We started the summer by taking a trip to the “Quiet Zone.” After a month of shift work, elusive toddler fevers, and canine diarrhea, my husband rented a cabin in Watoga State Park, West Virginia, for a getaway. We’d boat, fish, and swim in the lake. After, we’d hike trails through the Allegheny Mountains with our two young sons.
Upon our arrival at the park, I saw a message on my phone: A friend had just given birth to a baby girl. I typed my congratulations. Upon pressing “send,” I received a notification: “Message failed to deliver.”
“Oh,” my husband mentioned casually as he pulled onto the tree-canopied main road. “There’s no cell service here. It’s actually illegal.”
Though the area surrounding Watoga is backwoods, it’s far from backward. Quite the opposite: Cell service has been outlawed because of the area’s proximity to the Green Bank Observatory, the home of the world’s largest fully steerable telescope.
There’s no signal at all
The telescope can detect radio emissions from light-years away. To keep our earthly devices from interfering with scientific research, the government has declared the 13,000-square-mile area — most of Pocahontas County, West Virginia — surrounding the telescope as the National Radio Quiet Zone.
My first impulse, of course, was to pull out my phone to Google more information. Instead, I found myself with a quaint desire to talk to other people at the park about it.
One person who grew up in the area described the particular teenage pastime of driving to specific mountaintops to gain access to cell towers from neighboring counties. Another spoke about how nice it was to live at a slower pace without distractions.
Like many people living outside the Quiet Zone, I’d wrestled with my relationship to my devices. I’d tried various tricks to cut back my consumption: usage alerts, deliberately “losing them,” and self-censorship.
Though I wasn’t going to wallow in shame for depending on technology that did, in fact, make the already hard job of parenting much easier, I did fantasize about the before times.
Our trip to the Quiet Zone reminded me of what life would be like with more of an attention span.
It made my parenting better
When we entered our cabin — clean and rustic with the luxury of modern-day amenities — it was dinnertime. As I began to simultaneously unpack and boil water on the stove, my potty-training toddler had an accident at the kitchen table.
“Mommy, I peed out,” he cried.
Immediately, I grabbed my phone out of my back pocket. I realized I was conditioned to take a quick scroll — for a dopamine hit — before dealing with the chaos of life. But my phone couldn’t provide that comfort, so I had to attend fully to the mess.
After dinner, we went on a short hike. We chose a random trail that my son requested. His rationale: “Let’s go this way because it’s more gorgeous.” I realized that this assessment was better than anything I could have found on an internet search.
When we woke in the morning, my son lay beside me in bed. Rather than reaching for my device on the nightstand, I turned to him. He was still asleep. I listened to the sound of his rhythmic breaths. I gazed deeply at his face—the hills of his cheeks, the valleys beneath his eyes—and I studied the way the light from the slatted blinds contoured his complexion.
In this quiet, I was taken back to the experience of being fully present. For me to be here completely on Earth, others had to look out at the stars.