Let’s be serious – the main source of stress these days is the internet. Whether it be your ex’s Instagram feed (“How could I have dated someone who posts so many inspirational quotes???”) or the nonstop barrage of news-lite think pieces (“Can Reading Think Pieces Give You Smallpox?”), it seems like the ratio of bad-to-good out there is tipping heavily towards badness. But tearing yourself away from your phone and computer requires a degree of willpower that few people outside of Olympic athletes or Tibetan monks can muster. So why not just go where there’s no phone service or wifi?
In Green Bank, West Virginia, you could be arrested for even using your phone. The town is home to the world’s largest radio telescope, which scientists use to listen to distant astronomical stuff that’s so far away, even a microwave oven could drown out their signals. Green Bank’s at the center of a 13,000 square mile area called the National Radio Quiet Zone, where electronic signals of all kinds are strictly policed. Literally strictly policed – the town has a full time squad of “RFI police,” who drive an antenna-laden truck around Green Bank, tracking down any stray signals. They once busted a dog for using an electric blanket that was sending out interference; if they found you strolling down Main Street looking at Facebook on your phone, you’d be in an orange jumpsuit faster than you could say “but officer, check out this hilarious meme.”
Green Bank’s an almost eerily picturesque rural town, with white picket fences, a single gas station, and a library that was once rated “best rural library in the US.” (Which is maybe oblique confirmation that the internet makes us stupid.) But if you’re looking to book a place in Green Bank for a cleansing “no internet” weekend, you’ll have to compete with people who go to Green Bank not because they’re fed up with the bad vibes of social media but because they’re literally, physically allergic to wireless internet.
The town has become the vacation destination of choice for many sufferers of what’s called “EHS” – electromagnetic hypersensitivity. It’s a real life version of the metaphorical illness Julianne Moore had in the 1995 classic “Safe,” in which she plays a woman who becomes allergic to the modern world. EHS sufferers claim that being exposed to a wireless signal can give them splitting headaches and spontaneous nosebleeds, among other symptoms. While some scientists claim that EHS is nothing more than a negative placebo effect (when they exposed people to a fake wireless signal, some manifested symptoms), the French government recently granted a woman full disability benefits after she was diagnosed with EHS. It sounds wacky, but when I mentioned EHS to one of my friends, a scientist who works for the government, he didn’t think it was that farfetched. “A modern city is completely saturated with electromagnetic signals, and we have no idea what effect they have on the human body,” he said. “I’m not saying they’re necessarily harmful, we just don’t know what the long term effects are.” Well, dang.Along with a French nature preserve and a South African farm that caters to EHS sufferers, Green Bank is one of the very few places in the world that can guarantee the complete absence of electromagnetic signals. A quick browse of Airbnb shows there’s a brisk market for people trying to take a break from the figurative or literal barrage of modern life. It’d be a good place to get some reading done but then, so would prison. The main question is, what would you do with your time if you didn’t have any phone or internet service? One online list of “things to do in Green Bank, WV” had only one item – visit the radio telescope. (Whee.) Yelp suggests various museums and parks, which is to say, get ready for some serious boredom. That’s the thing about modernity – it’s addictive because, well, it’s interesting. Our newsfeeds might be depressing, but they’re also much better than whatever people did before the internet. (I spent hours as a child bouncing a ball against a wall. Is that really better than Xbox and pornography?) Maybe it comes down to choosing the lesser of two evils; radiation-dense hyperconnectivity or an artificially quaint unplugged-ness that borders on backwards. Check out this quote from a longtime Green Bank resident describing her impression of the outside world: “When you’re in restaurants, you’ll often see two people together, and they’re both on their cell phones. It’s heartbreaking to see mothers who are not paying attention to their beautiful children.” At this point, she broke down in tears. She might be right, but isn’t she also kind of annoying?