Ilene's reply was gracious and welcome, but it struck me as odd considering that she was dealing with a virtual stranger – me. Except for a few introductory e-mail messages, the only thing Ilene and Stephen Ferris knew about me was that we were all members of HomeLink International, a long established home exchange company that claims thousands of members in dozens of countries.
Ilene's message had totally ignored my suggestion that we follow HomeLink guidelines for happy house swapping. I had even made a point of quoting the pertinent phrases: "avoid all misunderstandings, clarify who pays what in terms of telephone, electric bills, gas consumption, insurance franchise in case of accidents, and staple foods such as flour, sugar, oil. . . ."
With all of these tricky points mutually agreed upon in advance, parties are then supposed to seal the bargain with a signed Exchange Agreement Form, and I was perfectly willing to comply.
But Ilene's e-mail reply avoided the point with: "We will be away when you come, but will try to leave things tidy. It should be great weather, and we will leave a key . . . ."
Evidently, the Ferris family took a more lenient view than me.
Yet it was they who were taking a chance on a stranger having run of their house, not I. It was they who would have the bother of clearing space in closets and cupboards. Not I. I hadn't to bother myself with last minute cleaning and tidying to make my place fit for a guest.
The more typical exchange would have Ilene and Stephen staying in my British Columbia condo while I used their Salt Lake City home. But they already had other plans to travel the east coast from Maine to Prince Edward Island. So we made a deal that I stay in their place and, whenever they decide to come to BC, they may stay with me.
Whatever works. That's the HomeLink way. So, if the Ferris's were unconcerned about signed agreements and such, why should I worry, I decided. I set aside initial qualms and made my flight reservations.
I was excited and glad to be finally doing an exchange – my first, although I have always touted the concept as a great idea for solo travelers. Reality was a bit different. In fact, I had begun to despair that it would work for me at all after sending off 20 or so inquiries with no positive result. Success only came when, on a whim, I changed my destination of choice from Manchester England to Salt Lake City USA.
Flexibility, I learned, is the first rule of home exchange – as it is with all travel planning, really. Thus I was on my way.
As UA flight 6796 descended for landing at Salt Lake City I noted the rosy cast of sunset reflecting off the mountains east of the city. Dark soon, I thought with a twinge of anxiety.
What if I can't find the key?
By the time I arrived, by taxi, at a dusk-shrouded bungalow in a leafy neighborhood, my mind had commenced conjuring up plan B. I had the driver wait while I went rummaging for the key.
What if the door won't open? What if the neighbors get suspicious and call the police?
Those were unfounded worries; I had the key in a minute, unlocked the door without difficulty, dismissed the taxi driver, yet I was still in for some disconcerting moments, beginning with the black cat that suddenly appeared then disappeared somewhere inside the instant I opened the door.
I hope you live here, I thought, as I stepped into the quiet kitchen and recalled Ilene saying that her cats never go indoors.
The light switch was where it should be, and on the counter I spied a bus schedule, brochures, the Ferris's flight schedule, and a welcoming note with a few instructions.
"Please use the side door and keep the front door locked at all times."
I had no problem with that.
"Please use the plum room and do take care of the quilt."
I certainly intended nothing less for the quilt and every other Ferris possession, so it gave me a jolt to find the feline welcoming committee busily grooming herself on the bed in the plum room in the middle of said precious quilt.
Taking that minor fright in stride, I went exploring my home-away-from-home and nearly died when I discovered the front door not only unlocked but slightly ajar.
Had the house been robbed? Was an intruder lurking? Would I be blamed? Discomposed to say the least, I dithered awhile between calling the police or leaving town before deciding against both rationales.
Nothing looked amiss to my untrained eye. The place had the lived-in look of a love-filled family home. Piano, scattered books, framed photos, needlework sayings and symbols of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, (LDS for short).
Religion, it appeared, is central in the Ferris household. No surprise there. Salt Lake City is, after all, the heart of Mormon country. And my purpose for being there was to spend two weeks doing genealogy research in the renowned Family History Library operated by the Church.
Calmer, I reasoned that the Ferris's must have left the door open in the rush to leave. Relax, I said to myself, have a cup of tea.
No tea. No coffee. No sign of a teapot or even a kettle. Must be a Mormon thing, I guessed – correctly I found out later. I myself espouse a take-it or leave-it attitude towards religion. Let others take it as they please; I'll leave it to them.
For the next few days all went serenely. Ilene had promised "great weather" and so it was as I settled in, explored the neighborhood, found the grocery store, the bus stop, and got into a comfortable homey routine.
One morning over breakfast I picked up and re-read the Ferris's travel itinerary and realized, for the first time, that they would be home a full week before I was to depart. Truthfully, this news made me uneasy. If the Ferris's were as devout as I now suspected they were, I worried that a whole week under the same roof might lead to uncomfortable religious discussions. And I had a non-refundable airline ticket.
Frankly, had I thought in this vein in advance, I might have reconsidered my options and not taken a chance so as to avoid potential conflict. Happily, I hadn't thought about it; otherwise I might have missed two weeks of grand October weather in Salt Lake City, not to mention the chance to meet a remarkable couple.
With Ilene and Stephen back home and back in charge, I went about more carefully trying to fit amicably into their routine. Most days we went separate ways, they to their regular habits, I to my own amusements via the local bus. Ilene joined me for lunch one day and devoted Saturday to taking me sightseeing in the resort town of Park City, about an hour's drive away. Usually I stayed out past dinner, but I did join the family for church and Sunday dinner at home. It was enough time to learn what a plucky pair they are. I'm glad I met them.
Stephen Ferris retired from the administrative arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and went into travel mode, hence the HomeLink connection. First came the east coast trip, next a trip to New Zealand. Then, shortly after my visit, he and Ilene set off to fulfill a bigger dream and life adventure – a two-year mission to India.
Ilene Carter-Ferris had another dream, which was on hold until after the India sojourn. After a life-changing experience in 1998, she withdrew to a remote area of Utah. There she camped out with only the family dog for company while building Boulder Mountain Retreat. It's a "solar home far from the madding crowd," as she said, it's a place to "nurture your nature." Ilene hoped, eventually, to host individuals and groups at the retreat center.
Oh, in case you were wondering about the open door mystery – turns out one of the Ferris's grown daughters has a habit of checking in then out without locking up.
When it comes to other people's property, I still believe that following rules and guidelines is the right way to go, but I have to admit that sometimes it's just as well to take a chance and go with the flow.
Exchanges can be for house, apartment, recreational cottage, vehicle, any mutually agreeable arrangements are acceptable.