Carla and Dan BeDell did what some of us only dream about: They escaped the workaday world.
They sold their house, their cars and their TV sets, quit their jobs, canceled the Internet, and four years ago they left behind the stress of this banking community and Carla's job as a stockbroker. They stopped rushing their son and daughter to get up and out of the house in the mornings, and quit rushing them around to activities in the afternoons.
While most of us set the alarm as usual for 6 a.m., slogged into the office, fretted through the recession, watched stocks fall and home values plummet and Wachovia go out of business, while we worried about the rising cost of food and the closing of schools, while we lost jobs or went into bankruptcy, Carla and Dan BeDell broke free.
They took a risk and dropped out of the world as most of us live it. At 3 a.m. on April 3, 2007, they set off from Florida on a 38-foot catamaran. With a full moon reflecting on the water, and a GPS guiding them, they motored across the Gulf Stream with their 11-year-old son, Tristan, and their 7-year-old daughter, Tessa; 135 gallons of drinking water; a week's supply of food; and a limited knowledge of ocean sailing. They made it to the Bahamas, and spent the next four years discovering different countries and cultures.
In doing so, they discovered themselves.
"It was a big leap of faith for all of us to do this," Carla said. "It was hard to leave my job. You think that's a normal life to rush, rush, rush. You keep building that stress up because that's what everybody does.
"More and more, I realized that I was making good money and I wasn't happy. You can build this monument to retirement and have it when you retire and you've lost all your life. ... We decided to live."
Act on our dreams
All of us have dreams, but not all of us act on them. The BeDells did it in a way that might seem drastic.
"I think a lot of people look longingly at examples of folks who have done things like that, but stop short of believing they can do it themselves," said Laura Neff, a life coach who took 10 months off in 2002, traveling around the U.S. with her husband in a refurbished Kannapolis city school bus they painted white and named "Bessie."
Neff tells her clients who dream of getting away to look deep within themselves: "What's the real need that's causing that desire? It might be more freedom in their life. It might be more downtime. There might be deeper desires than going off and having a sexy adventure in the world. Maybe going on a big trip is the thing, or maybe it's just sitting down having dinner together without the TV on."
People, she said, will look for "the quickest out" if they are scared of taking a big step. Money is usually the first excuse.
Though Carla and Dan said you don't need a lot of money to do what they did, they had the money to do what they did. After they sold their house at the Peninsula in Cornelius, sold furniture, sold their BMW and Ford Expedition, and paid $199,000 for a used boat, they had enough money left to live on for four years. They estimate they lived on as little as $500 a month, other times on $2,000, depending on the place.
One of the hardest things, psychologist Jennie Fennell of Lifeworks said, is "to give ourselves permission to go away, whatever that means."
"I think particularly in the last few years, people are afraid to quit," Fennell said. "They know there are a lot of other people waiting for that job. The stress pushes people to stay where they are and not take a risk, and it's understandable."
You can't do this
Dan came up with the idea a few years before they acted on it. "We need an adventure."
Carla came up with a million reasons why not. "I don't have time. ... I can't do it. ... I'm not interested in it. ... It sounds scary...."
The more they talked, the more appealing the idea became to Carla. She was a senior vice president at Wachovia Securities. Dan worked out of their house with his computer consulting business. They did not live an extreme work/commute/carpool kind of life. They made a point of eating dinner as a family. They limited their children's extracurricular activities.
But Carla felt she had missed so much of her children's lives while they were in day care, and she didn't want to miss any more.
"I felt like I spent my entire time yelling at the kids to get in the car, hurry up, hurry up, hurry up," she said. "We all needed to get back together."
After she convinced herself they could take the adventure, the harder part was reassuring family and friends. "It was very interesting what it brought up in other people," Carla said. "There was a lot of fear. How can you leave your jobs? How can you leave the schools? People freaked out. We were feeding their fears: You can't take time off to do this. You need to get this money saved."
Full moons and llamas
Their timing was fortunate. They sold their house in December 2006, before the housing market tanked. While the rest of us suffered through the recession, they explored the world.
They left Cornelius in January 2007 and spent about three months in Florida to get the boat and themselves ready. They celebrated Tessa's seventh birthday at the North Palm Beach Marina.
"Normally her birthday would consist of a lot of kids at some party place, where it was usually too loud and too much money," Carla wrote on her blog (www.svalegria.com). "This time, while we couldn't give her a lot of friends, we could give her our time. So for the whole day she called the shots and we spent all of our attention on her. She loved it."
In early April, they were finally ready to go. They motored out of the Intracoastal Waterway near Lake Worth, Fla., into an ocean boiling with bigger waves and higher winds than they anticipated. They turned back that night, learning one of their first lessons in boating: "We never planned beyond a day and a half," Dan said. "They say the most dangerous thing on a boat is a schedule."
The next night, the weather was calmer.
"We had an incredible full moon, and a blanket of stars guiding us," Carla wrote. "It was beautiful. We saw only a few other ships on the radar; otherwise the Gulf Stream was ours. I wasn't sure how I would feel the first time I was out in the middle of the ocean with no land around. I was afraid I might get seasick or scared. But neither happened. The kids slept late, enjoying the ride. We motored over as we were dead into the wind. About 2 p.m. we were pulling into Old Bahama Bay Marina for our custom check in. The long awaited Bahamas were now ours."
From the Bahamas, they traveled to many places, including the Dominican Republic, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Grenada, Peru, Chili and Ecuador. In 2009, they left the sailboat on land in Aruba, flew home and traveled across the United States.
They fed stingrays with pieces of fish stuck between their toes in the Abaco Islands. They stargazed in the high desert outside San Pedro de Atacama in Chili. Tristan and Carla ate worms in the Amazon. In the Andes Mountains of Ecuador, they hiked to a glacier 16,000 feet high on the Cotopaxi volcano. They watched llamas greet the sunrise on Machu Picchu and sailed beside a pod of dolphins on a night passage to Venezuela. During Carnival, they danced at midnight through the streets of Grenada.
"We are so different now," Carla said on a return visit to North Carolina in early 2010. "I will never in my life again trade time for money. The time you lose and the experiences you lose out of fear for money is not worth it."
Learning about themselves
It wasn't all beautiful sunsets and exciting adventures for four years. Their engine broke. The refrigerator quit cooling. They got caught in a bad storm.
And it wasn't as if they ignored what was happening back home. Some of their friends lost a lot in the recession. Carla's uncle died. Her mother got cancer.
But there were countless beautiful sunsets and exciting adventures. Living on a boat moored in unfamiliar harbors, and traveling on land through unfamiliar cultures, Carla said they "found what we're capable of."
"We stopped taking warm showers," Dan said. "We're not granola people. It's not as if we don't mind being dirty and grungy. But we were willing not to bring the U.S. with us. You're in their country. Experience their country."
Carla said: "When you travel, you really see your children become people. Tristan was pretty shy before we went on the trip. Now he's really blossomed. Tessa is a little ambassador. We haven't been able to shock them yet. We've gone in the worst areas, to the worst restaurants. They can go anywhere in any situation and adapt."
Carla homeschooled Tristan, now in 10th grade at Community School of Davidson, and Tessa, now in sixth grade there. "It was very difficult for me for a while," she said. "I was constantly second-guessing myself. Am I doing enough? What are they learning?"
Learning about life
She realized they were learning a lot more than what was in books. "Here we wake up and eat breakfast," Tessa said about life now in a rental house in Davidson. "On the boat in the morning, we would wake up and go see a volcano or go to the Amazon."
Carla is writing a book about their adventures and hopes to become a life coach. Dan has started a business that will help others make money in unconventional ways and allow them "to live life with flexibility and freedom."
They are committed travelers now and hope to explore more of the world. They found it to be a friendly place, with many kind people who reached out to help a wandering American family.
Next time, they probably won't go by boat. They sold the catamaran in St. Maarten. Its name was Alegria. That's Spanish for happiness and, more than anything, that's what they discovered on their four years away.