How we quit our jobs to travel: The cubicle dwellers

When a series of tragedies struck, Dalene and Pete Heck quit their six-figure jobs for an uncertain life on the road – and they haven’t looked back.

We’d had the conversation many times before.

Sitting across from each other at dinner after a bad day at work, a bottle of wine sitting between us, my husband Pete and I would take turns growling about our bosses, our lengthy to-do lists and our overflowing inboxes – each gripe emblematic of a deeper discontent. “This is it!” we’d say, shaking our fists at the ceiling. “We’re dumping everything to go travel the world!”

But the next day our bosses would apologise, we’d delegate some of our work or receive a scarce bit of praise. This isn’t so bad, we’d agree, and dig back into a life that, while rage-worthy at times, wasn’t awful.

Until suddenly in 2007, it was.

The year started with promise. I had just traded one high-prestige job for another, and both Pete and I were earning six-figure salaries in Calgary’s hot job market – he was a financial controller and I was negotiating and managing large service contracts in the oil and gas industry. We had all the usual markers of success: a large house in the suburbs, foreign cars and enviable wardrobes. We paid for it with long hours spent between grey cubicle walls, and any leftover energy we could muster went into trying to conceive a child. All the persistent doubts we harboured about our lifestyle were mitigated by our healthy paychecks.

But in a matter of months, our stable life drastically changed. In early February I received a panicked phone call from my sister – her newborn daughter had been flown to the intensive care unit nearby. I opened my doors for my family to gather and rally support. The following month, I opened my doors again to my mother after she had just left my father. Three days after that, Pete’s mother passed away following her second violent tangle with cancer.

Early in July, our rocky plight to conceive brought yet another complication – after several years of trying and believing the problem to lie with Pete, I suddenly found I had my own set of obstacles, drastically reducing our already slim chances. One week later, because of a broken ankle, blood clots travelled into my older sister’s lungs and took her life. Just two days earlier, we had celebrated her 34th birthday.

I tumbled into a deep black hole. Stress leave and therapy all worked to pull me back to the surface, but I was no longer the same person. Ambition and competition had lost their lustre; my career no longer held its challenging draw. All of our enviable possessions seemed useless and wasteful.

Similarly, my life felt useless and wasteful. Something needed to change, and all the excuses that previously held me back from pursuing my dream of travel no longer held merit.

Thankfully, Pete felt the same. Over the next 18 months, we quit our jobs, sold our house and found new homes for our pets – each step met with both tears and an unshakable optimism for our new life plan. All those close to us were shocked and sceptical, but ultimately supportive; they had seen us at our lowest and were encouraged to see us excited again. After travelling extensively through our home province of Alberta to say good-bye to friends, family and familiarity, we bought two one-way tickets to Bolivia.

We had our doubts. Our decisions were so radical that I couldn’t blame our loved ones for questioning our choices. But as we nestled into our seats and watched the flight attendants run through their take-off routine, a weight lifted. We were doing what we needed to be doing, at the moment we needed to do it.

Since then we’ve kayaked in the frosty waters surrounding southern Argentina and again in eastern Greenland – the sound of ice cracking off glaciers is something we continue to chase around the globe. We’ve ridden camels in the Saharan desert and swung scythes with farmers in Romania. We’ve volunteered with children in Bolivia, Honduras, Ecuador and Turkey. Our favourite experiences have taken us out of the usual tourist haunts and into local neighbourhoods, where we swap stories, customs and culture.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, travel would not just be a temporary escape, but a lifestyle that would bring us more bliss than we ever imagined. And five years later, we are still living that lifestyle without an end in sight.

Along the way, our style has evolved from hostel-bouncing backpackers to slow-travelling house-sitters. Exhausted by our year of moving rapidly through South America, we returned to Alberta for a family wedding, weary and unsure of our future. We wanted to continue on our journey but needed to find a slower and more sustainable method.

After being introduced to house-sitting by friends in Ecuador, we decided to give it a try, securing our first job in British Columbia. From there, we signed up for six months in Honduras, then three months caretaking a 10th-Century manor in Ireland – definitely our most historical home to date. After more than a dozen house-sitting jobs in places from Paris to rural Wisconsin, we now look forward to checking out of random short-term apartments, hotels and hostels, and nestling into spaces we can call our temporary home. Though our last house-sit in Michigan was via word of mouth, our three weeks in Paris before that were secured through Nomador.com, and we’ve used a number of other websites to apply for dream sits all over the world.

House-sitting isn’t just about the benefit of living rent-free – it’s made us godparents in Honduras, friends with dear families and pets across the world, and introduced us to neighbourhoods we otherwise never would have discovered. We became authors of an ebook that helps teach others how to do the same.

Our website, HeckticTravels.com, began as an online journal for family and friends. Today – as our savings began to dwindle but our desire to travel had not – it forms the basis of Hecktic Media Inc, an agency created to help bloggers and the travel industry connect. In its first year, we earned revenues back in familiar six-figure territory.

From the cubicle to the open road, Pete and I have created a life unlike we ever could have imagined. With the profound lessons that only travel can bring, we continue to grow as humans, as business partners and as spouses who can now barely stand to spend a minute apart. Now, coming up on our six-year travel anniversary, I can look back with confidence and see how these two acts in my life fit together. Although we will always ache for the hardships that set us on this path, for us, travel works with time to heal old wounds.