Having my third marriage collapse after only 9 months was about as devastating a blow as a person could ask for. As I made the decision to leave, I was internally flinching from all the “I told you sos” that I imagined were bouncing around in the heads of my friends and family. I made a disastrous decision to marry someone that virtually no one was on board with, and having it fall apart in such a spectacular fashion less than a year later felt even worse than it sounded.
Moving back to Rockport
My soon-to-be ex-#3 and I were living in a recently purchased townhouse in Houston, but I also owned a property down in Rockport, Texas that I was leasing to another couple. Now, I needed another place to live, and pronto. We had gotten married on New Year’s Eve, 2006, and we would not be spending Thanksgiving together. By the time October rolled around, I was contacting movers and packing boxes once again. Another quick and probably foolish decision was made: I asked my tenants to end their lease early so that I could move into that house. They jumped at the chance to end their lease because their storefront was not doing well there. I moved back down to Rockport and started renovating that historical home, certain I could sell it promptly after it was shaped up. But it became the Property That Would Not Sell for the next 10 years, as the housing market rebound (after the crash of 2007) experienced by the rest of the country took its sweet old time to make it down to south Texas.
So there I was, feeling stuck in a place I did not want to live and a place that had no market for the skills I had to offer. Rockport was largely a retirement town and a tourist destination. One thing I learned about the retirees that came in waves every winter: they became so damned bored within a few months that they started volunteering for everything. Many of these people were ex-professionals: engineers, managers, administrators, financial planners, interior designers, computer programmers, web designers, or writers and editors just like me. So why would someone hire me to do anything, when they had droves of people lining up, willing to do anything and everything for free, just to get out of the trailer park for the day? This was the kind of competition I was up against locally. To survive, I had to stay focused on my Houston oil and gas clientele and hope they didn’t forget I existed without that all-important face-time.
The Gulf’s attractions
A new opportunity did present itself, however, in a most unexpected and positive way. I was now living three blocks from the Gulf of Mexico! What that location lacked in terms of economic opportunities for me, it definitely made up for in leisure activities. Proximity to the Gulf really can’t be beat as a playground. Yes, it was the most humid and the windiest place I have ever lived. Those offshore, southeast winds kick in in the spring and they don’t stop for about the next 8 months—20 to 30 mph was an average day. I learned to kayak there and battling that wind in a kayak made Gail a strong girl, no doubt about it.
Also, if you are not a bird lover when you arrive in Rockport, you cannot help but become one. The shore birds are nothing short of spectacular—we almost became inured to the most exotic varieties of bird life that people would travel from all over the world to our tiny beaches to see, simply because they were so abundant, diverse, and commonplace. Not only the shore birds, but the flocks of northern migratory birds that would travel through in spring and fall were another sight to see—they would rest and fuel up at our beaches before and after crossing the Gulf of Mexico, and we were perfectly positioned to watch them, feed them, and photograph them before they took off.
All of this, plus the local wade and deep-sea fishing, boating, and yachting (which I didn’t do), was a huge industry in the area. One could go dolphin watching. Several times a year there was a release of baby sea turtles at the local hatchery, which always drew a crowd. For the outdoor enthusiast, there was simply no shortage of attractions in Rockport and the surrounding area. Finally, Rockport was an art-lover’s dream, full of private artists’ art galleries, a local nonprofit Center for the Arts, places to take art classes including photography (which I took advantage of), and an annual 4th of July arts festival.
I moved back down to Rockport in the fall of 2007. All of 2008 was consumed with renovating my home. Sometime in early 2009, I read a book that changed everything for me. It was called Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo by Beth Whitman. Beth Whitman must have been one of the first women to publish a book about giving females the encouragement and confidence to venture out on their own and travel the world. The book described her own travels, her tips for doing so safely, gear she recommended, how to apply for passports and visas, places she had gone, some mistakes she made and lessons she learned, etc. It was just the thing I needed to read, freshly divorced and needing a push to get out the door.
One thing she recommended, which I had heard about and toyed with, but didn’t know if it was safe to do, was home exchanges. I was surprised to come across a section devoted to this. She recommended the site called HomeExchange.com®. This was a program where individuals list their homes by taking photos of their property, describing the amenities of their home and their town’s local attractions, and when they would be available for an exchange. People who want to visit that part of the world type in a search and if there is a match, your home pops up in the search results. If you all come to an agreement, an exchange is made. No money exchanges hands between the exchanging parties (there is a $150 per year fee to be a member of the home exchange web site). Beth recommended this as a safe and comfortable way to visit other parts of the world while saving tremendous amounts of money.
Wow, did this intrigue me! I had seen this very concept a few years earlier in the 2006 movie “The Holiday,” which starred Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz. But I thought that was just a made-up Hollywood script, and real people didn’t actually do that, did they? And especially everyone become cozy friends afterward? Yet here she was, recommending this same thing in this book I was reading!
I hopped on my computer and looked up www.homeexchange.com, and I’ll be darned…there it was. A full-fledged home exchange program for travelers. I read the FAQ, which pretty thoroughly answered all my questions about how all this worked—how to get involved in the program, how to prepare your home for strangers staying there, how to safeguard valuables, how to photograph and describe your home, what to do if you have pets, how to put together a binder for your guests that would help them navigate your home town. They even had contracts both parties could sign so that if people went to the expense of purchasing airline tickets and one party backed out, or if there were damages or any other losses, those contingencies were covered. All of my misgivings pretty quickly evaporated. This sounded like a great way that I could travel to some cool places on one income! Considering that you could spend that $150 membership fee easily in one night at a hotel….
The potential money savings sank in the more I thought about it. Hotel stays are the biggest expense of any travel plan. After that, it’s the eating out for three meals a day. I considered the huge advantages of having a full kitchen at my disposal. After a quick grocery store run, and potentially eating at least one, if not two, of those meals in that kitchen, rather than eating out for every meal, and I could be traveling on my own quite reasonably. This was going to be genius! I was in.
In the summer of 2009 I took photos of my newly renovated house and created an account with the home exchange web site. One of my major work contracts always wrapped up just before Thanksgiving, and I usually had time off between Thanksgiving and Christmas. So I started searching for my first exchange over the holidays, stating that I would be willing to go play in the snow somewhere, if there were people who wanted to escape the cold and come down to play on the Gulf Coast beaches for a few weeks.
It didn’t take long to find a match with that kind of carrot dangling—my first inquiry came from a couple in Salt Lake City, Utah, a place I’d never been and was happy to go visit. We exchanged homes for about 3 ½ weeks over Christmas that year. My two Chihuahuas experienced snow for the first time in their lives; I attended a hockey game; heard the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing; visited local museums; and spent 3 days at the world-famous Family History Center looking up my ancestry. (As an aside, I shared the records I brought home from the genealogical center with my sister, who took them and ran with it. She not only fully completed our ancestral record, but afterwards wrote a novel chronicling the story of our ancestors coming to America, based on historical records she uncovered.) So all in all I would say that trip was a rousing success!
After this inaugural home exchange, I was hooked. I was convinced of its value and the money saved, and also loved the idea of being open and flexible, perhaps traveling to places that I wouldn’t have initially considered. If that couple in Salt Lake hadn’t asked me, I never would have gone there. I didn’t know anyone in Salt Lake, and yet I had a great time and it really built up my confidence for traveling solo. I was ready to do it again.
In the next 9 years that I was a member of the home exchange program, I had many, many exchanges and I have nothing but good things to say about the program. Rockport, because of its plethora of outdoor attractions, was an easy sell, and I usually didn’t have any trouble finding a match when I was ready to travel. I went to Toronto, Canada; Vancouver Island, BC, Canada; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado; many long weekends in various parts of Texas; and Sandnes (near Stavanger), Norway, a story I tell here. And honestly, that is an extremely short list compared to some seasoned veterans of home exchanging I met along the way. Finally, just like the movie “The Holiday,” I did become good friends with a few of my exchange partners and we keep in touch to this day.
When I wasn’t exchanging homes with people, I was doing other things on my own, such as camping. I spent many weekends in Texas state parks doing tent camping and lots of hiking. The Texas Hill Country was big on my hit list: I frequented Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Garner State Park, Lost Maples State Natural Area, Bastrop State Park, and Big Bend National Park, although that was a huge trek across the state. My Chihuahua pups were great camping and hiking companions and loved to be out there with me. Once we would get on the trails I would let them off leash and they would just trot up ahead of me, ecstatic to be out in the woods with all those new sights and smells. We had the best time together!
In fact, it was on one of these solo camping trips that I left home with two pets and came home with three! I had booked 5 days at Bastrop State Park, just south of Austin, Texas, in the springtime of 2009. Of course I had my pups with me, and we had a great time hiking around the area for the week. I kept noticing this sign in front of the camp host’s campsite: “Free kittens.” Finally I couldn’t stand it, and on the last day I just had to take a look. Who doesn’t love to snuggle with a kitten? They had two gorgeous gray-striped kittens left out of a litter that were 8 weeks old and ready to be adopted out. One was long-haired and one was short-haired. I’ve always had a weakness for long-haired cats so I immediately liked the long-haired one. The couple was pushing hard for me to take a kitten…but they wanted me to take both. They were really reluctant to separate these two that were left. And while I might be willing to take a kitten, I didn’t want two right off the bat. I already had two dogs and I told them, “The vet bills alone will kill me.” So I walked away and told them I would think about it during my last overnight at the campground.
Well, I guess they thought about it too, because when I went back the next morning, they were happy to give up just one kitten if I would take one, and I had decided yes, I would. My car was packed up and my pups were in the front passenger seat. I brought each kitten near the pups to see what would happen. Unfortunately, the more beautiful long-haired kitten hissed nonstop at my dogs, which sent them scrambling to the driver’s seat! But the short-haired one didn’t, she just looked at them calmly. Winner winner, chicken dinner! The short-haired one came home with me, I named her Tigger, and she is now 12 years old.
But I digress! I was telling you about home exchanges. If I hadn’t read Beth Whitman’s endorsement of the home exchange program in her book, I don’t know that I ever would have stumbled upon that program or taken advantage of it. I have to credit her not only for giving me the confidence to try it, but also the push out the door to try traveling on my own again after a rocky start. For anyone who is considering it but has all those “what ifs” roiling around in their head, I would encourage you to read her book, especially the chapter on “Getting Around the Excuses.” Whether or not you are married or single, in a relationship or not, rich or poor, have children or not, have a disability or not…there is such a world of fulfillment out there for those who find a way.
If you’ve found innovative ways to save money traveling as a single person (you don’t have to be a woman!), I’d love to hear about them. Please share your ideas by leaving a comment!
[Note that I am not an affiliate of homeexchange.com and do not earn any commissions for recommending this program. I am an Amazon Affiliate and will earn a small commission if you purchase any book from these links.]