Green Bank, West Virginia, is known as the quietest town in America. It’s a lushly forested place where a government-owned observatory requires unimaginable levels of quiet, and therefore where locals are asked to eschew cell phones, microwaves and Wi-Fi.
Since the Green Bank Observatory was built in 1957, scientists there have quite literally listened to the universe through equipment that only works when it’s not competing with the electronic noise of modern society. Employees at the observatory have spent decades mitigating radio frequency noise, outfitting the Dollar General’s automated front door with conductive lead paint to block electromagnetic radiation and once even replacing a malfunctioning electric blanket in a local home.
While some locals sneak in forbidden electric gadgets, Green Bank is a haven for those who seek unusual peace and quiet. When journalist Stephen Kurczy started visiting regularly in 2017, he quickly realized it’s an eclectic group. The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence is his fascinating, deeply reported and slightly eerie look at an unusual corner of America.
“Had I walked into a dream?” Kurczy wonders. “An elderly man was cohabitating with bears down the road from the world-famous clown doctor Patch Adams and just a few miles from a hippie enclave, all of them sharing a patch of Appalachia with world-renowned astronomers and secretive government operatives. The area seemed tinged with magical realism, with an impossible menagerie of eccentrics congregating in the forest.”
How had so many disparate groups found their way to the same town in West Virginia? The truth is, many of them came there to be left alone. In repeated trips to Green Bank, Kurczy gets to know these various groups, from the white nationalists who attempted to build their headquarters there to a group of electrosensitives who become ill from even the slightest electromagnetic radiation and who moved to Green Bank in a desperate attempt to quell their sickness.
Ultimately, Kurczy realizes Green Bank is not as silent as the media portrays it, but he brings to life other facets of this town that are even more intriguing. Kurczy becomes embedded in the community, and with compassion and a journalist’s eye he delivers a compelling portrait of a town where people struggle with the same issues as the rest of America, just a little more quietly.