal.
Ed Hungness and his wife have lived in Fife Lake since 2005. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail at P.O. Box 57, Fife Lake, MI 49633