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They fell in love and lost each other in South America. Then a note stuck on a door brought them back together

By Francesca Street, CNN

(CNN) — Tracy Ferrell stared at the boarded up hotel in disbelief.

It was definitely closed. Not only that, it looked like it hadn’t been open for months.

“Okay, never mind,” thought Tracy. “It’s fine, we’ve got a plan B.”

She turned to her friend Monique, who was standing by her side, backpack in hand, looking uncertain.

“Right, let’s try the next one,” Tracy said brightly, trying to stay positive.

The two women swung their bags onto their backs and headed down the road. They were in Cuenca, in southern Ecuador, full of cobblestone-strewn streets and colorful buildings.

When Tracy and Monique made it to the next hotel, they realized it was also closed. Not just closed, the door was firmly padlocked. There was no sign of anyone inside.

Tracy’s heart sank. She dug out the dog-eared, “Lonely Planet South America” guidebook from her backpack, flipped through the book and checked the hotel page again.

It was definitely the right one. This was the back-up hotel. The one she and Tim had settled on, just in case the first one was closed. And it was also shut.

Tracy knocked on the door, figuring it was worth a shot. Nothing.

“Oh no,” thought Tracy. “I’m never going to see him again.”

A meeting and a lunar eclipse

It was September 1996 and Tracy was 26. She’d just completed a masters degree in comparative literature at the University of Colorado, specializing in Latin American literature. She’d decided to spend a year traveling through South America, putting her language skills to the test.

Tracy’s first stop in Ecuador – before Cuenca –  was the capital, Quito. She found herself at the Quito branch of the South American Explorers’ Club – a now defunct US-based organization with clubhouses in cities across South America.

Tracy grabbed a seat at a table in a quiet backroom of the Quito clubhouse and fished some postcards out of her bag. She spread them out on the table in front of her, ready to write and send to her family back home in the US.

Tracy was absent-mindedly glancing around the room, trying to figure out how to sum up her journey so far, when she spotted a guy on the other side of the room, his head in a book. Just as Tracy’s gaze settled on him, he looked up.

“Our eyes locked across the table,” Tracy tells CNN Travel today. “I thought he was cute.”

Then, a dog came rushing into the room – a German Shepherd that lived at the clubhouse.

The guy put his book to one side and started petting the dog enthusiastically.

“I love a guy who likes animals,” says Tracy. “I struck up a conversation.”

This was Tim Zych, a 32-year-old New Zealander who’d been teaching in London for the past couple of years.

When he met Tracy, Tim was enjoying a six month traveling stint, unsure what came next.

“I didn’t really have any plans for the future other than traveling while I was still relatively young and motivated,” Tim tells CNN Travel today. “I assumed that I would eventually live back in NZ.”

Tracy and Tim chatted for a while and both found one another easy company, even if Tim says he was “a little intimidated” by Tracy’s “obvious intelligence.”

“I thought Tracy was very attractive and confident,” he says.

“I was charmed by his accent,” says Tracy. “In my recollection, I asked him to have dinner that night.”

Tim thinks it was the other way round, and that he asked Tracy out. But what’s for certain is they were both excited to head out together that evening.

Tim and Tracy ate at a local restaurant, sitting outside, talking about their travels, families, careers and lives back home (“I don’t think I’d ever really met anyone from New Zealand before,” recalls Tracy. “So I was so curious about New Zealand and life there.”)

“It was magical,” says Tim. “It really felt like something special, even though we had no idea obviously, what the future was going to be.”

They were sitting on a busy sidewalk, but ignored the cars, people and commotion around them.

“There’s so much going on usually, in big cities,” says Tim. “I just tuned all that stuff out. I was just focused on Tracy and the conversation and everything else was kind of a blur in the background for me.”

“We got along easily – talking for hours,” says Tracy.

After dinner, Tim and Tracy went back to Tracy’s hotel and sat on the roof – they’d heard rumors of a total lunar eclipse that night, and ended up sat under the stars, watching the moon turn a striking amber red.

“It felt special,” says Tim.

A second date was a given. The next morning they caught a bus to a spot just north of Ecuador, where the equator crosses through South America.

“There is a museum, monument and a line on the ground where the equator is,” explains Tracy. “We thought it would be fun to check it out.”

As a tourist attraction, it was a bit anticlimactic. But Tracy and Tim didn’t care.

“We wandered the museum, but mostly we just got to know each other,” says Tracy.

The two ended their second date certain they wanted to see one another again, but aware their paths were about to diverge.

“We both already had travel plans and companions for the month,” says Tracy. “And he had already been where I was planning to go.”

They decided to try to meet up later down the line in Cuenca, Ecuador. From there, they’d head to Peru together.

Before going separate ways, Tim and Tracy consulted their copies of the “Lonely Planet South America” guide (“Everyone had it,” says Tracy. “We called it ‘The Bible.’”)

They picked out a hotel in Cuenca where they’d meet. Then, almost as an afterthought, they picked a back up hotel “just in case that one did not work out for any reason.”

This was a time before mobile phones, the internet and emails were widely in use, so communication options were limited.

And that’s how, three weeks later, Tracy found herself standing in front of the clearly-closed, back-up hotel, wondering what to do.

She kept knocking. Her friend Monique joined in.

Eventually, a man came to the door. Tracy, who spoke fluent Spanish, told him they were looking for somewhere to stay.

“Are you open?” she said. “We need to stay here.”

The owner said he was heading out of town and was closing the hotel for the weekend. But after a bit of back and forth, he agreed Tracy and Monique could stay at his hotel in his absence, as long as they locked up every time they left.

Thrilled, Tracy and Monique agreed to these conditions. They went inside, dumped their bags and then headed out for the evening to explore.

Before they left, Tracy grabbed a piece of paper and pen from the hotel reception and scribbled a note, writing something along the lines of:

“Tim, this hotel is closed but Monique and I are staying here. If you see this, let me know where you are staying!”

As she and Monique closed, then locked, the hotel door, Tracy jammed the piece of paper into the door frame. As they walked away, she kept glancing back, hoping it wouldn’t blow away, and hoping it wouldn’t be long before she reunited with Tim.

A note on a hotel door

Unbeknown to Tracy, Tim had arrived in Cuenca a few days before her. As planned, he’d headed to the first hotel, then the back up, and realized they were both closed.

Unlike Tracy, Tim didn’t persevere at hotel number two. Instead, he’d checked in somewhere else.

He was disappointed, but tried to manage his expectations.

“When you’re traveling, you meet people and they come and they go, and sometimes you have a bond with them in some way and then you never see them again,” he says today. “So, it wasn’t uncommon for that to happen as a traveler, especially back then.”

All the same, Tim couldn’t stop himself returning to the second hotel, on the off chance he might spot Tracy outside.

It was on one of these return visits that Tim noticed the note jammed into the door frame. He went a little closer and saw it was a message from Tracy. He couldn’t believe it.

He dug around in his bag for a pen. Leaning against the hotel door, he wrote a reply underneath Tracy’s message, detailing where he was staying.

When Tracy and Monique returned that evening and spotted Tim’s response, Tracy was astounded.

Her note had been “a shot in the dark.” All evening she’d wondered “maybe he’ll see it, maybe he won’t. Maybe he won’t come back. Maybe he’s not even in town anymore.”

She was thrilled it had worked out. She grabbed the note off the door and then she and Monique headed to Tim’s hotel.

“We found him eating in the restaurant,” Tracy recalls.

While both Tracy and Tim had tried to be accepting of the idea they’d never see one another again, they were delighted to be reunited. Suddenly, what they’d almost lost seemed all the more precious.

Keen not to lose one another again, they decided to head out together the next day for Peru. From there they traveled to Bolivia and Chile. Tracy’s friend Monique joined them at first, then she headed home and Tracy and Tim traveled just the two of them for the next three months.

“We had dozens of adventures from 45-hour bus rides to mountain climbing to rafting through the Amazon,” says Tracy.

“We fell madly in love.”

For Tracy and Tim, one of the highlights of this time came early on. The two hiked through the Cordillera Blanca mountain range in Peru, traversing high passes together.

“That really sealed the deal for me,” says Tim of the Cordillera Blanca experience. “The mountains were incredibly beautiful and wild. Being with someone who appreciated that as much as I did and was also very capable in that terrain just made Tracy even more attractive to me.”

“It’s beautiful. It’s just stunning,” Tracy says. “One of my favorite pictures of us was taken up on top of one of the passes. We had set up the camera and were kind of squatting down so that we can be in the camera.”

In the photo, Tim has his arm around Tracy. They’re both smiling happily. It was their first photo together.

During the three months of traveling, Tracy and Tim were rarely alone. At times it was challenging, but the difficult moments just brought them closer together.

Separated by continents

But while Tracy still had several months set aside for traveling, Tim’s end date was fast approaching.

February 1997 rolled around and Tim had to return to London and go back to work. Tim and Tracy reluctantly said goodbye, leaving things between them open-ended.

“Because we were both traveling and I did not have a permanent address, it was about a month before I got a letter from him. I thought he had forgotten about me,” says Tracy.

Communication became a bit easier when Tracy took a job in Costa Rica and settled there for a while. Tim would send letters to the American Express office in San Jose.

“It was tough – I missed being with Tracy a lot, but I was really uncertain about if we would ever get back together,” recalls Tim.

The two wrote to each other all the time, and tried to speak on the phone when they could.

“Because of the time difference it seemed that the calls were often in the middle of the night and one of my flatmates would be waking me up saying there was a call from my girl in the US,” recalls Tim. “I would be instantly awake and excited to be speaking with Tracy.”

In July 1997, Tracy’s traveling year came to a close, and she returned to Boulder, Colorado, where she’d been living before she went traveling.

Around this time, Tim was considering moving back to New Zealand. He decided to travel home via Colorado and proposed the idea to Tracy over the phone.

She was enthusiastic, so Tim booked two plane tickets – one from London to Colorado, and one from Colorado to New Zealand.

“I was definitely curious about how our relationship was going to progress,” Tim recalls.

He was excited to see Tracy, but once again, he tried to lower expectations.

“I didn’t really know how it was going to happen because it seemed like I couldn’t stay long term in the US and I was pretty sure Tracy wasn’t going to follow me to NZ,” he says.

But when he reunited with Tracy at the gate at Denver International Airport, Tim says it was “like a dream.”

“It was like we hadn’t been apart, and she seemed as vibrant and beautiful as when we were traveling.”

Tracy echoes this. “We embraced. It was like we had never been apart,” she says. “We talked non-stop the whole drive home from the airport.”

A spontaneous decision

Over the next few weeks, Tracy enjoyed showing Tim Boulder. She’d moved there to study for her master’s degree and loved it. Tim could see why.

“We spent the first few weeks enjoying the summer outdoors around Boulder,” he recalls. “Neither of us had much money and we didn’t have a car, so we hiked and biked everywhere, swimming in the creek when we got hot and dodging afternoon thunderstorms, hanging out in the hammock at Tracy’s apartment. It was bliss.”

As the days passed, Tim and Tracy were increasingly certain that they belonged in each other’s future. The prospect of Tim moving back to New Zealand became increasingly unappealing. The date of his return flight came and went.

“We had to try and figure out how we could live together long term,” says Tim.

They started researching the options. The topic of marriage came up.

At first, both Tracy and Tim were unsure. Neither of them had ever really aspired to marriage. But after talking about it in depth, they decided they could get married on their own terms. They’d keep their wedding day low key.

“We don’t need to plan it,” suggested Tracy. “We’ll just head down to the courthouse one day.”

So that’s what they did, in August 1997. The only person Tracy told was her boss – and that was only as an afterthought. She asked for the afternoon off, and when she mentioned she was getting married, her boss insisted she take the full day.

Tracy and Tim say their wedding was special in its simplicity. Colorado does not require marriage witnesses so it was just Tracy, Tim and the judge.

“It was just the two of us. And we didn’t even have pictures,” says Tracy.

After a few weeks, Tracy and Tim told a few friends about their marriage. Then they started investigating how to secure Tim’s visa, and later down the line, they told their parents.

“My parents were thrilled, because I always said I wasn’t going to get married. And so they were just like, ‘We’ll take it,’” says Tracy.

Tim says his parents, thousands of miles away in New Zealand, were “very surprised about the situation and very excited as well.”

Tracy started a PhD and Tim started the visa process. On their one year wedding anniversary, the couple threw a belated celebration for their friends and family in Colorado.

And, aside from a brief stint in Boston, the couple have lived in Colorado ever since.

A ‘cosmic’ coincidence

Over 26 years of marriage later, Tim and Tracy are still based in Colorado. Today, Tracy’s an associate professor in the University of Colorado Boulder’s writing program, while Tim works as a project manager for Boulder county.

While they’re quick to emphasize that “no long-term relationship is always easy,” Tracy and Tim say they’re “best friends,” and think that’s the secret to their years of happiness.

The couple have a 17-year-old daughter, who they enjoy regaling with stories of how they fell in love in Quinto, almost lost one another in Cuenca and unexpectedly reunited.

“We joke with her, ‘If it wasn’t for that hotel note that Tim happened to see, you wouldn’t be here,’” says Tracy, laughing. “Just so many things had to come together for our family to exist. So I think that that’s just really cool. And I hope she thinks that’s cool, too.”

Tracy and Tim have occasionally talked about returning to South America together. But while the nostalgia’s appealing to a degree, they remain keen travelers and prefer exploring new places to revisiting old favorites.

Plus, there’s something appealing about keeping those memories sacred.

“It would be cool in a lot of ways, but at the same time, I just cherish those memories that we have,” says Tim, who says he sees the moment he met Tracy as a “fork in the road.”

“The chance of us meeting was so minuscule,” says Tracy “And on the night of the lunar eclipse…”

“It’s like it was supposed to happen,” says Tim. “The cosmic coincidence of it all.”

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