This is how Brett Walkins recalls the three years he spent living in British Columbia's Fraser Valley: Nights of teeth-grinding and swearing in his sleep.
He would leave for work at 4:30 a.m. and would spend up to three hours commuting to his job managing construction of water-treatment plants. He owned a big house, but spent little time there.
He and his wife didn't really know their neighbours, and when he lost his job, they had no reason to stay.
"But I've put that behind me now," the lanky 34-year-old says, "and a weight is off my shoulders."
Mr. Walkins and his young family now live near Whycocomagh, N.S., a small village in rural Cape Breton where two local sisters made international headlines in September when they started offering free, three-acre plots of land to anyone willing to work at their understaffed country store for five years.
The offer resonated with a shocking number of people: Over the past three months, at least 100,000 people – a remarkable number, equivalent to about two-thirds of the island's current population – have applied to work at the Farmer's Daughter.
That includes Mr. Walkins and his wife, Kerry. She got the job and he works part-time, while also helping look after the couple's two children, 18-month-old Nolan and five-year-old Halle.
While the offer of free land piqued the interest of the Walkinses – they had already been looking for a home in PEI after their escape from British Columbia – they agreed to come to Cape Breton in search of something far less tangible.
"The property is the headline – the attention-grabber," Mr. Walkins said during a recent interview in the store's back office, its walls piled high with boxes of preserves, milk paint and assorted Christmas decorations.
"But it was really more the opportunity to live an awesome life and be involved in a tiny community where everyone looks out for each other." The store owners, sisters Heather Coulombe and Sandee MacLean, say their unusual incentive has proven to be so successful that they are now offering more free property in a bid to hire up to a dozen people over the next two years.
"Now that we have this amazing hiring pool, we should be able to move forward on some other [expansion] plans," says Ms. MacLean, who studied commerce in Halifax and lived in Toronto before moving back home. "We're very committed to growing Whycocomagh." The sisters have attracted two other families to Cape Breton, both also from British Columbia.
Their unusual story has prompted visits from several TV producers, each keen on developing a documentary or reality show. Talks are ongoing.
And as the job applications continue to pour in – with a noticeable spike from American job-seekers after Donald Trump was elected president Nov. 8 – certain themes have started to emerge from the mountain of correspondence.
"It's hard to look at [the e-mails] and not have your heart bleed a little bit about the fact that so many people are unhappy where they are," Ms. MacLean says, adding that many of the letters say little about the job offer or even the free land. "It's the sense of community that really resonated with so many people."
The Farmer's Daughter Country Market opened in 1992 when the sisters' parents, Jim and Ferne Austin, were still operating their dairy farm in nearby Skye Glen, which is in southern Cape Breton, not far from Mabou.
The store on the Trans-Canada Highway includes a bakery, café, produce counter and a wide selection of ice cream, homemade fudge, clothing, gifts and home decor.
Despite being open almost 25 years, the store has only recently been able to break even in the winter months, when much of the village is shut down and tourism is at a low ebb.
Ms. MacLean took over the gift shop after she and her husband gave up on dairy farming amid the mad cow disease outbreak more than 10 years ago. In the fall of 2015, she called her sister in Victoria when their parents decided it was time for the younger generation to take over.
"I knew she was really unhappy in British Columbia with her job," Ms. MacLean says, colourful tattoos emerging from under the rolled-up sleeves of her plaid shirt.
At the time, Ms. Coulombe was working a desk job at the Department of Defence. Though she lived only 15 kilometres from her office, the daily commute sometimes took up to an hour.
"It's very hectic there," Ms. Coulombe, dressed in a blue fleece jacket and jeans – her cellphone constantly buzzing with e-mail notifications. "You don't get to know your neighbours there …It's always go, go, go." The sisters took over the store on Jan. 1, 2016. Ms. Coulombe moved to Cape Breton in May.
"When I first came home, everyone was so excited," says Ms. Coulombe, whose husband and two teenage daughters are expected to join her this spring. "People were so excited that someone was actually coming home … I'm a lot happier, even though I work more hours here." As a busy summer drew to a close, the pair knew they had to replace the student workers who would soon be leaving. They placed the usual job ads, but that didn't work. Whycocomagh – a Mi'kmaq word that means "had of the waters" – has only 800 residents, many of whom work out west in the oil patch, or at the paper mill in Port Hawkesbury.
"We're the same as so many places in the Maritimes, where it's just been an exodus," Ms. MacLean says. "Now, communities like ours are in crisis because we didn't promote staying in the community and contributing." Ms. MacLean got the idea to offer free land while hiking along a mountain trail behind her home.
"We just have to show them how amazing it is to live here," she recalls telling her sister. "We have to show them that what they may lose in wages, they'll certainly gain in quality of life." Under the heading, "Beautiful Island needs people," the Facebook posting on Aug. 29 started grabbing attention within a few hours.
"Are you someone who is looking to live a simpler life, close to nature, in an area that still believes in community meals and weekly jam sessions?" the ad asks. "We can't give you big money, but we can give you an awesome life." Photos on the website show tiny Whycocomagh surrounded by rolling green hills, a hiker eating wild blueberries in the Mabou Highlands and vistas of shimmering Bras d'Or Lake, an inland sea "where kayaks and canoes outnumber motorboats." Jobs at the store typically pay $10-$12 an hour. About 30 people work there in the summer, and less than half that in the winter.
Within a few weeks of posting the ad, the sisters picked about 120 candidates and sent them each a questionnaire.
Ms. MacLean says they wanted to make sure the new recruits would get involved in the community and adapt to living off the grid, since each of the free properties is far from power lines.
While the allure of a simpler life has romantic charm, the reality of living in Whycocomagh can be brutal for those used to big-city life, the sisters admit.
Want to go to the movies? That's a 90-minute drive away – longer in the winter.
"There's no such thing as a night life. There's no such thing as popping over somewhere to get a fancy meal," Ms. MacLean says. "All of our activities here are mainly outdoors … and you have to enjoy the winter if you're going to live in Cape Breton." If your favourite activities are unlikely to include hiking, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and riding all-terrain vehicles, Whycocomagh is not for you.
But it is now very much home for the Walkinses, and for the two other former B.C. families now living here: Sonja Andersen, a mortgage broker, arrived in the fall with her 10-year-old daughter. Micah Tait and his wife, Trish, say they plan to use their plot to grow produce to sell at the market.
Including children, the village of Whycocomagh now has eight new residents.
The sisters say plans are in the works to hire three or four more people for next spring.
As for Brett Walkins, a big grin spreads across his face as he muses about his plans for a self-sufficient, zero-emission home in the hills that uses passive solar power and a wood stove.
"I feel like I should write [to my former employer] and say thank you, because my life is so much better," he says.