The Town Without Wi-Fi

The residents of Green Bank, West Virginia, can’t use cell phones, wi-fi, or other kinds of modern technology due to a high-tech government telescope. Recently, this ban has made the town a magnet for technophobes, and the locals aren’t thrilled to have them.

Story by Michael J. Gaynor | Photographs by Joshua Cogan

Monique Grimes had just moved to Florida for a new job when the syndrome started.

Tom, a Green Bank native, and Monique Grimes, who is electrosensitive.

On the third morning in her St. Petersburg apartment, she woke with a harsh thumping in her chest: heart palpitations.

Within hours, it felt as if someone had tied a thick rubber band around her head. Then came nausea, fatigue, ringing in her left ear—an onslaught of maladies, all at once, and she had no idea why. “I was trying to come up with every excuse in the world for what was happening to me,” she says. “Moving is stressful, but the symptoms just kept piling on.”

In 2012, after a decade as the owner of a Connecticut catering company and an office worker in finance and construction, Grimes had gone to Florida to be a speaker for a public-policy group. A week or two into the job, whatever was afflicting her still wasn’t abating, and before long her speech became so jumbled that she couldn’t form a complete sentence in front of an audience.

She saw an internist, a neurologist, then a psychiatrist, and still had no explanation. “If we can’t test it,” one said, “it doesn’t exist.” Grimes started poking around online and soon remembered reading an article about the potentially deleterious health effects of the new “smart” electricity meters that were rolling out across the country. The devices send customers’ usage data back to the utility over wireless signals. Did her building have them?

She went outside to inspect the place and found no fewer than 17 of the meters strapped to the side of the building.

Grimes’s sleuthing didn’t end there. She went back online and found herself scrolling through tale after tale of people all over the world getting sick from the devices. And it wasn’t just smart meters. It turned out there was a whole community of people out there who called themselves “electrosensitives” and said they were suffering due to the electromagnetic frequencies that radiate wirelessly from cell phones, wi-fi networks, radio waves, and virtually every other modern technology that the rest of society now thinks of as indispensable.

The affliction has been dubbed “electromagnetic hypersensitivity,” or EHS, and it involves a textbook’s worth of ailments: headaches, nausea, insomnia, chest pains, disorientation, digestive difficulties, and so on. Mainstream medicine doesn’t recognize the syndrome, but the symptoms described everything Grimes was experiencing.

She went back to her doctors with her newfound evidence of EHS, relieved to have sorted out the mystery. But she got no sympathy. As she puts it, “They look at you like you have three heads.”

Grimes moved to a new building, then another, and six more times, but at each turn a smart-meter rollout wasn’t far behind. “I sat down there in Florida,” she says, “and just prayed to God: ‘Where is my way out?’ ”

That’s when she heard about a little town called Green Bank, West Virginia.

In Green Bank, you can’t make a call on your cell phone, and you can’t text on it, either. Wireless internet is outlawed, as is Bluetooth. It’s a premodern place by design, devoid of the gadgets and technologies that define life today. And thanks to Uncle Sam, it will stay that way: The town is part of a federally mandated zone where a government high-tech facility’s needs come first. Wireless signals are verboten.

In electromagnetic terms, it’s the quietest place on Earth—blanketed by the kind of silence that’s golden to electrosensitives like Monique Grimes.

And as she discovered, it’s become a refuge for them.

Over the last few years, electrosensitives have flocked to the tech-free idyll in West Virginia, taking shelter beside cows and farms and fellow sufferers. Up here, no one would look at them as if they had three heads. Well, except for the locals, that is.

The reason for all the peace and quiet in town is visible the moment you arrive.

It’s the Robert C. Byrd telescope, a gleaming white, 485-foot-tall behemoth of a dish that looms over tiny Green Bank, population 143.

There’s only one road into town, about four hours from DC. The way there snakes through the Allegheny Mountains, each town you pass through smaller than the last as the bars on your cell phone fall like dominoes and the scan function on the radio ceases to work, the dial rotating endlessly in search of signals.

Where the forest ends, the town begins. The valley opens to cattle farms and old wooden barns, a post office and a library, a bank and Henry’s Quick Stop, a combination gas station/convenience store/rustic interior-decor shop that houses Green Bank’s nearest approximation to a sit-down restaurant. Across the street, the Dollar General was a lifesaver when it opened five years ago—before that, the closest grocery store was in Marlinton, 26 miles down the road.

At the northern end of town is the other visible curiosity in Green Bank besides the telescope: a rusted pay phone. If you’re not from there, it’s ostensibly the only way to reach the rest of the world. “Sometimes you get people passing through who get aggravated they can’t get a signal,” says Bob Earvine, owner of Trents General Store. “But just about anybody will let you use their phone.”

Rising above it all is the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, a.k.a. the GBT. It’s the largest of its kind in the world and one of nine in Green Bank, all of them government-owned and operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

The telescopes aren’t “ocular” ones, the kind you’re probably thinking of. They’re radio telescopes. So instead of putting your eye to the apparatus and looking for distant stars, you listen for them. The patterns of electromagnetic radiation coming off a planet or other celestial bodies apparently reveal entirely different things than what’s visible to the eye, and even allow scientists to study regions of space where light can’t reach. In recent years, the telescopes have been used to track NASA’s Cassini probe to Saturn’s moon and to examine Mercury’s molten core.

Obscure as the work may sound, there’s a long line of astronomers all over the world who want to use the GBT, a telescope known to be so sensitive that it can pick up the energy equivalent of a single snowflake hitting the ground. These scientists swamp the NRAO with their research proposals—the observatory is four times oversubscribed.

So why does such a sensitive listening tool need total technological silence to operate? A little history—starting with telephones, in fact—helps explain.

In 1932, when Bell Labs was installing phone systems across the US, its technicians kept hearing static over the transmissions. The company hired an electrical engineer to find the source, and he discovered that all the noise was “the Milky Way galaxy itself,” says Mike Holstine, the telescope’s business manager, with a hint of awe in his voice.

Two decades later, the federal government decided the country should invest in listening to the far reaches of the galaxy and needed its own radio telescope to do so. The question was where to put it. Because even a basic AM radio transmission is enough to overpower faint readings from outer space, the only place for such a listening post was the hinterlands.

Enter Green Bank. Surrounded by the Alleghenies, and thus buffered from outside frequencies, the rural town had little established industry—or potential for one. That meant the telescope wouldn’t have to deal with a population influx later. Plus, Green Bank sat on the 38th Parallel, with an ideal view of the Milky Way.

In 1958, the Federal Communications Commission established the 13,000-square-mile National Radio Quiet Zone, a one-of-a-kind area encompassing Green Bank where, to this day, electromagnetic silence is enforced every hour of every day. The strictest rules are found within the ten square miles immediately surrounding Green Bank, where most forms of modern communication—i.e., cell phones and wi-fi—are banned under state law. Residents are allowed to use land-line phones and wired internet, “but it is sloooow,” in the words of one Green Banker.

The Quiet Zone is a vast place, much of it made up of national parks and empty space, the whole thing roughly the size of Maryland. But lately, because of how much its way of life has diverged from the rest of America’s and whom that’s attracted to the place, the little town of Green Bank has come to feel smaller than ever.

In 2007, Diane Schou became one of the first electrosensitives to move to Green Bank.

Diane Schou, above, is one of the first electrosensitives to move to Green Bank.

Before that, she had been a PhD working on an Iowa research farm she owned with her husband, Bert, also an electrosensitive. After the Schous, there was Jennifer Wood, once an architect working for the University of Hawaii. And Monique Grimes, the former catering-company owner. One after another, the electrosensitives rolled into Green Bank, until there were roughly two dozen—no small number for a 143-person town.

For many, the journey there was long and frustrating. Schou, for instance, had identified the cell-phone tower near her home in Iowa as the culprit of her woes back in 2003, but when she complained to company and government officials, she couldn’t get any traction. She spent months living in a Faraday cage, a wood-framed box with metal meshing that blocked out cell signals (more typically used by scientists conducting experiments in labs). She even briefly considered buying a repurposed space suit so she could get out of the house without pain. “I was told it would be $24,000,” she says. “I don’t have that kind of money. And what if it gets a hole in it?”

She and Bert drove hundreds of thousands of miles across the United States looking for a safe place to stay and spent time with relatives in Sweden, the first country to recognize electromagnetic hypersensitivity as a disability. It was a national-park ranger in North Carolina who ultimately told Schou about Green Bank, and she tried the place out while living in her car behind Henry’s Quick Stop.

The transition wasn’t easy. “Coming to Green Bank was a culture shock,” she says. “If you want to have Starbucks and shopping malls, you won’t survive here.” But the Schous didn’t feel they had a lot of choice, given how much better they felt inside the Quiet Zone. The couple found an unfinished home and sold half of their Iowa farm to buy, finish, and rewire it.

It wasn’t long before Diane Schou became the de facto electrosensitive gatekeeper of Green Bank. Fellow sufferers heard about her and spread the word, and soon she was letting visitors stay in her home when they came to try the place out for themselves. Jennifer Wood, the former architect, who says her own husband didn’t believe her disease was real, remembers what it was like to walk into Schou’s home and be welcomed by a handful of other electrosensitives. “It was just like family,” Wood says.

But not everyone in Green Bank was so keen to meet the new neighbors. “There have been some rough spots in dealing with other members of the community,” says the very diplomatic Sheriff David Jonese, whose Pocahontas County department has been called in several times to mediate disputes between old-timers and newcomers. “They want everybody in the stores and restaurants to change their lighting or turn their lights off when they’re there, which creates some issues.”

Like shoving matches.

Schou says that when she tried to get the local church to uninstall its fluorescent lights, which electrosensitives find excruciating, one local started fuming and pushed her before storming out.

Schou also asked the church not to use its wireless microphones and told people to stop using their cell phones as cameras around her. The senior center, one of the town’s few gathering places, obliged her request to replace the fluorescent lights in one area, but when she asked that her food be delivered to her from the center’s kitchen—so she wouldn’t have to walk under other fluorescents—Green Bankers began to protest.

“Some people started to deliberately expose me just to harm me,” she says.

Residents began approaching Schou and other electrosensitives with pocketfuls of electronics, trying to call their bluff. “It feels like at times you have the scarlet letter,” says Grimes, adding that she knows electrosensitives who conceal their condition.

But the special treatment wasn’t the old-timers’ only gripe with Schou. They were also growing angry at her for ushering people they considered truly scary into the community. A few years ago, one disturbed electrosensitive flew into a rage at the local library, decrying the “dumb hillbillies” who surrounded her, as the story goes. She rampaged from the post office to the bank to the auto shop, belligerently screaming before police finally ticketed her and banned her from a couple of public places around town. (She’s gone now.)

Things got so tense that Schou and her husband decided to hold an “educational session” at the senior center that they hoped would clear the air. Instead, it devolved into a confrontation between the couple and a handful of Green Bankers upset about the demands she’d been making. “I call that my tar-and-feathering,” she says.

Schou doesn’t go to the center anymore, but the tarring-and-feathering goes on. Sometimes, Schou says, she’ll get middle-of-the-night phone calls from voices telling her to leave town and go back where she came from. One day, she went out to get the mail and found a violent surprise. Inside the mailbox was a dead groundhog, shot and rotting.

Rewind a few decades and you see how all this has actually happened before in Green Bank.

Only then, instead of shunning the people who wanted to keep new technology out, the old-timers were shunning the people bringing it in.

After breaking ground on the initial telescope in 1957, the NRAO needed to hire PhDs and engineers, and it began hiring scientists from out of town. But the locals—whose farms and homes had been condemned and displaced to make room for the observatory’s campus—didn’t take so kindly to the influx. In 1965, a group of farmers even complained to their congressman that observatory scientists had caused a crop-killing drought.

“I remember one fella said the observatory would make it rain when they wanted it to and not rain when they didn’t want it to,” says Harold Crist, a 90-year-old Green Bank native who also worked for the telescope at one time.

Not that the big-city transplants instantly warmed to the tractor-driving locals. “The truth is each group privately thinks the other is barbaric,” a telescope engineer said in a 1965 Science article. “It’s the difference between cocktail parties and moonshine orgies.”

But with time came acceptance. Today many Green Bankers work various jobs at the telescope. The campus’s cafeteria is a favorite lunch spot for locals. And more than a few scientists moonlight as painters with work hanging in the small local art center.

The main “town/gown” wrinkle, if there is one, now involves staying on top of every last piece of technology that comes down the pike. When the Quiet Zone was established in the middle of the 20th century, the observatory only had to regulate things like AM radio. Next it was pagers and cell phones, too. Today there’s wi-fi, Bluetooth, and much more. “We’ve noticed an increase in general noise,” says Karen O’Neil, the observatory’s director. “Modern society and its gizmos has brought a need to have so much more stuff.”

Mike Holstine, telescope business manager.

To picture how an iPhone can block a radio signal from outer space, telescope business manager Mike Holstine says to imagine a candle in the dark: “They say the human eye can see that candle flickering from one mile away. But what if someone turns on a spotlight all of a sudden? The candle disappears.” The radio signals are so weak after traveling so many light-years that a mere wireless modem nearby overwhelms them and they’re gone.

For that reason, the observatory’s campus is careful to protect itself. Only diesel vehicles are allowed on-site, because a gasoline-powered engine’s spark plugs give off interfering radiation. Pine trees on the outskirts buffer passing cars. Even the cafeteria’s microwave—which, like all microwaves, emits radiation—is kept in a shielded cage.

It seems every tiny step forward for the rest of America brings unforeseen consequences to Green Bank. In 2007, a government mandate for tire-pressure sensors in all new cars went into effect. “Well, those give off a radio signal that interferes with our telescope,” says Holstine. “The technology around us changes all the time, and even the smallest thing has repercussions.”

To combat this, the NRAO formed the Interference Protection Group to hunt down rogue signals. “It’s as much art as it is science,” says technician Chuck Niday as he points out the machinery he uses to track interference in the Quiet Zone. There are spectrum analyzers, global positioning systems, bundles of wires, and a box with a circle of small bulbs that light up in the direction of the radiation.

It’s a tricky job—the signals bounce off buildings and mountains, change direction, hide themselves in the most unexpected places. A few years back, the protection group traced one to a dog pen in a couple’s back yard. The animal had chewed through his electric blanket, causing tiny jolts of electricity to arc across the frayed wires and send out radio interference. Although the NRAO has the ability to seek criminal charges against violators, in this case it took the kinder approach: It bought the unwitting couple a new blanket.

With the increasingly swift pace of products and apps flowing out of Silicon Valley, it seems the NRAO’s work may only get tougher. The more enticing the technology to hit the market, the more residents may find themselves questioning the opportunity cost associated with living in Green Bank. Already, there are Green Bankers who are hungry for shiny new toys and aren’t above flouting the rules.

At Green Bank Elementary-Middle School, right next door to the telescope, you’d expect to find teenagers bemoaning the unavailability of the cool gadgets they see on TV. But that’s not the case. According to one seventh-grader, plenty of kids in Green Bank have smartphones, and although they can’t get a signal, they’ve found a work-around. By connecting to a home wi-fi network (that the telescope interference protectors apparently haven’t picked up on), kids don’t need a cell network to talk to their friends—they can just use the new texting functions in apps like Facebook and Snapchat. Teenagers and technology, it seems, will always find a way.

It would be easy to dismiss the Green Bankers who don’t like their new electrosensitive neighbors as xenophobes.

But that wouldn’t be fair. Well beyond the town’s borders, there’s a spirited debate over whether EHS is real.

The true believers generally cite a Louisiana State University study conducted in 2011. Researchers there randomly exposed one electrosensitive to an electromagnetic field and concluded that “EMF hypersensitivity can occur as a bona fide environmentally inducible neurological syndrome.”

But Timothy J. Jorgensen, a Georgetown professor who researches the health effects of environmental radiation, says the LSU study was too small to prove anything and that more comprehensive research has failed to show a correlation between symptoms and electromagnetic radiation. He doesn’t categorically deny the possibility of EHS, but in the absence of evidence, he says, just because something is plausible doesn’t make it true. “There’s no evidence that ghosts exist, but I can’t prove to you there are no ghosts,” as Jorgensen puts it.

“I feel for these people because they do have health problems,” he adds. “What the cause is, I have no idea, but it’s not wi-fi.”

The debate has clearly spilled over into the dinner-table chitchat of Green Bankers.

Pat Wilfong, a cell-phone-owning native, says she once told an electrosensitive that she was afraid her aging mother’s car might break down in the mountains and she’d have no way to call for help—only to have the EHS sufferer flippantly suggest she use a primitive walkie-talkie instead. “That made me feel like she didn’t care about my mother, or my feelings,” Wilfong says.

She’s friendly with some electrosensitives but still skeptical that EHS exists. “I agree that something makes them sick,” she says. “I’m not sure that it’s always what someone thinks it is, or what someone else tells them it is.”

Arnie Stewart, on the other hand, became convinced the disease was real after doing a little detective work himself. Stewart—who grew up visiting a family farm outside Green Bank and moved there as a retiree seven years ago—knew that a few of his buddies in his (sanctioned) ham-radio club thought the whole thing was a sham. So he asked an electrosensitive to come to a club meeting earlier this year to explain her disease.

“She was presenting her case, and about ten minutes later she came up to me and says, ‘Arnie, someone has a cell phone on in here,’ ” Stewart recalls, noting that he saw the electrosensitive woman’s hands redden and her wrists swell. He asked the room if anyone had a phone powered up. “And this one guy very sheepishly said, ‘Oh, I do have one, and it’s on.’ That was his test, and she passed it. When that happened, everyone snapped to and listened.”

Green Bank’s electrosensitives have different ways of coping, it seems. A good number are press-shy and keep to themselves—they don’t want to draw more attention to themselves than they already have. “There are people who have come in and managed to assimilate into the community, get jobs, but they still have to be very careful,” says Monique Grimes.

The ones who speak out know how “outlandish” EHS sounds to the uninitiated, as Jennifer Wood puts it, and do so in hopes of rallying people to their side. They know there’s some mending to be done in the community. “To be fair, we’ve had a few difficult people come in,” Wood says. “We’ve had some who are lovely and good communicators, but others who are distraught and very prickly or rude.”

The clash may ultimately be settled by a force outside Green Bankers’ control: the fate of the thing that started all the trouble in the first place—the telescope.

It’s funded entirely by the National Science Foundation, and two years ago, in a wave of belt-tightening across the federal government, a committee recommended shutting down the campus. NSF hasn’t said whether it will accept the proposal, but a decision is expected this year. If Washington chooses to divest, and the observatory can’t find outside funding, it could close by 2017.

Which might effectively spell the end of Green Bank’s quaint little tech-free life.

Some say that in the long run, that may be best for the town. “We’ll be so far out of the loop one of these days that we won’t be able to catch up,” says Harold Crist, who raised six children in the Quiet Zone and watched some of them move away. “I think it’s gonna turn us into a bunch of dinosaurs. People come back home and think we’re living in the dark ages.”

As it is, Green Bankers such as Pat Wilfong are already traveling south to Marlinton, the nearest town with a cell tower, to use their phones. (A few towns in the Quiet Zone can have towers because they face away from the telescope.) They’re doing it so often that the owners of a patch of ground with particularly good service in Marlinton once posted a sign warding off message-checking loiterers.

But a shuttered telescope would obviously be a nightmare for the electrosensitives—just as some of them are making inroads with the locals.

Monique Grimes, for instance. In the fall of 2013, she married Tom Grimes, a native Green Banker who owns a spacious hundred acres where lamb and sheep roam. Tom says his wife has been helping out lately around the farm, even sanding a new roof on the shed. “She’s fit in better than a lot of country girls do.”

Tom makes sure theirs is an equal partnership. “He introduces me to a lot of people—they get to know me first as Mo, not as an electrosensitive,” Monique says. “Now friends of ours have gone so far as to replace the light bulbs in their house because they want me to come and visit.”

Whatever happens to the telescope, Monique is pretty convinced that her version of the science will prevail and that future generations will see the folly of iPhones and laptops just like past ones did asbestos and cigarettes. As one sympathetic doctor told her, “You were just born a hundred years before your time.”

“Or after,” Tom quips, knowing there’s a pretty decent chance they’re sitting in the last quiet place on Earth.

This article appears in the January 2015 issue of Washingtonian.