The Land Where the Internet Ends

Mar 27, 2020 by


To find real solitude, you have to go out of range. But every year that’s harder to do, as America’s off-the-grid places disappear.

GREEN BANK, W.Va. — A few weeks ago, I drove down a back road in West Virginia and into a parallel reality. Sometime after I passed Spruce Mountain, my phone lost service — and I knew it would remain comatose for the next few days. When I spun the dial on the car radio, static roared out of every channel. I had entered the National Radio Quiet Zone, 13,000 square miles of mountainous terrain with few cell towers or other transmitters.

I was headed toward Green Bank, a town that adheres to the strictest ban on technology in the United States. The residents do without not only cellphones but also Wi-Fi, microwave ovens and any other devices that generate electromagnetic signals.

The ban exists to protect the Green Bank Observatory, a cluster of radio telescopes in a mountain valley. Conventional telescopes are like superpowered eyes. The instruments at Green Bank are more like superhuman ears — they can tune into frequencies from the lowest to the highest ends of the spectrum. The telescopes are powerful enough to detect the death throes of a star, but also terribly vulnerable to our loud world. Even a short-circuiting electric toothbrush could blot out the whisper of the Big Bang.

Physicists travel here to measure gravitational waves. Astronomers study stardust. The observatory has also become a hub for alien hunters who hope to detect messages sent from other planets. And in the past decade, the town has become a destination for “electrosensitives” who believe they’re allergic to cellphone towers — some of them going so far as to wrap their bedrooms in mesh in hopes of screening out what they believe to be harmful rays.

This town, in other words, calls out to many kinds of eccentrics. And I guess I am one of them.

I came in hopes of finding a certain kind of wildness and solitude. I live in Massachusetts, and I often disappear into the forests and rivers to clear my head. I’ve always loved the moment when the bars on my phone disappear. When I’m out of range entirely, floating along in a kayak, time grows elastic. I stare down into that other kingdom below me, at the minnows darting through the duckweed, and feel deeply free — no one’s watching; no one knows where I am.

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In theory, I could achieve this kind of freedom anywhere by shutting off my cellphone and observing an “internet sabbath.” But that has never worked for me — and I suspect it doesn’t for most other people either. Turn off your phone and you can almost hear it wheedling to be turned on again.

To experience the deepest solitude, you need to enter the land where the internet ends.

Source: Opinion | The Land Where the Internet Ends – The New York Times

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