EDMONTON – Slush-soaked Albertans often dream about leaving the brown and grey muck for tropical climes. Dalene and Pete Heck made it happen.
The Alberta couple has been globetrotting since 2009, when they sold their Okotoks home and bought one-way tickets to Belize. On Thursday, they were named one of 10 National Geographic 2014 Travelers of the Year.
You learn lessons in five years of non-stop travel: the world isnâ€™t as scary as youâ€™d think, faster isnâ€™t always better, and scenic waterfalls arenâ€™t the be all and end all.
â€œThereâ€™s times where itâ€™s like, â€˜oh my gosh, not another waterfall,â€™ â€� said Dalene Heck, on the phone from Leduc. â€œThen you sit still for a couple of months and you get that travel mode back. Then waterfalls seem amazing again.â€�
It was family tragedy, not winter weariness, that spurred their wanderlust. In just a few months in 2007, Pete lost his mother to cancer and Dalene lost her older sister to an embolism. Their own attempts to have children werenâ€™t working. So in the midst of their grief, they came to the decision to enjoy their lives and explore their world.
They hammered out simple rules: no possessions, no plans, just travel. For the most part, theyâ€™ve stuck with it.
In the past half-decade, theyâ€™ve watched the sun rise over the Sahara, kayaked in Greenland, volunteered at a drop-in centre in Bolivia and gotten matching airplane tattoos in New York. Theyâ€™ve snapped 70,000 photos, a selection of which theyâ€™ve posted on hecktictravels.com.
Walking away in mid-career is no easy sacrifice. Pete, an Edmonton kid, gave up being an accountant. Dalene, who hails from a hamlet between Fairview and Peace River, gave up her successful job in contract management.
They lived off savings at first, but vacation ended long ago. Housesitting was a major revelation, making travel considerably cheaper than life at home, the subject of an ebook they sell. Their blog brings in money, too, but they make ends meet through tourism consulting. Last winter, for instance, they hired and managed a group of travel bloggers for the â€œJasper in Januaryâ€� festival.
All that writing and photo-editing leaves less time for the experience, so itâ€™s a matter of balance.
â€œWe donâ€™t want to take on too much, because we still really just want to enjoy the travel,â€� Dalene said. â€œBut itâ€™s going really well, and itâ€™s our way forward.â€�
Wandering off the beaten path has led to some of their favourite tourist experiences. The Hecks were the only Anglophones in the small town of Burhaniye in northwest Turkey, where they spent three months as conversational fodder for kids at the local English school. During a six-month stay on the Honduran island of Roatan, they befriended locals, becoming godparents by shuttling a pregnant woman to and from the hospital.
The National Geographic prize came about thanks to Daleneâ€™s mom, who signed up on Twitter solely to complain about her phone company. In her two weeks on the site, she spotted an ad for National Geographic Traveler magazine and nominated her kids.
The Hecks found out theyâ€™d won in March, meaning theyâ€™ve been keeping â€œan excruciating secretâ€� for half a year. They get a spread in the November issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine and a chance to be selected by online readers.