It’s not uncommon to want to get away from it all. Secluded resorts and rustic properties from the foothills of Montana to the African Serengeti capitalize on the all-too-human need to disconnect from the world and escape the busy rush of daily life, be it temporarily or permanently.
But as maddening as work, traffic, and the onslaught of our media culture can often be, most wouldn’t describe this proximity to the rest of humanity as physically painful. Except, of course, for some citizens of Green Bank, West Virginia.
Nestled in the rolling hills of Appalachia, Green Bank is an idyllic, and typical rustic town. But its remote location does not attract the typical rustic type. Instead, it has become renowned for being a safe haven of sorts for people claiming to suffer from a condition known as Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity. In laymen’s terms, this means they’re physically bothered by the all-consuming web of electromagnetic fields emitted by our increasingly connected society, from the simple and longstanding presence of power lines to the increasing prevalence of high-powered mobile devices.
The latter have exacerbated the issue to the point where some people with this sensitivity cannot be around populated areas due to the presence of smart phones and laptops, which reportedly cause them constant and sometimes intense physical pain, and has led to their nickname as “wi-fi refugees.”
This is why Green Bank so special and attracts these people: it is home to the world’s largest fully directional radio telescope, among other high-powered radio listening arrays. Strange as it may sound for a group with a sensitivity to electromagnetic fields to be attracted to a place with superpowered radio equipment, the telescopes’ existence is actually the reason the citizens of Green Bank find this place so appealing.
The presence of radio telescopes in and around Green Bank was enabled by the 1958 designation by the FCC of approximately 13,000 square miles in (mostly) West Virginia, western Virginia, and a sliver of Maryland as the National Radio Quiet Zone, where electromagnetic and radio broadcast equipment is largely forbidden, and where present (such as with police and fire radio communications) are strictly regulated and coordinated with the scientists at the research station.
All of this leads to a striking and inescapable juxtaposition in the community. Tiny cabins and farmhouses dot the countryside, many of them largely self-sufficient to reduce their connectivity to the outside world, but whose scenic vistas almost always include a giant radiotelescope (or a series of them) among the otherwise pastoral wooded hills and farmland.
It is this unlikely but charming and bemusing combination of disparate lifestyles that creates such a unique and lasting atmosphere in Green Bank, where scientists have gathered to listen for signs and signals from the cosmos–and possibly from other worlds–and a small section of the public has gathered to get away from ours.