Two years ago Bill Wohler and his wife, Lynn Brinton, left their jobs for a dream vacation. Brinton, who was working long hours as a public-relations executive, took a six-month sabbatical and Wohler, a software engineer, quit. "I thought to myself, this job isn't so great," he says. "And how many opportunities do you have to travel together?" Childless and in their early 40s, the Menlo Park, California, couple bought a bright red Jeep and headed for the hills. During the next two months they camped their way from Montana to Connecticut and back, stopping to hike, swim, tour art museums, gab with locals and reconnect with far-flung relatives.
When they returned, Wohler still wasn't ready to go back to work. "I had more money saved up," he says. "So I ended up spending two months in Hawaii." Finally, one year after leaving his old job, Wohler began looking for a new one--and found it relatively quickly, despite the hole in his resume. "The person that hired me thought the trip was great," he says. "It showed that I had balance in my life--that I like to enjoy the rest of my life, not just working."
A generation ago, marathon vacations were strictly for the just-out-of-school set. The so-called gap year was a young person's last chance to explore the world before plopping down behind a desk. Now, midcareer workers are horning in on the trend. "Ten years ago it was really only 17- to 25-year-olds who took a year off after high school or university," says Richard Walton, founder of U.K. -based Global Vision International, which arranges volunteer expeditions of one month or more. "Now the majority of our clients are career breakers." Walton's six-year-old company has seen demand for its five- to 10-week excursions grow by 40 percent in the past few years. One of the factors driving the trend has been corporate downsizing. "Workers have always traded freedom for security," says John Izzo of Izzo Management Consulting in Vancouver, British Columbia. "But now there is no job security in this economy, so people are saying it's not worth it."
Workers use the trips as a break from their corporate routines or to embark on a major life change. Nancy Whitney, 33, left her job as a market analyst in San Antonio, Texas, to spend three months volunteering at a South African wildlife preserve, where she tracked elephants, cheetahs and leopards, dodged poisonous snakes and bonded with volunteers from around the world. She describes her time there as "probably the happiest days of my life." "It gave me the courage to say 'I'll never work in an office again', " she says. "Had I not [gone] to Africa, I'd probably still be thinking that driving a certain car and living in a certain ZIP code were really important." Since her return last January, Whitney has moved to a seaside apartment in Florida, found work teaching economics and taken up humor writing.
Thanks to e-mail and cell phones, it's easy to stay in touch while away. Whitney used her mobile to call her father regularly, and Wohler kept up a Web diary written entirely on his Palm PDA. But marathon vacationers say money is a constant worry. For that reason, many choose to go to Africa or Southeast Asia, where the cost of living is lower. In India, hundreds of Westerners congregate in towns like Dharmsala in the Himalayas; Goa, with its pristine beaches; the holy city of Rishikesh, and the southern state of Kerala. "I like the simplicity and the slow pace of life here," says Michel Bacconi, 27, who recently quit his job as a pharmaceutical representative to spend one month living in Goa and several more traveling around the country.
Some tackle the cash problem by combining their trips with paid work. Alex Sheshunoff and Sarah Kalish, both 33, of Alaska, ran out of money halfway into a six-month odyssey across the South Pacific. Unfazed, they found high-school teaching jobs on the Cook Islands--halfway between New Zealand and Baja, California--and stayed there for two months. Others are lucky enough to work for companies that offer sabbaticals. Becky Harding, 30, took a six-month leave from the Boston, Massachusetts-based consulting company Accenture to teach English in Vietnam. "I had a hard time falling into the mind-set that work is all my world is set up for," says Harding, who once clocked 80-hour weeks. "I came back with a fresh perspective."
But the transition from holiday tranquillity to the rest of your life can be tough--especially when you're unemployed. Oakland, California-based Michael Restifo, 45, left his job as a sales manager in 2002. He took a one-month cycling trip through Vietnam, followed by shorter trips to Italy and England. Then he returned home to find a depleted bank account and a still-sagging economy. "I had done all these wonderful things," he says. "But job hunting is not a fun process." Wohler notes that the adjustment can be difficult even when you do find work. "By the end of the first day," he says, "you're exhausted because you're not used to it." Still, that's a small price to pay for a trip that can change your life.