In West Virginia, just 321 kms away from Washington, DC, you’ll find a community of roughly 8,000 people who live completely off the grid.
In the 20,920-square-kilometre “National Radio Quiet Zone,” all cell phone, Wi-Fi, microwaves, and even some vacuum use are all banned by law.
The restrictions were put in place because of the 11 large-scale telescopes installed in the area by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in the 1950s. The observatory houses the world’s largest fully steerable telescope, which has a staggering surface area of 2.3 acres.
Nothing, not even a Hoover vacuum or commercial cell phone tower, is allowed to interfere with the telescope’s readings. While some Pocahontas County residents are long-time locals, others are self-proclaimed “technological lepers” who moved there to adopt a device-free lifestyle.
Photographer Emile Holba was extremely fascinated by the off-the-grid lives led in the National Radio Quiet Zone, so he began documenting the people and landscapes of Pocahontas County. We spoke with Holba about the characters he met, as well as what it was like to briefly live without an iPhone, GPS, or email.
In 1954, the US government chose Pocahontas County, and specifically the town of Green Bank, as the location for the observatory because the Allegheny Mountains naturally protect the valley from stray radio frequency interference. Another contributing factor was the area's low population density and lack of man-made structures.
11 radio telescopes have been built within the county since the 1950s, all of which record various amounts of radio emissions coming from the sky and produce images of celestial bodies.
Planes that fly in and out of the observatory's science center must not have any electronics in them, and handheld radios are required in case anything goes awry. Only diesel vehicles are allowed within a one-mile radius of the observatory, since petrol-running cars do have spark plugs.
In town, Chuck Niday is known as 'The Keeper of the Quiet.' 'Chuck has to go and investigate certain radio frequencies as a result of a complaint logged by the scientists,' Holba told Business Insider. Sometimes those complaints come from common appliances like vacuum cleaners, wireless speakers, or even a dog's heating compound.
In an interview with Holba aired on BBC radio, Niday said that the town is not fearful of him or his unique type of policing, but that some do look at his truck 'with disdain.'
Holba describes the town of Green Bank as 'functional but minimal, with a high school, doctors, gas station, churches, a supermarket, and a senior center -- however local government and main emergency services are based in Marlinton, south of Green Bank.'
There's one major way residents get international and local news, and that's through the only local radio station allowed to broadcast within the NRQZ: Allegheny Mountain Radio. DJs such as Cousin Roland, 'provide a crucial community service (of delivering) news, announcements, and (create a) general community cohesion,' Holba said.
While a majority of the town's employment comes from the observatory, other Pocahontas County businesses include a small lumber industry, some agriculture, and tourism.
The county also has a small, thriving music community. Homer Hunter plays in a bluegrass band and has lived in Pocahontas County all his life. He was also once an active Marine. He told Holba he considers the lack of connectivity a gift.
Bobby Ervine, a cattle farmer and owner of a Trent's convenience store, told Holba that he sees 'no disadvantage in operating his business without mobile devices.' 'He organizes his day well in advance, knowing that the community he supplies lives and works in the same unconnected space,' Holba told Business Insider.
Holba found Green Bank's lack of connectivity to be a breath of fresh air, and 'the truest, most positive display of small-town America.'
Some, like Diane Schou, have sought the Zone as a refuge from the modern world. Schou is, according to Holba, Pocahontas County's most well-known 'technological leper,' and moved to the Zone after she became sick from a cell tower near her previous home in Iowa.
In his past life, Kevin Fraser was a champion power lifter in South Africa. Now he's the proud owner of the Dunmore Bakery and sells fuel, fishing tackle, and wedding cakes to locals.
Overall, Holba was charmed by the town. 'There was an overwhelming sense of community with everyone speaking face to face and being sociable ... the absence of mobile connection in Pocahontas County was clear -- it defines and shapes the way people living and working in the NRQZ and how they plan their days,' Holba said. 'Less urgency, and more appreciation of one's surroundings.'
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