In January 2020, I decided to take two months off of work in the summer to travel the world after my college graduation. Not long after I got my time-off request approved by Robinhood, the COVID-19 pandemic caused most long distance travel to become infeasible, rendering my summer plans infeasible as well. Rather than cancel my time off, I decided to find something else to do with it, and settled on buying and improving some land in the Southern California desert near Joshua Tree.

Ever since I went on a high school camping trip to Death Valley, I’ve been enchanted by the Southern California desert. Something about the jagged rock formations, beautiful sunsets, and clear blue skies fills me with wonder and a sense of peace. I’ve been to Death Valley more than ten times now, and on some of those trips, I fantasized about one day finding some cheap land in the desert and building a dream home where I could go to find peace and quiet. At some point, I realized that my two months off could be a perfect time to start to make that vision real! International travel might not be possible during COVID, but living on my own land and doing DIY improvement projects would be very possible even under the strictest stay-at-home orders. Plus, I’d get to escape from the Bay Area and be surrounded by the natural beauty of the high desert.

So that’s what I did. In late April, my dad and I drove down to the Joshua Tree area, toured several plots of land, and drove back all in one marathon day (we didn’t want to stay in a hotel during the stay-at-home order). I chose the one I liked most and completed the purchase within a month or so, and began working with an architect and my friends on plans to rebuild the partially built homestead cabin on the land into a vacation home. In mid May, I spent a week out there with my friends working remotely, and then after I graduated in June, spent most of my time off in July and August there as well. During that time, I built a shed with my friends, cleared some brush, started on a fence, and took time to reflect on my life and my long term goals. I had a lot of fun and learned a lot from this rather unconventional post graduation experience, and below I’ll go into more detail on what I learned.

I have excellent friends

The thing I didn’t initially realize about my plan to spend most of July and August in the high desert is that July and August are the hottest months, and temperatures regularly exceeded 100º F during the day, and sometimes did not drop below 75º even at night. Combine this with a 2004 Winnebago with a broken refrigerator and air conditioning that could only bring down the temperature to 90º indoors, and you get some non-ideal living conditions. But that didn’t stop several of my good friends from coming down and living with me for weeks at a time on the land.

And not only did my friends put up with the heat and the various broken appliances, but they also helped build a cheap DIY metal shed we bought from home depot while the desert sun was beating down on us. And believe me, the process to build this shed made living in an old hot RV seem like a cake walk. After we cleared the area where we wanted to put the shed, we began to try to fit the several dozen metal pieces together. We quickly realized that the ground was not perfectly level, and so the holes where we needed to put bolts and screws were not aligned. In order to fix this, we worked as a team, often with two people yanking and pushing as hard as they could on the metal panels until the third person saw an opportunity and drilled a bolt through the aligned holes in the panels. Each single bolt was a physical battle to get aligned, and we had over 200 bolts that needed to be put in place. It was brutal, frustrating, repetitive work, but my friends and I pushed on and finally finished the shed after several days.

Over the course of that summer and the fall, we also built over 1,000 feet of fencing around the property, by digging over 100 post holes and mixing over 100 bags of concrete. After all this, I am convinced that there’s no challenge my friends and I cannot overcome, and I’m grateful to have the friends that I do. We’ve been through a lot together.

Building physical things is very satisfying

One reason I think we were so motivated to finish the shed and the fence was because it is very satisfying to build physical things. I remember often taking a step back after spending some time working on the fence, and looking over the newly completed section with pride. That fence will probably stand there for 50 or more years. And I had just helped create part of it with only a few hours of work. I might be able to show that fence to my kids and grandkids one day and tell them how we built it. And the shed we worked so hard to bolt together has been acting as a storage locker for our equipment for close to a year now. Whenever I look at that shed, I remember all the blood, sweat and tears that went into its assembly.

There’s something beautiful and simple about building things in the real world—it’s a feeling I’ve never gotten from building software. Which is interesting, because I’m a software engineer, so you’d think I’d get more excited about software. With software, you can impact potentially millions of people using only a laptop and your imagination. The fence I helped build can never do that. But it’s real—I can touch it, sit on it, walk around it, etc. And it will almost certainly outlast any software I write today. It might even outlive me.

You should take time just to think

At the beginning of my two months of leave from Robinhood, I decided to try something I had never done before: spend an entire day doing nothing but thinking. So I drove down to the desert alone and moved the RV into place, and turned off my phone just before midnight. For the next 24 hours, I didn’t do anything at all. I just looked out the window or stared at the ceiling and thought. I realized with some surprise that I actually had a lot of things to think about, and took out a pen and paper to write them down.

During that 24 hour period, I wrote down detailed life goals for the next day, six weeks, four years, and ten years. I wrote down how I am thinking about my career and when, if ever, I should consider switching jobs. I wrote some detailed thoughts on some crazy ideas I’ve been thinking about for a while (more about that in a later post). I wrote about my plans for the cabin. By the end of that day, I had a level of clarity about where I am and where I want to go that I have never had before or since. And I had a realization which helped bring me some peace: I was on track for everything I cared about in my life.

I think nowadays, people tend to avoid doing nothing. In idle moments, I see many people take out their phones and go through emails or social media or whatever push notification grabs their attention first. Last summer, however, I realized there is value in setting aside time just for thinking and nothing else. For some of the hardest decisions I’ve made over the past year, I have benefitted from the clarity of dedicated time for thinking, and I think it could be helpful for others to try out as well.

You don’t have to be physically idle when you think either. During another part of the summer, I spent a few days alone in the desert and during that time I did a hike near Big Bear lake. Going into the hike, I had been feeling disappointed in myself for not making as much progress as I had hoped on the cabin as well as on my own personal goals, such as writing more blog posts and getting into better shape. Around that time, I was starting to realize that I had piled up a ton of post-graduation goals while I was in school and didn’t have time to pursue them, and I couldn’t keep up with all of the things I had hoped I could do. It felt bad. But as I hiked through the evergreen forest with a beautiful view of Big Bear lake behind me and surrounded by the soft rustling of the pine needles in the wind, something changed about my thinking. I began to take a longer term view and remind myself that I have the rest of my life to do the things I want, and that I need more patience. After that hike, I noticed a fundamental shift in my mood and my general sense of well-being, and for weeks after, I had a substantially more positive outlook on my life than I had before. Spending some time alone in nature helped me change my perspective in a positive way and see past the short term, and I’ve had similar (if less dramatic) experiences since.

People are nice in Yucca Valley

I was surprised by how many of my neighbors and random people I met in nearby Yucca Valley offered their help and generally were very friendly. And everyone in my neighborhood would smile and wave as I drove past. I felt safer knowing that my neighbors knew me and were looking out for me. You would rarely walk past someone without saying hello. After some time in the desert last year, I returned to the Bay Area and habitually started waving to people I saw and saying hello to people as I walked past, and was often met with surprised stares. It’s fascinating to me that something so fundamental to how we humans interact together in society can be so different in different communities even within the state of California. I wish we were more like that in the Bay Area.