When journalist Stephen Kurczy began traveling from New York City into the West Virginia backcountry in 2017, he was convinced he had found a modern-day Walden – an oasis unspoiled by the clamor of the digital era. Wary of the tyranny of today’s nonstop connectivity, he hadn’t owned a cellphone for a decade, and had high hopes that Green Bank, West Virginia, would live up to its billing as “The Quietest Town in America.”
In the intriguing “The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence” (Dey Street Books, 336 pp., ★★★ out of four), Kurczy confesses: “… It did not occur to me that a community bathed in quiet could be anything but idyllic."
Four hours from Washington, D.C., Green Bank is a small town in rural Pocahontas County that since 1957 has been home to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a federal complex whose giant single-dish telescope detects “invisible energy waves” from space. That requires the high-level hush mandated in the National Radio Quiet Zone, 13,000 square miles where devices emanating electromagnetic emissions are restricted. Within 10 miles of the observatory, using cellphones, Wi-Fi, microwaves and other devices is banned. Even the motion-detector on the Dollar General’s front door messes with unlocking the mysteries of the universe.
Setting out to explore how dependence on technology affects lives by immersing himself where it doesn’t, Kurczy discovered that not everything added up in The Quiet Zone. Fact is, nearly everyone there has Wi-Fi – including the guy who drives around policing for electromagnetic interference. The laws limiting Wi-Fi have never been enforced.
Kurczy’s deep reporting uncovers other strange things in these hills. That the bunkers beneath The Greenbrier resort were once a Cold-War fallout shelter for Congress is well-known; that the National Security Agency operates a high-powered eavesdropping observatory nearby, less so.
The area’s live-and-let-live rurality has attracted hippies and back-to-the-landers since the ‘60s – including a hippie sex cult and clown physician Hunter “Patch” Adams, made famous via the Robin Williams movie “Patch Adams,” whose long-promised free hospital remains unbuilt. “Electrosensitives,” people convinced they suffer illnesses caused by electromagnetic hypersensitivity, flock there. Unsolved murders? Bizarre suicides? Yes. As one resident said, the place is “a magnet for weirdos.”
What makes this book formidable is Kurczy’s relentless investigating, though readers will occasionally feel exhausted by his tendency to over-interview, over-detail and over-report. Yet, where Kurczy most impressively goes down the rabbit hole is in his persistent investigation of The Quiet Zone’s neo-Nazi white supremacist presence. Neo-Nazi leader William Pierce decades ago ran his National Alliance headquarters near Green Bank. The once high-profile hate group’s compound there is now a shambles, with a smattering of leftover Hitlerites.
Over four years, Kurczy realized Green Bank “was less and less Walden and more and more weird.” In the end, comparing it to the TV show “Twin Peaks,” he writes, “That’s what discovering the many layers of The Quiet Zone felt like. The vision that drew me in turned out to be a mirage.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Stephen Kurczy's 'The Quiet Zone' explores a town without cellphones