August 19, 2022

My family visited a city where cell phones are not allowed.  The lack of service made me a more present father.

My family visited a city where cell phones are not allowed. The lack of service made me a more present father.

Anna Rollins

  • My family visited Watoga State Park in West Virginia, where cell phones are not allowed.

  • When I try to text a friend, I find that there is no signal.

  • The park is near a large telescope so the area is considered a quiet area for instruments.

We started the summer with a trip to the Quiet Zone. After a month of shift work, elusive baby fever, and dog diarrhea, my husband rented a cabin in Watoga State Park, West Virginia, for vacation. We were riding, fishing and swimming in the lake. Afterwards, we were hiking trails through the Allegheny Mountains with our two young sons.

Arriving at the park, I saw a message on my phone: a friend who had just given birth to a baby girl. I wrote my congratulations. When I hit send, I get a notification: “Message delivery failed.”

“Oh,” my husband said casually as he walked down the tree-covered main road. “There’s no cellular service here. It’s actually illegal.”

Although the area around Watoga is isolated woodland, it is far from far behind. Quite the opposite: Cellular service has been blocked due to the area’s proximity to the Green Bank Observatory, home to the world’s largest fully steerable telescope.

No signal at all

The telescope can detect radio emissions from light years away. To prevent our Earthly instruments from interfering with scientific research, the government has declared an area of ​​13,000 square miles—most of Pocahontas County, West Virginia—surrounding the telescope as a National Radio Quiet District.

My first impulse, of course, was to pull my phone over to Google for more information. Instead, I found myself having a strange urge to talk to other people in the park about it.

One person who grew up in the area described a teenage hobby of driving to specific mountaintops to reach cell towers from neighboring counties. Another spoke about how great it is to live at a slower pace without getting distracted.

Like many people who live outside the Quiet Zone, I have struggled with my relationship with my devices. I’ve tried various tricks to cut back on my consumption: usage alerts, deliberate “missing it”, and self-censorship.

Although I wouldn’t be ashamed of relying on technology that, in fact, made the already daunting task of parenting so much easier, I fancied earlier times.

Our trip to the Quiet Zone reminded me of what life would be like with more attention.

Made my father better

When we entered the cabin – clean and rustic with the luxury of modern amenities – it was dinner time. When I started emptying the water and boiling the water on the stove at the same time, my kid had an accident on the kitchen table.

“Mom, I peed,” he yelled.

Immediately, I grabbed my phone from my back pocket. I realized I was conditioned to take a quick roll – to get a dose of dopamine – before dealing with life’s chaos. But my phone couldn’t provide that convenience, so I had to take full care of the clutter.

After dinner, we went for a short walk. We chose a random path that my son requested. His reasoning: “Let’s go this way because it’s more cool.” I realized this rating was better than anything I could find in an internet search.

When we woke up in the morning, my son was lying beside me in bed. Instead of reaching for my device on the table, I turned to it. He was still asleep. I listened to the sound of his regular breathing. I stared deeply at his face–the hills of his cheeks, the valleys under his eyes–and studied the way the light from the slatted blinds enveloped his skin.

In this calm, I returned to the experience of full presence. To be completely here on Earth, others had to look at the stars.

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