Our winter in the woods

“Let’s get away from SF for a few months.”

That’s what my partner and I decided that we both wanted to do. We’d both been in Silicon Valley for 5 years, and we wanted to see how different the world and our selves would be outside of the Bay Area and its culture.

So we found a place in the woods in Northern California. It was a 7 hour drive away from SF — close enough to drive in a day, far enough that we’re not tempted to make that drive unless absolutely necessary. We spent January and February in that home in Gasquet and we learned a lot about ourselves in the process. My partner shared his journey already; now I’ll share mine.

What did I expect?

I’m a planner. I already had a TODO list weeks before we got to the woods, and it went something like:

  • Get back into home cooking
  • Go on nature walks
  • Practice meditation regularly
  • Do lots of couple bonding activities with my partner
  • Work on my personal side projects, like posting on my blog, fixing broken web apps, and making new apps
  • Work on joint projects with my partner, like books and games

Which of those actually happened?

Home cooking was the easiest. We only had one restaurant in town, a small lunch cafe, so we cooked every meal by necessity. I quite like cooking, but in SF I find it hard to justify cooking my own meals because ordering a meal online is almost as cheap and so damn quick. I enjoyed getting to cook without the anxiety of “is this the best use of my time?”.

The nature walks just happened, well, naturally. We were surrounded by so much nature that we felt compelled to to discover what was in it. We quickly discovered, thanks to our eyes and helpful neighbors, that our land was covered in delicious edible mushrooms. Our nature walks became mushroom foraging expeditions, which led to more home cooking in the form of mushroom soup!

The usual bounty from a nature walk, drying.

To help me accomplish the next TODO, meditation, I came up with a doable morning ritual and posted it by my bed — 5 minutes deep breathing (using the Relax app) and 5 minutes of a new mantra (using iMantra). My meditation ritual wasn’t as long or as traditional as is typically suggested, but it was doable enough for me to actually keep doing it for the vast majority of my days there.

As for couple bonding: those 2 months together were the longest amount of time that my partner and I had lived together in a space. It was a great opportunity to connect more deeply with each other. But it was also easy to get annoyed or tired of each other, craving contact with new humans or time to ourselves. We realized that a few weeks in and experimented with different ways of being apart — like “silent mornings” or solo nature walks. Those helped us be more excited for our time together and cherish it more.

What didn’t happen?

My long list of side projects. I spent a few days on them, but it just didn’t feel right. Why spend all that time in front of my computer, when I’m in this new unique beautiful environment that I’ll never get to experience again? I knew that I would be excited to work on those projects in a certain time and space, but our house in the woods was not that place. So I fought the productivity-oriented voice in my head that said “This is your chance to work on these! your free time!”, and shut the laptop to see what else I could discover around me.

What else happened?

In my last week in the woods, I had a realization: we hadn’t just gotten away from SF, we had come to Gasquet. This town in the woods wasn’t a stripped down SF, it was a town with its own unique offerings.

I hadn’t accounted for new activities in my TODO list, but that’s what I ended up spending much of my time on. In our nature walks on the nearby beach I discovered driftwood that I couldn’t help but bring home. I bought power tools, learnt how to turn driftwood into crafts, and even opened up an Etsy shop.

Burning a piece of driftwood with a meditation mantra

My partner and I also spent time doing activities on his TODO list — improv and painting. I loved our daily post-lunch improv breaks and I discovered new ways of painting over the course of our painting nights.

The aftermath of one of our messy painting nights

What did I learn?

The most important things I learned were about my mindset and approach to the world.

I discovered that I am friendlier in a small town. In SF, we see mostly strangers every day, so we don’t bother to wave or say hi to them. But in a small town, almost nobody is a stranger — so it’s actually weird if you don’t wave. With friendliness being the social norm it was easier for me to adopt that as my own norm. I approached strangers on the beach, had long conversations with strangers on the street, I even got to know the groceries cashier. I wish that I could bring that self back to SF, but its hard not to revert to the urban mode of interaction. I liked discovering that it was in me somewhere, though.

I also observed, sadly, that I can be anxious about anything. I knew I could be anxious about work, relationship issues, and family matters. But getting anxious during a beach foraging walk? Yep, I can do that. I ended one walk with a headache so pounding that it felt like my head would explode. It sucks that my anxiety can pop up anywhere, but It’s helpful for me to recognize that it can revolve around anything, because it becomes more clear that there’s a world in which that anxiety doesn’t have to exist or exist so strongly. I’m now more motivated to continue working through anxiety, because I know that just getting away from things doesn’t get me away from all anxious feelings.

Want to get away from SF?

If you’re thinking about going “Waldening” (as my partner calls it), here are my suggestions:

  • Find a place that’s far enough away. If we were only 3 hours away, I think it would have been harder to resist going into the city for events. Its valuable to get rid of that paradox of choice, to not feel like you have the option.
  • Don’t pre-plan. In this case, making TODOs is a recipe for feeling bad about not doing them or forcing yourself to do things you didn’t need to do. Wait until you get there and see what makes sense in that time and space. Live the ‘improv life’.
  • Plan to not work. I worked 1/4 time during those 2 months. It took away from my ability to fully immerse myself in the experience since I had to constantly switch back into work mode and experience the “attention residue” from my work worries.
  • Give yourself a cool-down period. I went directly from the woods to a work conference. It’s jarring to be back in the world in such a full-on way, and too tempting to revert to my usual ways of being. I think a week in SF with no planned activities would be a better adjustment.