My family visited Watoga State Park in West Virginia, where cell phones are not allowed.
When I tried to send a text to a friend, I found that there was no signal.
The park is near a large telescope, so the area is considered a quiet zone for devices.
We started the summer with a trip to the ‘Quiet Zone’. After a month of shift work, elusive toddler fever and dog diarrhea, my husband rented a cabin Watoga . State Park, West Virginia, for a getaway. We would boat, fish and swim in the lake. Then we hiked trails through the Allegheny Mountains with our two young sons.
When we arrived at the park, I saw a message on my phone: A friend had just given birth to a girl. I typed my congratulations. When I pressed “send”, I received a notification: “Message could not be delivered.”
“Oh,” my husband said casually as he turned up the tree-covered main road. “There’s no cell service here. It’s actually illegal.’
Although the area around Watoga is hinterland, it is far from backward. On the contrary, mobile services are banned due to its proximity to the Green Bank Observatory, home to the world’s largest fully steerable telescope.
There is no signal at all
The telescope can detect radio emissions from light years away. To prevent our terrestrial 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 the National Radio Quiet Zone.
My first impulse, of course, was to pull out my phone to give Google more information. Instead, I found myself having a peculiar desire to talk about it with other people in the park.
One person who grew up in the area described teens’ particular pastime of driving to specific mountain peaks to access cell towers from neighboring provinces. Another told how nice it is to live at a slower pace without distractions.
Like many people who live outside the Pacific Zone, I had struggled with my relationship with my devices. I had tried several tricks to reduce my consumption: usage warnings, intentional ‘losing’ and self-censorship.
While I wouldn’t wallow in shame for relying on technology to make the already hard work of parenting much easier, I did fantasize about the old days.
Our trip to the Pacific Zone reminded me of what life would be like with more focus.
It made my parenting better
When we entered our cabin – clean and rustic with the luxury of modern amenities – it was dinner time. When I started unpacking water and cooking on the stove at the same time, my potty training toddler had an accident at the kitchen table.
“Mommy, I peed,” he shouted.
I immediately took my phone out of my back pocket. I realized I had been conditioned to scroll fast—for a dopamine hit—before I could handle the chaos of life. But my phone couldn’t provide that comfort, so I had to completely join the mess.
After dinner we went for a short walk. We chose a random course that my son requested. His reasoning: “Let’s go this way, because it’s more beautiful.” I realized this review was better than anything I could have found in a web search.
When we woke up in the morning, my son was in bed next to me. Instead of 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 stared deeply at his face—the mounds of his cheeks, the valleys beneath his eyes—and studied the way the light from the louvered curtains molded his complexion.
In this silence I was brought back to the experience of being fully present. To be fully here on Earth, others had to look to the stars.
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