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Ep. 243: How this full time traveler turned tragedy into opportunity with Dalene Heck

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In this episode, I speak with Dalene who is a former nomadic traveler who has visited 60 countries in almost 8 years with her husband Pete. 

They returned to Canada in 2016 when Dalene was sidelined by leukemia. 

Since then, Pete and Dalene (now cured) have focused on building their businesses and are ready to strike out with new plans for their future.

Besides their main travel blog Hecktic Travels, they now also have a niche blog (Road Trip Alberta) plus two more in the works. 

Dalene is also the CEO of their successful company HMI, which manages influencer marketing campaigns and social media for tourism industry clients.

Listen Below:

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Transcription:

Debbie:

Hey, everyone. Thank you so much for being here. I am really excited to speak with my guest today. I’m here with Dalene.

Hey, Dalene. How are you?

Dalene:

I’m great, Debbie. How are you?

Debbie:

I am wonderful. Thank you so much again for being here with us today. Can you tell us about you and why you live an offbeat life?

Dalene:

Well, long story short, it is a very long story, but if we rewind to about 2007, that seems like ages ago now, my husband and I were living near Calgary, Alberta, living and working the corporate life, buying a big house, planning for kids, climbing the corporate ladder – all that normal kind of stuff.

We went through some pretty severe personal tragedies within about a six-month time spent where Pete lost his mom, we found out we couldn’t have kids actually, my parents split up, and I lost my sister. And this was all in a very short timeframe. And as you can imagine, any one of those things can send you for a pretty big loop.

And so all of those at once really hit us hard. And for the next six months after my sister had passed away, I was off work and you know how it is when you’re living and working that corporate life we’d have a bad day at work and you’d swear that you’re gonna sell everything and move to Australia and stuff like that? We had done that so many times, but after a glass of wine and your boss apologizes does it the next day then you feel like, “Okay, this isn’t so bad.”

But after all that had happened, and while I was off work, we started to talk about it again. And this time we really ran out of reasons not to do it. And so it was on one snowy drive that we decided within a two-hour span that this is what we were gonna do and silence overtook the car. I think we were both waiting for the other one to pipe up and just say, “No, this is really crazy. We’re not doing this.”

And then we just did it. We listed our house in the fall of 2009, we packed everything into two backpacks and we took a one-way flight to Bolivia of all places to start our journey. And that ended up being the start of almost eight years of nomadic living, where we traveled around the globe, built up some businesses online,’ and were able to sustain ourselves while we explored the world at the same time.

Debbie:

Wow. Well, this is incredible. I mean, first of all, I’m so sorry that happened. That’s a lot to take in and a lot of people go through that within a lifetime, not within six months of your life. So that’s a lot of things and I’m sure that definitely, well, obviously it did because as you finally took that step to change your life and not do something that you don’t wanna do anymore.

So I feel like there are certain things in their life that are just such a tragedy and it really depends on your actions, right? What you’re gonna do with it, because technically you and your husband could still be doing what you are doing in 2007 and still be miserable, but you really learned from that and you had that courage.

Dalene:

Yeah. That old adage life is too short just became just so obvious to us. And without all that loss we felt, and without the prospect of having our own family and children and stuff like that, it’s like, “Well, what do we really want the next X number of years of our life to look like?”

And we realized we weren’t really fulfilled in what we were doing. And it just led us on this trajectory that it’s really kind of hard to fathom that all that we’ve done in the last decade or so, but it’s been life-changing and in such a positive, positive way.

Debbie:

Yeah.

And that’s really turning something negative and turning it into a whole different thing in your life that led you here. So I know that both have thought about it before any of this happened. And then finally you took that leap. Was there any sort of thinking about it and preparing, or did you both just say to yourself, “Okay, we’re just gonna do it. We don’t care, this is enough”?

Dalene:

Yeah.

It was funny that it was just that one drive where we finally made the decision. And I hadn’t gone back to work yet but I had started to in the new year just after that and slowly and stuff, ’cause I was still really struggling with, like, PTSD – really is what I was diagnosed with after all that I went through.

And so it was a few months after that we listed our house. I think we pretty firmly believed, “Yeah, this is what we’re doing.” Our family and friends were a little more skeptical and until we listed our house, then they finally realized, “Oh gosh, they’re serious. This is really happening.”

But it was funny. It took a long time to sell our house ’cause it was ridiculous timing, right around the market crash where houses went crazy and we ended up making much less than we had anticipated. But that didn’t stop us, we were just like, “Okay, we can still do this. We need to do this.”

And then when we finally turned the keys over to our house and drove away from it, I will never forget that feeling of just freedom. Like, I had a giant smile on my face and I knew we were changing our life. And that even if we hated it and even if we turned around and came back a few months later and started over, I just knew I would never regret that decision just to free myself of the burdens of modern life in North America and just to start something totally new and turn our world upside down and see where it took us.

Debbie:

Yeah.

And it’s funny that you say burden because for a long time, for a lot of us who work in the corporate world, we actually accumulate things that do become a burden in our life, right?

Dalene:

Absolutely.

Debbie:

And we think that that’s the right way of doing things because that’s what we were thought. You accumulate things, houses, cars, all of these material things that you don’t necessarily need sometimes, right? And there’s definitely a time and a place for it, but I think it’s different for everybody. And I think there are people that really do wanna settle down because it’s something that they wanna do.

And then for a lot of us, it’s because we were told it’s what we had to do and what you and your husband did was unreliable unstable. It’s insane, right?

Dalene:

Yeah. All those words I heard many times.

Debbie:

Yeah.

And then you realize it. Like, that feeling that you get once you’ve finally let go of that is like the freedom that you’ve never felt before.

Dalene:

Oh, absolutely.

Debbie:

So take us through after you finally get your house in order you give out your key, you start traveling. What was that like leaving this life that you had built for both of you and then now creating this completely different view on?

Dalene:

Oh, man, it was exhilarating. It was stressful. Honestly, it’s hard to put into words. I know the first few months were a real struggle, especially between my husband and I, to be honest. you build these roles in your relationship. He mows the lawn, I do the laundry, whatever it may be.

And then you find yourself in a hostile room in Bolivia and you’re trying to plan out your days or trying to do whatever. And that changes and you kind of struggle to figure out where you fit together. We both worked in different places the amount of time we actually spent together every day when we were living around Calgary was just a few hours, right? Car rides to work after having dinner and stuff like that. All of a sudden we’re together 24/7.

And I had friends who told me I couldn’t do that with my husband for two weeks and it would be over. And it was just figuring that out with ourselves too and realizing that, yeah, we’re very much together. We’re very much at we, but we still also need our individual time.

And it took a while for us to realize that that was okay, that I’d wanna go off for a walk by myself just to get that time to myself. And it wasn’t that I didn’t wanna be with him, it was just that I needed that time for myself. And it took a while for us each to not get offended by that when the other would ask for time.

It was nothing personal. It was just something that we each needed. And so there were things like that, that we were a bit of a struggle that we didn’t anticipate going into it.

But overall, like, I mean, we were seeing new things. We were learning Spanish. We stayed in the small city of Sucre, Bolivia for two months, just for that reason. We spent our first year in South America, so we wanted to learn some Spanish. And it was just such a shock every single day. So pleased that we knew that this was the life that was making us happy.

This was the life that we wanted so much so that after that first year we had to return to Canada because Pete’s brother was getting married and it didn’t take us long when we were here.

Dalene:

And there was a lot of reverse culture shock, but it also, at the same time, it was like, “No, we can’t stay. We have to move on. We have to continue this life. It’s just giving us so much.” And so, in that, we just went from such a flip in lifestyle, but it was just exactly what we both needed me to drag myself out of the depression I was in. And then also just to see the world and experience new things. And it just led to so much, we were ready to get that up.

Debbie:

And the funny thing about life, right? We go through all of these hardships that oftentimes we didn’t even know were coming.

Dalene:

Yeah.

Debbie:

And then again, it leads us to these unexpected things that really completely change our lives. And that’s what you both did. I was talking to somebody the other day and it’s like taking that red pill from The Matrix, the movie. It’s like once you take it, you can never go back. And that’s exactly what you and your husband did.

And it’s kind of knowing this other world that only certain people know. And then when you come back and you see family, it’s great, but it’s like, you can never go back to that again.

Dalene:

Yeah, that’s exactly it. It’s just we’re forever changed by that.

And being here for a few years back now that we have been, has been a struggle as well, too. Kind of readapt to this kind of lifestyle and yeah, we’re itching to get on the move again, too.

Debbie:

So once you both started traveling, you took that red pill, you can’t ever go back again, what did you decide to do for yourselves? Like, what did you decide to do to make this more permanent?

Dalene:

Yeah. I mean, we knew after that year in South America, even though we sold our house when the market was crashing, we had still made a decent amount of money. And that was really what was funding us, but of course, that’s gonna run out, right?

Like, we knew that we needed to come up with a way to earn some money while we were traveling so that we could continue this lifestyle. And it was around towards the end of that first year where we started noticing travel blogs. And I mean, this is way back in 2010, when influencer wasn’t a word.

Debbie:

Yeah.

Dalene:

All these things, there was so much uncertainty and there was no real concrete way we could see to even make money off of a travel blog. But I do enjoy writing, my husband started picking up on photography and we thought, “Okay, let’s try this. If anything, maybe I could get some freelance writing jobs, et cetera. Like, we didn’t need a lot to live. We did a lot of house sitting that kept our cost down and all these other things.

And so we just knew we wanted to keep going. And as long as we could find a way to sustain ourselves, that was fine. So we started our first travel blog in early 2011, and that did that for us for a good few years. But then we realized, again, that the kind of path forward there to continuing wasn’t appealing to us either.

I’m not someone who will sell sunglasses on Instagram. Like. I just can’t bring myself to do that and it’s not saying anything against the people that do. I just can’t, I’m just not that person. So that kind of made us think of other things.

So then we started another business. Again, that’s the time when influencing wasn’t a word but it was coming around and travel brands were looking at people like us to work with. And so we became kind of the intermediary between bloggers. It was just bloggers back then there were no Instagram and travel brands to work together. And my husband and I have a business background so it was a natural fit for us.

And so, it’s kind of snowballed from there and grown into other things. And so that’s when we realized, “Yeah, okay, we really can make this work now and live this life that we enjoy so much where even though we may be working long days while in Paris, we’re still in Paris and we can go have a wonderful dinner and do all those other things that we wanna do while we’re there.”

And that became our lifestyle of digital nomadism, I guess. That just became a word in the dictionary this year. I just found out this morning.

Debbie:

That is awesome. That’s a huge win for us in these types of industries. So, I love that.

And that’s not a bad way to live, you’re working but at least you’re in Paris and you get to eat French food and have all the bread. Like, whatever you want. That’s amazing

Dalene:

Yeah, exactly.

I mean, we slowed down our travels a lot so we would say spend a month in Paris. And so what a normal tourist may come in and do within four or five days may take us a month because we’re working during the day and stuff like that. But whenever, time was our friend, we could do that.

And so that became this lifestyle that we really, really love and that I really miss.

Debbie:

Yeah.

And I think also you get to immerse yourself in the culture when you do it that way when you start doing slow travel, rather than just a quick in and out. It’s like fast food, but for travel, right?

Dalene:

Yeah. A hundred percent.

Experiences opened up to us that never would’ve. We did some house sitting and I always talk about Turkey, it’s one of my favorite countries. And we were in this small town where the only person who really spoke good English besides the homeowners of the house we were taking care of who were English and were heading back to England, was the local high school English teacher. And he brought us into his classroom because the kids had never heard of native English speakers before.

Debbie:

Wow.

Dalene:

Then suddenly the kids are messaging us and inviting us to dinner with their families. We went to a Turkish wedding. We did all these things that you would never do as a normal tourist, but we were there for three months and we just got more into the local scene than we ever would’ve otherwise. And just opened up all these incredible opportunities that we’ll never forget.

Debbie:

Yeah.

And it’s amazing when you do that, because again, you never have experienced any of this if you had just stayed home and you’re still in your corporate job, you still have that house and who knows what you would be doing, you know?

Dalene:

Yeah.

Debbie:

And you’d just be going to Turkey for a week and then going home and then you’d never have met those children, right?

Dalene:

Yeah.

And have these really rich connections. And they still message us years later and ask us when we’re coming back and one of the students that we met has now to school in Scotland for English and stuff. And he messaged us like a year ago, he said, it’s still his bucket list item to come travel with us for a while.

Debbie:

Wow.

Dalene:

Like, there’s just these connections that we made that we never would’ve otherwise that really, really deepened our love for the kind of travel that we were doing.

Debbie:

Yeah.

And the thing that a lot of us love about travel is the connections that we’re making. It’s not just about seeing things, it’s also about the community and the people that you really get to know once you do have a location-independent lifestyle.

So one of the things that you mentioned, Dalene, is that you and your husband did a lot of house sitting, and this allowed you to save money, to travel to a lot of different places to even meet people in the community, right? So how did you get started with that and how do you allow yourself to actually make this into something that could be a part of your traveling journey that’s going to save you lots of money? ‘Cause I’ve seen a lot of people do this and it seems really interesting.

Dalene:

Yeah.

When we were actually in Ecuador, we met an American couple who had been traveling solely by house-sitting for like 16 years.

Debbie:

Oh my gosh.

Dalene:

Yeah.

That really opened our eyes ’cause we had never really heard of it or thought of it before. And that was before the big house-sitting platforms were on the internet. So theirs was solely by word of mouth, but they had been sought after, by many people. They spent six years in Costa Rica alone.

There’s a lot of ex-pats there who would go back to the US for a while. And so they would take care of their homes and stuff while they were gone and not pay rent and just live there basically for free just to take care of their houses and their pets or whatever. So again, we saw that as another way that maybe we could sustain our lifestyle, keep our costs low while we figured out the income side of things.

So actually when we had gone back to Canada for Pete’s brother’s wedding, right after that, we wanted to start doing this. We wanted to see where this would take us and we actually had secured a house sitting job via the website in our neighboring province in British Columbia.

So we did that for two months and then while we were there, we got offered six months in Honduras.

Debbie:

Wow.

Dalene:

And then while we were in Honduras, we got offered two months in Ireland, and it really just kind of snowballed from there. And once we got a couple of good experiences under our belt, then it became super easy. Actually, it’s gotten more competitive these days ’cause there are more people trying to do it. But it is just people we would apply to and not get everything we ask for but a lot of times we would.

And so we started doing that a lot and oh gosh, I can’t even say how many jobs we’ve done or how many nights and accommodations. We’ve saved hundreds and hundreds, maybe even thousands of staying places and living basically for free. And getting those immersive travel experiences is just such a positive win for everybody when it works out well.

And we stay in contact with so many of the homeowners and mostly they’re travelers too, and they get it. it’s a weird thing to think about that trust of inviting someone into your home and taking care of your pets and stuff like that. But there’s that community out there that understands the motives for everybody and it makes sense and it works out so well.

Debbie:

Yeah.

And it’s so interesting how traveling doesn’t necessarily have to be this out of reach, super expensive thing that only you can do once or twice a week, a year, right?

Dalene:

Right.

Debbie:

And it can be affordable because of so many different platforms. And if you just think outside of the box, there are a lot of ways that you can actually save money, create income and do all of these things.

And I know that you and your husband kind of just did what you needed to do because of everything that was happening around your life and you needed this to really in a way kind of saved you, right? Like, your sanity. And now you’re here, you are living this life. You’re able to do this full-time.

So what would you say would be some of the things that you didn’t think, like, unexpected things that have come to you because of this new lifestyle that you’ve created for yourself?

Dalene:

Oh wow.

The first thing that pops into mind was in 2014, we were named Travelers of the Year by National Geographic.

Debbie:

Oh my gosh.

Dalene:

It’s pretty shocking. I’ll never forget when my mom had nominated us, of all things. And she sent me this email saying, “Look what I just did,” and showed me the nomination. I’m like, “That’s crazy. There’s no way that’s ever gonna happen.”

And then we got an email from the editor a few months later saying we’d been shortlisted. And up until the point where the magazine printed, I was like, “They’re gonna change their minds.” There’s just no way but a lot of it had to do with the house sitting and the way we were showing people how to travel differently and the writing we were doing on our blog and stuff like that.

That was shocking. And that was kind of a game-changer for us really. And that’s just something that was totally unexpected, all kinds of things, really. The work that we do, the businesses that we’ve built, the fact that we can. I never would’ve had the confidence, honestly, to do this, to quit, start my own business, and work. Who knew I could work alongside my husband so seamlessly after those first few rough months to be able to build this?

And it’s just changed so many things and it’s hard beyond the Net Geo thing. There have been so many things not to that scale but like that, that have just surprised and shocked me. And I think that just shows that if you just try to do something, be fulfilled, do something differently – it’s gonna open doors. It is gonna present new opportunities and things that you probably never would’ve dreamed of or imagined before.

And yeah, it’s, I don’t know, it’s hard to say. There are just so many amazing things that have happened.

Debbie:

And honestly, I think we underestimate ourselves, right?

Dalene:

Yes.

Debbie:

Like, we absolutely really underestimate what we can be capable of but it’s like once we get out of that mindset, we get out of that little box that we created for ourselves and actually push ourselves a little more, then we can see our potential. And that’s exactly what you and your husband did.

And it’s so funny ’cause you’ve been doing this for a really long time before this was even a thing. Before it was even in the dictionary.

Dalene:

I don’t wanna take credit for it. I’m just kidding.

Debbie:

Well, you are one of the OGs that did this and I am pretty positive that a lot of people have gone to your website, read through what you had gone through your journey, and have been completely inspired by that. And I think too, I see this all the time, like, a lot of people think that you have to be a Tiger Woods to do something incredible.

And everyday, people could do something great as long as they put themselves out there and just do it, do something, right?

Dalene:

Yeah, exactly.

Debbie:

And there’s so much tapped talent out there that we actually do to ourselves.

Dalene:

Yeah.

I mean, fear is powerful to stop people from doing different things. And honestly, when I think back about the decision that we made to travel in the first place, I sometimes can’t believe we did that, really. And I feel like it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t gone through the tragedies that we did which also really bums me out because that’s probably the case for most people, right?

They don’t really face their own “what do I wanna do with my life?” They don’t really answer that question until they’re really faced with something that is probably traumatic, that really brings that question to the forefront. And we wouldn’t have done this without that, I’m pretty certain.

And it makes me sad about that because I don’t know where our lives would be right now if we hadn’t have done that. And it makes me sad to think about a lot of the people that are waiting for that and maybe don’t even know they’re waiting for that, but don’t have this will inside of them to do something different, but are just scared to, and until they’re faced with something pretty terrible, that really forces them to answer those tough questions.

Debbie:

Yeah.

And I was gonna say the same exact thing. It’s just a sad, sad thing for I think most people, and the thing that’s even sadder is that there’s a lot of people that never experienced that type of tragedy. And not to say that that’s sad that they didn’t experience that, but the fact that they would never know what it’s like to go beyond something or to go forward with what they really wanna do with their life. Because again, like you said, Dalene, because of fear.

So it’s really hard, right? Because when you’re not forced into something or when you’re not able to reevaluate, because you think this is how life should be, you kinda just go with the flow. You’re just like, “Okay, well I guess this is how life is.”

And looking at someone like you, Dalen, and your husband, they’re like, “Well, that’s impossible. I can never do that.” And just go through life, living a half life.

Dalene:

Yeah.

Debbie:

Not living the full life that they deserve. And I do agree. I think it’s really, really sad.

Dalene:

I like to write but I’m also a numbers person. And I always used to say that pre all of this, I was probably 70% happy with my life. I had a great job, a great career, an amazing husband, and we were living really well. We were on a trajectory to have like these really fantastic careers and stuff like that. But there was always just that 30% missing.

So we could have been fine but to go from 70 to 99, like, who knew that was possible or who knows until you try it really?

Debbie:

Exactly.

It’s like always living an okay life, “I’m okay…”

Dalene:

Yeah, exactly.

Like, “How are you doing?” “Okay.” And now it’s like, “Fantastic. I get to do what I love every day.” So there’s a huge difference. Even in that 30%, that’s a big difference with how you’re living your life now. So it’s pretty incredible. Do you ever look back and are like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this happened to me”? And look at where you are. And I’m sure you’ve been to like some incredible places that being voted in National Geographic is like, “That’s insane.”

Dalene:

All the time, especially now we’ve been settled for a little while because I had a battle with leukemia and then COVID. So it does seem kind of almost distant past now. And I’ve been feeling a really strong urge to get back to that, but we’ll see what happens in the next couple of years.

But yeah, it’s almost hard to believe that any of it even happened. It feels kind of dreamlike, but I also can’t imagine any other way. I know I just cannot imagine having lived our life any other way.

Debbie:

Yeah.

Well, leukemia, that’s another ringer that you’ve been put through. So this is just to show you that I think too when you go through these things that you have gone through, there are some people that just give up, right?

Dalene:

Yeah.

Debbie:

And they’re just like, “Well, all of this stuff has happened to me. So I may as well give up. Life is not worth anything anymore.” And then we see someone like you who turns that into something positive, who sees it as an opportunity for yourself to do something more because life is so fleeting.

And I see this all the time. We don’t know if there’s an afterlife. We don’t know if we’re gonna get another one. So we have to make do with what we have. And if this is it, then we have to do it the best way we can. And you definitely have, Dalene.

Dalene:

Yeah. I feel all right with my choices.

Debbie:

That’s amazing and fantastic. So my next question for you is if 30, 40 years from now, and you’re looking back at everything that you’ve done with your life, what legacy would you like to leave and what do you wanna be remembered for?

Dalene:

Oh boy. I’ve been asked this question before and I struggle with it because it’s not something I typically think about often. It’s not something I ever wanna focus on because I’m absolutely okay if I leave this earth and I’m just dust in the wind and not remembered.

I just wanna live, sounds weird, but a simple, kind of humble little life now. That’s may sound really weird, but it’s the truth. And I guess I just wanna be remembered for, I don’t know, leaving a positive impression, just something. That’s all I can say. I just want people to remember me for some kind of kindness or anything positive but it can be fleeting. That’s okay. I’m not hellbent on statues in my name or anything like that. That’s fine by me.

Debbie:

You never know. There’s still long ways to go. There could be several statues coming your way. So, hey!

Dalene:

I’m OK. No problem there.

Debbie:

But no, it totally makes sense. ’cause honestly, lately, especially with the pandemic happening, I’m just like, “Yeah. I like living a simple life. I just wanna be in the country somewhere.”

Dalene:

Totally. Hundred percent. Cut off. I’m okay with cutting it all off except for Netflix. Like, you can take away everything else.

Debbie:

Not Netflix though.

Dalene:

No. Netflix has to stay.

Debbie:

I love that. Yeah.

I mean, just meeting you today and talking to you, one of the things that really comes to me is your resilience and your ability to be able to come through so many obstacles and just come out of it in a positive light. So that’s already something that I’m sure you’re giving other people too with your story and all of this.

And I’m pretty sure it’s going to keep happening and there’s gonna be more to your story in the next 50 years or longer. So I love it. And I just wanna thank you, Dalen, for sharing with us your journey. It’s definitely been a really big adventure for sure.

Dalene:

Yeah.

Well, thank you for your very, very kind words, Debbie. Yeah. And it was my pleasure to talk about it.

Debbie:

Thank you so much.

Now, if our listeners wanna get to know you more, where can they find you?

Dalene:

So we’re a travel blog that doesn’t travel these days, so it’s not updated as usual. But Hecktic Travels is our travel blog that has our story back to the beginning and some really terrible early writing if you go down that rabbit hole.

Nowadays, because we’re in Alberta and have been for a while, we’ve been blogging at Road Trip Alberta just to tell people about the beauty that surrounds us here. But probably the most to connect with @hecktictravels on Twitter, I’m there all the time. It’s my favorite platform to stalk people and connect with people. So that’s probably the best place to find me.

Debbie:

Awesome.

Thank you so much, Dalene, and we’ll definitely stalk you on there as well.

Dalene:

Sounds good. Thanks, Debbie.

Listen to Dalene’s extended interview where she shares how to get started with influencer marketing.

What you’ll find:

In this episode, Dalene will teach you the truly proven methods in getting started with influencer marketing.


Follow Dalene:


Show Credits:

Audio Engineer: Ben Smith

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