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Green Bank, WV: 24 hours in a Radio Dead Zone

Green Bank is home to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. It is here where you can view the world’s largest steerable radio telescope. To non-scientists like me, staring at a hunk of metal that resembles a spaceship from Star Trek initially sounds lame. Then I realized that this amalgamation of metal and screws has the power to retrieve radio signals from far-off galaxies. The data collected is used to explore the unknown and answer those burning questions about black holes, the big bang, and even extraterrestrial life.

Scientists from all over the world (including Scott when he was an undergraduate student in 2009) have traveled to this exact location to record data and study the universe. Now that’s pretty cool. There are 7 astronomical telescopes in the state of West Virginia including 4 in Greenbank, the Good Hope Observatory in Clarksburg, the Tomchin Observatory in Morgantown, and Morgan County Observatory near Berkeley Springs.

Greenbank Observatory JMU
Scott as an undergraduate student in the JMU Physics lab

In order for the telescope to be able to retrieve that data, it has to break through all of the surrounding noise of radio waves. Imagine being in a big city and trying to view the stars above. It is difficult standing on the ground to see even the brightest of stars when you are surrounded by all of the lights (noise) from surrounding buildings, street lamps, stoplights, etc. Then, as soon as you escape into the countryside, all of a sudden you can see the stars for miles and miles.

It is for this reason that Green Bank and the surrounding 13,000 square miles have been legally designated a Radio Quiet Zone where radio transmissions are limited and closely monitored. Step inside the town of Green Bank and it is now a Radio Dead Zone where these same transmissions are completely prohibited. This includes cell phones, radios, and wifi, but also microwaves, television transmitters, and a number of other items.

Green Bank Observatory, Largest steerable radio telescope in the world
The largest steerable radio telescope in the world. Photo Cred:

The quiet town of Green Bank (population: 143) attracts those people who are tired of traffic, social media and political drama and just want to disconnect. It also attracts a small community of people claiming to suffer from a condition known as Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity. In laymen’s terms, they experience physical pain due to electromagnetic fields emitted by power lines, telephone wires, and high-powered mobile devices… And then Green Bank also attracts people like me and Scott. Individuals looking to explore a place that it is interesting and unfamiliar.

This year for Christmas, we gave each other experiences as opposed to another ‘object’ we would probably lose, stain, or otherwise break. My gift to Scott was a night in Green Bank where he could talk science to me all day about the observatory and the telescope where he collected data to map out the arms of the Milky Way galaxy.

We arrived in Greenbank starving.

We had driven for miles through the back roads of the Allegheny Mountains. There was nothing but snow, trees, trailers, and the occasional gas station. After we passed the entrance to the observatory we figured we were close enough and popped into the closest thing we could find
with food, the Sunoco gas station. On one side of the station, they had canned goods and beer, on the other side they had a little dining area which resembled an old Mcdonalds from the ’70s. We both eagerly scarfed down a hamburger with fries.

Green Bank West Virginia: 24 Hours in a Radio Dead Zone

There are only 2 places where you can spend the night in Green Bank. The first is the observatory dormitories, but those are reserved only for visiting scientists and field trips. So I suppose there is really only 1 place you can stay in Green Bank as a visitor and that is at the Green Bank Cabins. I had called ahead of time to make a reservation, and the owner let us know that only one of the 3 cabins was being rented out at the time so we gladly accepted what was available.  

The key was left in the lock when we arrived so no formal check-in was required. With snow on the ground and a temperature of 9 degrees, we were relieved to find that the gas heater was fired up and ready for us. The log cabin was decorated with pieces from the early 1900s. An antique icebox sat in the corner; cast iron skillets were suspended from the ceiling, and Victorian sofa couches and wingback chairs lined the 300-square-foot perimeter. A wooden ladder led to a small loft above the doorway where 2 bare mattresses were lying on the floorboard. This would have been a little creepy if this was the first time we had seen this, however, we had stayed at another cabin in Lexington which also had a similar pull-down secret loft with bare mattresses.

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Green Bank West Virginia: 24 Hours in a Radio Dead Zone


It was now 5pm and too dark to explore the town.

It was now 5 pm and too dark to explore the town so we decided to walk back across the street to the Sunoco to find a bottle of wine. There was no wine, however, they did have hard cider…that expired 13 months prior. We were informed there were no grocery stores on this side of the mountain, so we hopped back in the car and drove to the nearest 3 gas stations, each about 2 miles apart. Alas, there was no wine. We returned to Sunoco and bought the “antiqued” hard cider.

With no internet, cell phone service, or television we had no choice but to talk to each other (heaven forbid). I am just kidding. In all honesty, that was one reason for us to come down here; to disconnect and really enjoy each other’s company. We played our favorite game Banagrams about 30 times before we started to get hungry, at which point our growling tummies led us back across the street to our favorite Sunoco for the second round of burgers.

We locked ourselves back in our cabin and talked ourselves to sleep.

The temperature continued to drop, the falling snow turned to sleet, and the wind started howling. We locked ourselves back in our cabin and talked ourselves to sleep. Now, I will let you know that I am afraid of the dark. I always have been, and sometimes sleep with a nightlight. On this particular night, I made Scott leave one small table lamp turned on in the corner. It was dim but cast enough of a red glow on the room that I could still see enough and be comfortable.

Throughout the night the gas heater would come on with a loud “tck. tck. tck . whrrrr kshhhh”. After about 30 minutes it would turn off again and the room would rapidly drop in temperature until it kicked back on. We managed to put ourselves back to sleep most of the time but then
around 2 am, we heard “hisssss, meowwrrr, hisss”. There were two feral cats going at it outside of our window. There was no brawl, just a very audible and hostile disagreement.

After those two settled down, there was a “click, click, pitter-patter” on our porch. Scott jumps out of bed and yells “our cider! The raccoons are getting our cider!” He threw open the front door to grab our box of hard cider which we left outside to stay cold. Finally, we get back to bed.

In between bouts of sleepiness, dreaming, and semi-consciousness, Scott peeled open his eyes. In the room dimly lit with a red glow from the lamp, Scott saw an old woman sitting in the wing-back chair at the foot of our bed. She sat there in silence watching us sleep. Scott blinked his eyes and she was gone.

We woke up in the morning anything but fully rested, but just in time for our scheduled tour at the Green Bank Observatory. After packing our bags, we headed 3 minutes down the road for our next adventure. With Scott being the physicist (I am more like Penny from the Big Bang Theory), I will let him tell you all about our trip to the observatory in a separate article.

Green Bank West Virginia: 24 Hours in a Radio Dead Zone

Green Bank has a story and character of its own.

Our secluded escape to the Radio Dead Zone of Green Bank, West Virginia was certainly an experience. While there were some commonalities with other small southern towns, Green Bank has a story and character of its own. From the scientists searching for ET and the “WiFi refugees” seeking to escape harmful electromagnetic fields to the friendly employees of our favorite Sunoco and the old woman ghost, Green Bank, West Virginia has a unique vibe that we were happy to experience.

By the way, not sure if this is an explanation for what Scott possibly saw in our cabin, but upon our return, we discovered the following message on the cabin’s website:

“We have three original log cabins that were built in 1810 originally by a gentleman in Union, WV.   He was later killed in the Civil War at the “Battle of Gettysburg”.  We moved the cabins north to Green Bank, WV, in 1998.”

For those unfamiliar with American history, the Battle of Gettysburg is considered the bloodiest battle fought on American soil with up to 10,000 soldiers dead and another 30,000 wounded. Was the apparition coincidence? What do you think?

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Green Bank West Virginia: 24 Hours in a Radio Dead Zone


Cecilia is a bubbly Filipino-American with an affinity for constant change...that or a 10 second attention span. Refusing to sit still, she travels the world, in pursuit of adventure, excitement and meaningful experiences. She holds a Masters degree in International Development and Public Policy, and a BA in Business Management.

This Post Has 24 Comments

  1. Daniel

    I’m a non-scientist too but I would love to see the world’s largest steerable radio telescope! That sounds so fascinating and the cabins look absolutely charming. The whole place looks really appealing and I would love to visit it and for a lot longer than 24 hours 🙂

    1. Lovicarious

      It really is fascinating. When you can stand in front of a man-made machine that is capable of retrieving data from other galaxies! You think about aliens and do they exist and how will we ever know. Then we got to stand there in front of the very tool that collects that data to answer those questions. We both really enjoyed our experience in Green Bank and at the observatory.

  2. Shreya Saha

    How different it would be to live in a place like this without any cell phone network or radio or even a microwave. I would love to experience this. I didn’t even know some place like Green Bank exists. Thanks for the share.

    1. Lovicarious

      There are lots of places around the world where you can escape and live off the grid. This was our first time visiting a town like this though! It was a cool experience.

  3. Bhushavali

    OMG! That’s super impressive. I did love Science in school but somehow I didn’t take up higher studies it career in it. Nevertheless I’d be totally awestruck to see the world’s largest steer-able radio telescope. The cabin looks impressive. I’d love to escape to Green Bank too once in a while.

    1. Lovicarious

      I am not a science person either, but I was totally blown away when I got to stand by the telescope. It is massive in size and when you realize how powerful it is, that it can collect data light years away from other galaxies, it is just so fascinating! And then to think about how it was built by man. We did that. We built something that powerful! I just thought it was the coolest thing.

  4. Rachelle

    What an adventure! I picture traveling to a “dead zone” in West Virginia exactly what you experienced: rustic old cabin, possibly haunted by the ghost of the past, with nothing but a little gas station around for sustenance. I think being able to disconnect from the outside world is a great way to recharge, even if we’re forced to talk to each other haha. I have a friend who just relocated to West Virginia, so I might need to check this place out when I go for a visit!

    1. Lovicarious

      Yea! It is actually at the foot of Snowshoe Mountain which is a big ski resort area. You guys could make a weekend of it and do both!

  5. Jane Dempster-Smith

    Seeing the old woman sent shivers up my spine. What a story. The cabin looks like the one out of Little House on The Prairie. Thanks for enlightening me on Green Bank, I have never heard of the town or the radio dead zone.

    1. Lovicarious

      Scott knew all about it because he is an astrophysicist and studied at the observatory when he was in college. It was all new to me though!

  6. Anita

    Looks like a cool trip to the dead zone. It reminds me time in Timor without internet, electricity, phone, anything. Just me and the beach. This is a great way to recharche inside batteries before coming back to the world again. Every one shouls make a break like that sometimes.

    1. Lovicarious

      Agreed. It really is refreshing to get off the grid and recharge.

  7. umiko Silalahi

    This is a place that my son and husband will enjoy, and I will follow to experience this outer space thingy. The cabin looks old but fine, and it’s so funny about the cider in Sunoco gas station. I think we need to bring enough food and drink that we like when we go there. I pinned this post for my family future travel plan.

    1. Lovicarious

      You’ll have to let me know after you go! I would love to hear all about your experience!

  8. Stefanie

    Ha! This was a fun read! Green Bank sounds like an interesting place to visit for the science/learning aspect, but I also really like the idea of getting offline for a while and just having conversations with people! (How novel!) I could definitely do without the sleepless night and apparition of a woman — imagined or not! — watching me sleep though! Creepy! 🙂

    1. Lovicarious

      So we also recently went to the Poe Museum in Richmond and we found out that Edgar Allen Poe’s childhood fear was that someone was watching over him sleep. Ughh it is such a creepy thought!

  9. Clarice

    This is interesting. Since my boys had been bugging me for a trip, I think that a visit to this wonderful place would excite them. Seeing the largest steerable radio telescope is awesome. Can’t wait to visit soon.

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