Megan and Jim Luetkemeyer learned how precious life is the hard way.
Jims friend died from a heart attack at the age of 34, and Megans dad died three weeks after receiving an esophageal cancer diagnosis.
A loss like that puts everything in perspective, Jim Luetkemeyer, 42, said. We lost some people, and we had some people have some scary times that made us think we are saving for retirement, what are we really saving for? Is this saving for a point when we are 60 or 70 or 80? Are we going to be able to enjoy that retirement?
They reacted and didnt look back. Almost a year ago, they decided to travel to 32 countries and more than 100 cities across the world.
The loss of the Luetkemeyers loved ones wasnt the only thing that pushed them into what theyve called their 1 year retirement venture. Both had come to a stand-still in their careers.
Jim, a native of Okeene, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State graduate, managed a team at a public relations firm, and Megan, 37, was a genetic counselor at an obstetrics and gynecology office at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. They had found success and contentment at their jobs, but they were yearning for a change.
While having drinks with friends, Jim jokingly proposed the couple should travel the world for a year, thinking Megan would call his bluff.
I said, That sounds like a great idea. How can we make that work? she asked.
The silly-turned-serious exchange spring-boarded the couple into two months of nonstop logistical planning. They would take the down payment they had saved for a house and retire for a year, with the knowledge their permanent retirement would be pushed back.
They each made a list with 10 to 15 of their must-see destinations and asked Facebook friends for suggestions. They didnt disclose their complete travel plans.
When they proposed the idea to friends and family, the feedback was unanimous.
Jim, that is everybodys dream, Betty Luetkemeyer, Jims 86-year-old mother, said when he told her about his plan. If there is anyway to do that, you should do that.
Barbara Allen, the best woman in Jims wedding, said it was the wackiest thing she could have conceived for him to do because he is a very thoughtful, structured, analytical person.
I said, OK, crazy, go for it, Allen said in a phone interview.
The couple did receive some wide-eyed looks from people when they heard they were going to spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week together for a year after only being married a year.
Ultimately, everyone was supportive of their decision.
Every person that we talked to was like, Its a great idea, I wanted to do that when I was at this point in my career, Jim said.
The universal approval gave the couple an added boost of confidence. Jim started finding direct flights from the couples main destinations to cities along the way and their route started taking shape.
He also, to Megans amusement, talked about packing for the trip like NASA packs for a mission.
Eight days worth of clothing and three pairs of shoes were strategically placed into two matching black Patagonia duffel bags. They made strict no souvenirs and if something comes in, something must go out rules.
I kind of laughed at him during these conversations, but when we were in India and it was over 100 degrees out and we were carrying those packs I was glad we didnt have those extra pounds, Megan said.
Last July, Jim and Megan put in their two-week notice on the same day to keep each other accountable to sticking to their plan. Their bosses were surprised but excited for each of them, they said.
The night before their first flight, Megan walked out of her office for the last time with a box in her hands. They sold their car, handed over their apartment keys to a renter and made a run to storage to pack away the last of their belongings.
The morning of their first flight, the couple felt like bush league travelers, Jim said.
Megan threw away her boarding pass and lost her phone an hour before they were supposed to board. They also packed away their headphones in their checked luggage.
Maybe the most stressful part of the trip was the first day, and then it got better from there, he said.
After making their first stops in Colorado and the Virgin Islands to visit friends and family, about a month into the trip, Jim and Megan were on their own.
They quickly realized no matter where they were, kindness was in abundance. They formed some international friendships, as well.
We were in Cape Town wine tasting and we were at a big table and sat next to a couple and started talking maybe for 15 minutes or so, Megan said. They were from Scotland and later in the year we met up with them and they showed us around their town in Aberdeen.
Not only did the Scottish couple show the Luetkemeyers around their town, but also invited them to stay at their home and cooked them dinner.
The couple smiled as they said their adventure was filled with many similar experiences.
During their eight-day boat tour of the Galapagos Islands, for instance, they made friends with a woman from Frankfurt, Germany, and a couple from Munich. They met up with both later in the trip.
They also made an effort to get out of their comfort zone.
They laughed thinking back to flying through Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on the back of Vespas through sheets of rain for a food tour and marveled at the kindness of one Japanese woman who abandoned her commute to work to walk them back in the right direction.
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It was uncomfortable at times, it was stressful at times, it got a little crazy and frustrating at times, but I dont even have an inkling of regret, Jim said.
As the trip went on, the couple got better at logging the places they stayed, the sights they saw and the food they indulged in. The log they made helped them make travel guides for friends who are traveling to Japan and Machu Picchu.
The best meal of the trip was a pork dish with a potato dumpling topped with gravy the owner of a hotel in Nuremberg, Germany, told them to order.
We ate really well in places that were very modest, Jim said.
They made a pact to avoid three dollar sign restaurants and stuck to it. A picture of the two eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches with salt-and-vinegar chips in Cannes, France, on their blog is a perfect embodiment of their commitment to make frugal choices.
They are happy to report the total spending for their trip came in about 25 percent under their allotted budget.
Jim and Megan landed in the U.S. on July 12 at the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City.
Before heading back to D.C., they decided to spend their last month of the trip in Oklahoma researching jobs, as Jim has family throughout the state. He hasnt been back for an extended stay for about 20 years.
The couple made a stop to visit Jims mother, who is happy theyre home and glad they went, she said. Although, she did wake up every morning to check her Find My Friends app so she could see where her son and daughter-in-law were staying.
Really and truly, I didnt think they would make the whole year, she said in a phone interview. I thought surely they will get tired and come home, but they made the whole year and I thought it was great.
The only changes Jims mother can detect is that he drinks coffee now when he didnt when they left. He also has grown a beard.
The next step for the couple is like a row of dominoes find a job, maybe that gets us an apartment at the same time and then depending on where the apartment is will determine when we get a car, Jim said.
In regards to how the trip affected their marriage, Megan said, I think having the time to just be together was so nice because we had the time to learn things that I dont know necessarily if we would have with our day-to-day life.
There were times when we would bicker a little bit, but we knew we were in this together so we got through it together, Jim said.
Looking back on the past year of travel, the couple learned steady employment isnt everything, Jim said.
The fears you have about where you are in your career and how everything is going to work out ultimately always works out, he said. If doing something like this makes sense for you, dont let inertia be the force that makes you keep doing what youre doing.
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