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Learning to Code in an Off-Grid Cabin in the Woods

Sam Tanoak Sycamore
✍️ Freelance web developer, technical writer, dev advocate ☀️ Solar-powered off-grid mountain dweller
Originally published at blog.sycamore.design Updated on ・5 min read

My alarm sounds. It’s 4:00 AM.

The dappled moonlight casts shadows on my wool blankets, shining through my windows between the redwoods and tanoaks that surround my off-grid cabin, precariously perched on the side of a steep slope in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California’s central coast.

I’ve been residing on these seven acres for almost two years now, after seeking refuge from the cultural purgatory of my old Kentucky home.

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The place is owned by a friend of mine who has agreed to let me live in this austere little cabin in exchange for my services as caretaker of the land.

As my schedule allows on the weekends, I thin the overgrown understory, remove invasive plants, propagate native species, and keep the half-mile drive up the hill free of debris.

Last night I promised myself I would spring out of bed as soon as the alarm went off, but for perhaps the 100th consecutive day I give in to the urge to snooze for nine more glorious minutes.

Finally I rise, and climb back into the many layers of clothing that had kept me warm the night before: sweater, hoodie, flannel, insulated vest.

I turn on the 3000-watt solar battery bank that supplies all of my daily electricity, and plug in my desk lamp.

I start up my propane space heater, a recent gift from a kindred spirit that I already could not imagine living without.

I light a match and fire up my two-burner propane camp stove, and begin boiling water for coffee. While I wait, I pack a quick lunch for later in the day.

When the coffee is ready – complete with butter, honey, and a dash of maple syrup – I sit down in front of my laptop and begin studying.

My cell phone serves as a mobile hotspot so I can access the internet.

As I write this in December 2020, I’ve been studying web development for almost three months.

I learned the basics of HTML and CSS by building video game fan sites in middle school some 20 years ago, but otherwise this is all new to me. Right now, my primary focus is learning JavaScript.

My study sessions are divided into 30-minute increments using the Pomodoro technique: 25 minutes of focused work, followed by a five-minute break to step away from the computer, stretch, and do light exercises to warm up for the coming work day.

If I’m lucky and especially focused, I can cram two hours of studying into the morning before it’s time to get ready to leave the house for the day.

As the sun begins to rise I take my dog out and we walk down the side of the mountain together, down to the creek where he likes to drink the ice-cold water, and often can’t resist laying down and fully submerging himself for a quick dip, no matter how cold it is outside.

Hey, if it makes you happy...

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I haul my solar battery bank up to the clearing at the top of the hill, where my two portable solar panels are staged and ready for business when the sun finally manages to peek above the hillside later in the morning.

When 8:00 arrives it’s time for me to drive down to town and clock into my day-job as a landscaper.

I build fences, retaining walls, patios, pathways, raised bed gardens, and irrigation systems for backyard gardens and orchards.

I dig a lot of holes and trenches, and I rearrange many literal tons of gravel and soil most days.

It’s very hard on my body, and although I have many specialized skills and several years of experience in this industry, I still barely earn enough money to keep my head above water from paycheck to paycheck.

On my breaks I scroll through Tech Twitter on my phone and check in to the #100Devs Discord channel to see if I can help answer questions or post some of my own.

I’m usually home by 6:00 PM, which is basically pitch-black darkness in the wintertime here in the woods in Northern California.

I haul the solar battery bank back down to the cabin so I can power the pump that feeds my propane water heater for a shower.

My dog and I take our second hike of the day down the side of the mountain, this time with the help of my headlamp.

After dinner I sit back down at my desk for another round of studying.

If it’s a Tuesday or Thursday I’m tuning into the recorded broadcast of Leon Noel's full-stack JavaScript bootcamp on Twitch.

Otherwise I might log onto Free Code Camp, Udemy, or most recently, Team Treehouse.

Or I might be working on a small project of my own to put my newly acquired skills into practice.

At some point my girlfriend will call and I will probably vent about the mundane frustrations of the work day, or any of the more anxiety-inducing existential riddles I’m wrestling with:

Who am I, why am I doing this, is this idea of transitioning to a career in tech as a self-taught developer just one big naïve fantasy that I’m foolishly buying into as a form of escapism?

And she will reassure me that I have what it takes, that I possess the self-discipline to accomplish what a lot of people can’t or won’t, and that I have every reason to be optimistic that my station in life will improve in the not-so-distant future.

I am often too mentally and physically drained to invest more than an hour into studying at night, and it’s rare for me to stay awake past 9:00 PM on weekdays.

The moon begins to rise above the tree line as I crawl back under my wool blankets for the night.

I set my alarm for 4:00 AM, and I swear to myself that tomorrow morning, I’m not going to snooze.


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Discussion (5)

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coffeecoder108 profile image
coffeeCoder_108

This is... I just have no words I am not speechless very often but I am.
This not a log or a diary but rather a glimpse in the mind of wise man of aged body,
weary with the colors that the world has shown, some dark some light some gray,
with only memories to play and thoughts looming to stay,
yet the persistent everlasting spirit unswayed,
the spirit that hopes not for a better but a brighter day,
like the trusty companion let it stay,
O wise man do get everyday.

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mrsturner profile image
mrsturner

Oh my goodness Sam! This is a great read! What a trooper you are! I already thought you were doing great in 100Devs but now I’m convinced that I wanna carry the boat with you! I’m usually laying down when you’re hitting the snooze and getting back up at 730am

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tanoaksam profile image
Sam Tanoak Sycamore Author

Cheers! Thank you for reading! We got these boats & logs no problem! :)

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dekdaas profile image
Linh Pham

I respect the grind, from what I've read you've got what it takes. There's room enough for disciplined professionals in this field

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krishnakakade profile image
krishna kakade

great article god bless you brother and all the best for future