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Sisters on the Fly: Cowgirls Have Fun!

2740[1]Imagine an eye-popping caravan of brand-named trailers ablaze in western motifs like sassy cowgirls in spirited tops, boots and hats that are busy twirling ropes, straddling horses on steep mountainsides, or fly-fishing. 

Across America, few vintage trailers and caravans can turn heads like the colorful and kitschy decorating schemes of this modern-day wagon train that is unique in another way, too – it’s women-only at the wheel! The Cowgirl Caravan Club is part of the all-female organization called “Sisters on the Fly,” where, for a few days at a time, the “sisters” in good standing (i.e.- dues-paying) leave behind husbands, children, boyfriends and even pets to join fellow “sisters” for adventures designed to thrill, bond and teach new skills in far-flung campsites.

Called Cowgirl Caravan, in homage to the independent spirit of those first pant-legged ladies to ride the range in split skirts, the club’s encampments include the Mogollon Rim, in Arizona, for an Annual “Christmas in July”, and Absarokee, Montana, where an event called “Grammas on the Loose” offers activities for grandkids (an exception to the no-kids rule!) that combines wilderness thrills with valuable safety skills. 

SOTF started in 1999. Two biologically related sisters, Sister #1, Maurrie Sussman, and Sister #2, Becky Clarke, (each dues-paying member is assigned a number to display on her trailer), had a eureka moment while sipping wine on a drift boat fly fishing against scenic Montana’s surreal backdrop. 

1683[1]The idea was to turn their pleasurable pastime into a profession. Sussman, who has a business degree, studied Native American history, and is a horse woman to boot, was already a seasoned entrepreneur. Her ventures have included the catering company What’s for Supper, in Phoenix, AZ. Going on camping expeditions throughout the Northwest and California with their Mom had turned the sisters into ardent outdoor enthusiasts, a passion they instilled not only in their children, but in anyone else lucky enough to be invited along. 

SOTF Is like a Girl Scout group that drinks martinis

“We said to each other, this is more fun than anything you can imagine,” enthused Sussman during a recent interview. She chuckled as she explained that SOTF merit badges are mailed out with the annual membership. Designed for special activities, the merit badges originated when one of the participants observed, “SOTFs like a Girl Scout group that drinks martinis.” A badge featuring a martini glass commemorates the idea. 

1599[1]The seeds for SOTF really started to grow when Sister #1 Sussman, who splits her time between Phoenix and Big Sky Country in Montana, where she has had a second home since 1969, and regularly visits her son, Austin Lowder. Lowder was getting a degree in fish biology at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT and, when his mom would arrive with her petite vintage trailer in tow, he taught her fly fishing and introduced her to his most-prized fishing spots. 

Sussman always considered Montana like home, she said, from the first time she camped there with her family while when growing up. Regaling her sister on the sheer joy of not only fly fishing amid Montana’s pristine beauty, but also having a comfy, cowgirl-themed creatively decorated trailer as a base camp, proved irresistible to Clarke. Before long, Sister #2 purchased a trailer, decorated it and traveled along.  

“We started taking girlfriends with us and kept adding trailers,” recalled Sussman, during a break from preparing a welcome cocktail party for the Grandmas on the Loose adventure in Absarokee, MT, that includes Huckleberry ice cream for the kids. 

 From that initial conversation, some 14 years ago, Sisters on the Fly was born. It has continued to grow and has added activities like canoeing, kayaking and even zip lining. Sussman said it became apparent that not all the highway-traveling sisters wanted to fly fish or had the resources for a trailer, which for SOTF members have ranged in size from 12 ft. to 24 feet. 

 Sisters who prefer tents, the backs of trucks, horse trailers or motels are also welcome. The importance of all caravans is to express the mission of SOTF – empowerment and sisterhood – without restrictions for age, race, ethnicity, religion or politics. Sisters range in age from 21 to 92, with most between 40 and 60, but Sussman is coy about her divulging her age. 

Additionally, part of the women-supporting- women aspect is regularly collecting money for “Casting for Recovery,” which aids breast cancer survivors’ recovery through fly fishing, started by noted outdoorswoman, Gwenn Bogart, in 1996. “CFR is for women that have a desire to do an adventure,” explained Sussman, who recalled how one fly-fishing trip to gorgeous Lees Ferry, AZ, turned the survivors into a team.  The SOTF members rescued a German family that foolishly went off-roading in the hot, dry desert in a small rental car; they had become hopelessly stuck in sand in the middle of nowhere. 

 “SOTF is for women who want to go on a quest for themselves, to be their own person, to take away comforts and overcome thoughts like ‘I must be nuts for doing this’.” The group’s motto is, “we have more fun than anyone,” and sisters are promised to be “spoiled rotten” by fellow gals and celebrated for trying anything new whether it’s fishing, outdoor cooking or even skinny dipping. An ode to the fiercely independent and fearless spirit embodied by the western cowgirls is personified by the theme of several SOTF caravans – Cowgirl College and Cowgirl Finishing School are among the offerings.

A Cowgirl Cattle Drive at historic Willow Creek Ranch, located near the legendary Hole-In-The-Wall, Kaycee, WY, led to a Boot Camp, that now trains women to participate in the long days and various skills required for a cattle drive. It’s 32 miles down a dirt road to get to the Hole-in-the Wall,” enthused Sussman. “It’s an awesome place to go… the views of Red Rocks, the history. 

Separate from the caravans, SOTF sisters also can sign up for fly-fishing adventures, in remote locations led by Lowder, now a fishing guide with a wife, Julie, three children and a business called Sea & Stream Outfitters on the west coast of Florida, in Placida. From the end of July through October, Lowder shifts his focus from the ocean to Montana rivers. 

SOFT has grown to some 4,000 registered, dues-paying, individual-number-assigned “sisters”. There are now more than a dozen regions of the country, where hostesses organize their own brand of Cowgirl Caravans, based on a particular group’s focus. Interests range from hiking, fishing, horseback riding, outdoor cooking and flea market shopping to cattle round-ups.

Serious Fun 

Fun, though, stays center stage and club members are encouraged to name and outrageously decorate their trailers inside and out as touring them is how money is raised for Casting for Recovery. For instance, in addition to “Lucy,” Sister #1’s 1958 Holiday, Sussman owns several other trailers – “Pretty Shield” a 1943 Franklin; and “Elsie Mae,” a 1954 Aljoa. Clarke has “Twisted Sister”, a 1957 Aljoa; and “Sister Sioux,” a 1958 Aljoa. 

If painting a trailer is out of the question for a member, SOTF even sells decals. Additionally,

Sisters Sussman and Clarke believe their love of the great outdoors was instilled early on by their mother, Mazie, who at 94 still hasn’t slowed down. “She’s a real pistol,” said Sussman lovingly, sharing that when her young single mom was an usher at a Seattle, WA, movie theater she met and dated famous singing cowboy Roy Rogers, perhaps influencing Sussman’s interest in western lore.

 

Mazie Morrison and her late husband Jessy Earl Morrison originally hailed from two small towns, Yakima and near-door town of Wapato, WA, respectively. Jessy, who had been a fighter pilot and colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps and was stationed at the Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Station (MCAAS), in Mojave, now called the Mojave Air and SpacePort. It was here that Sussman was born. Sister Becky was born in Washington state. Jessy also had a degree in agriculture and his work installing huge irrigation systems throughout the northwest region frequently kept him away from home, after he left the service. But, each summer the girl’s father would pack the family into their Airstream trailer for a month-long summer vacation at a National State Park, often Montana’s Glacier National Park or Yellowstone National Park which ranges across Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. 

Mazie decided, however, that if her girls were to discover the joy of camping, fishing and hiking, the task was up to her. It was this spirit of exploration that Sussman called upon when she was divorced and single parenting, son Austin and daughter, Tara (who has one child and is pregnant), with the support of #2 Sister Clarke, her three children, and, of course, Mazie. Today Clark, who is married to Jim and lives in McCall, Idaho, has eight grandchildren. Sussman, has enjoyed 18 years of wedded bliss with husband, Mickey, a compounding pharmacist with two stores in Phoenix, who fancies himself a part-time cowboy.

 

There is no anti-man aspect of this women- only organization, though. (Note in the calendar that an annual event joins Sister’s and Mr. Sisters, as they travel to Steamboat Springs.)

 

       Sussman has witnessed the amazing transformation that happens when the sisters, who suddenly aren’t competing with each other for men’s attention or their approval, focus on discovering their very best.

 

Sussman and Clarke share responsibility for Sisters on the Fly, LLC, under which the Cowgirl Caravan Club is classified as a non-profit. There are extra costs for each adventure, which vary depending on the costs involved such as campground, canoe and other rentals, guide fees and materials as participants often receive unique items hand-crafted by the event hostess.

 

“We’re learning something constantly,” concluded Sister #1. “The purpose of Sisters on the Fly is not only adventure, but learning something about the local history, the indigenous tribes, the land, the local food.”

 

If you go:

An annual fee of $60 registers member of Sisters on the Fly.

Sisters on the Fly / Maurrie Sussman P.O. Box 22036, Phoenix, AZ 85028. Or visit www.sistersonthefly.com .

 

 There are extra costs for each event, which are specific to the adventure. Sometimes, depending on the hostess of an event, a would-be “sister” can attend a Cowgirl Caravan one time as a guest first without joining as an official member. Otherwise, Cowgirl Caravan Club events are open to members only.

 The Cowgirl Caravan hitches up to some remote outposts- some don’t have facilities. All trailers and the cars pulling them must be in good condition. Trailers must be self-sufficient and equipped with good tires, backup lights, interior lights and portable toilets.

 For safety reasons, flashlights and plenty of extra batteries (as opposed to kerosene lamps are strongly recommended.) Portable battery-operated fans are also suggested for hot-weather climates. Participants must also provide their own water for drinking and bathing.

 A sampling of some upcoming Sisters on the Fly events include: 

Sisters on the Fly-Youtube Video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZd0TQY2fBg

 

Sisters on the Fly: Caravans, Campfires, and Tales from the Road:

by Irene Rawlins

 

SOTF’s website, www.sistersonthefly.com, offers a variety of cowgirl related merchandise such as apparel, gifts and of course the merit badges.

 

 

2 Responses to Sisters on the Fly: Cowgirls Have Fun!

  • Kathy Turner-Garrett says:

    Love it! I am in Georgia do we have SOTF in or near Georgia…I sure would like to have a trailor.

    • Mary Ann says:

      Don’t know if we have SOTF activities in Ga. Would like to find others who are interested in “creating” some if we do not. Response welcome.

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