We started the summer with a trip to the Quiet Zone. After a month of shift work, elusive toddler fever, and canine diarrhea, my husband rented a cabin in Watoga State Park, West Virginia, for a getaway. We would go boating, fishing and swimming in the lake. After that we hiked through the Allegheny Mountains with our two young sons.
When we got to the park, I saw a message on my phone: A friend had just given birth to a baby girl. I typed my congratulations. When I clicked “Send” I got a notification: “Message could not be delivered.”
“Oh,” my husband said casually as he turned onto the tree-lined main street. “There’s no cell phone reception here. It’s actually illegal.”
Though backwoods, the Watoga area is anything but backward. On the contrary, cell phone use has been banned due to the area’s proximity to the Green Bank Observatory, home of the world’s largest fully steerable telescope.
There is no signal at all
The telescope can detect radio emissions light years away. To keep our Earth-based devices from interfering with scientific research, the government has designated the 13,000-square-mile area — most of Pocahontas County, West Virginia — around the telescope as a National Radio Quiet Zone.
My first impulse was, of course, to pull out my cell phone to google more information. Instead, I felt an odd desire to talk about it with other people in the park.
One person who grew up in the area described a particular teenage pastime of driving to certain mountain tops to access cell towers from neighboring counties. Another spoke about how nice it is to live at a slower pace with no distractions.
Like many people living outside the Quiet Zone, I had struggled with my relationship with my devices. I had tried various tricks to limit my consumption: consumption warnings, conscious “losing” and self-censorship.
While I didn’t want to wallow in shame at having to rely on technology that actually made the already difficult task of parenthood that much easier, I fantasized about the earlier days.
Our foray into the Quiet Zone reminded me of what life would be like with a longer attention span.
It improved my upbringing
By the time we entered our cabin—clean and rustic with the luxuries of modern convenience—it was dinnertime. When I started unpacking water and boiling on the stove at the same time, my potty toddler had an accident at the kitchen table.
“Mom, I peed out,” he called out.
I immediately pulled my cell phone out of my back pocket. I realized I was conditioned to take a quick scroll — for a dopamine boost — before confronting the chaos of life. But my phone couldn’t provide that convenience, so I had to take full care of the mess.
After dinner we went for a little hike. We picked a random path my son requested. His rationale: “Let’s go this route because it’s nicer.” I realized that this assessment was better than anything I could have found with an internet search.
When we woke up in the morning, my son was lying in bed next to me. Instead of reaching for my device on the bedside table, I turned to face him. He was still asleep. I listened to the sound of his rhythmic breathing. I stared deep into his face—the ridges of his cheeks, the valleys beneath his eyes—and studied how the light from the venetian blinds contoured his complexion.
In that stillness I was brought back to the experience of being fully present. In order for me to be down to earth here, others had to look out at the stars.