— The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence, by Stephen Kurczy (Dey Street/HarperCollins, 2021)
Green Bank, West Virginia is known as “the quietest town in America.” It is home to the Green Bank Observatory, an astronomical facility nested in the National Radio Quiet Zone, an area comprising some 13,000 square miles that straddles the border of the Virginias. Inside its confines, radio transmissions — including those from cell phones and Wi-Fi devices — are restricted in order to facilitate scientific research.
For decades, Green Bank and its surroundings have attracted people seeking a quieter life, including Stephen Kurczy, a rara avis reporter who hadn’t “owned a cellphone in nearly a decade” when he decided to make it the theme of his book, The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence.
Kurczy initially focuses on the observatory, where the staff must ensure that radio frequency noise from everything from a local Dollar General’s automated front door to a nearby resident’s electric blanket does not disrupt the observatory’s operations. These days, the facility functions under constant threat of defunding, after decades of operating in tranquility thanks to the legendary ability of former Sen. Robert Byrd to steer federal funds — some would say pork — to the Mountain State.
But the observatory is not the only government facility in the area. In the town of Sugar Grove, 30 miles northeast of Green Bank, the U.S. Navy built its own monitoring station in 1959. According to investigative reporter James Bamford, Sugar Grove is used by the National Security Agency to conduct communications-intercept operations, turning it into “the country’s largest eavesdropping bug,” with satellite dishes that “silently sweep millions of private telephone calls and e-mail messages an hour.”
Through his interactions with residents, Kurczy eventually realizes that Green Bank is far from the unplugged location normally portrayed in the mainstream media. Many homes have Wi-Fi and it turns out that the GBO decided long ago to look the other way and operate with that minor radio noise in the background. As a resident tells Kurczy, romanticized depictions of Green Bank are akin to “dysconnectivity porn,” idealized accounts of a hamlet where people look you in the eyes and don’t focus on their cell phones like a cat chasing a laser pointer.
While Kurczy stays away from such caricatures, he sometimes indulges in his own rural exoticism once the lure of an idealized quiet zone has dissipated. This is when we meet hippies and back-to-the-land romantics who have moved to the area as well as so-called “electrosensitives,” individuals who claim to become ill from electromagnetic radiation emitted by electronic devices. He even looks into unsolved killings in the area and the famous 1980 murder of two women on the way to the Rainbow Family Gathering, a counter-culture meeting to celebrate peace.
Kurczy has a keen eye for detail and a reporter’s ability to depict people and places, but his eagerness to portray Green Bank and its surroundings as a magnet for strangeness seems excessive. This becomes more evident when he visits the former headquarters of the National Alliance, a white nationalist organization that was active from the 1970s into the early 2000s, in nearby Hillsboro. While it makes sense that a book set in Pocahontas County would allude to the group’s presence, the fact is that at the time of Kurczy’s visit the place was mostly an abandoned plot of land with dilapidated buildings overseen by a few caretakers — a far cry from the outfit that used to be closely monitored by the FBI. An interesting but ultimately anecdotal story is thus added to the list of unusual happenings in the area that are only tangentially related to “the quiet zone.” Belaboring the point, Kurczy wonders if, by staying at a local motel, he has “likely slept in the same bed as a card-carrying neo-Nazi” given the influx of National Alliance sympathizers into the county decades ago.
Anecdotes and curiosities aside, The Quiet Zone is a captivating peek behind the curtain of a secluded community, all the more fascinating because of Kurczy’s strong reporting.
Born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown, Gonzalo is a fiction writer with books published in Spain, Italy, and Chile. His stories have appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review.By Gonzalo Baeza