If you try to reach Sister #1, you'll likely find her coming off one of the country's top fly fishing streams, running a sparkling river on a kayak trip, riding horseback across the Western prairie, at Cowgirl College, or traveling along the open road in her Ford F-350 pulling Lucy, a 1958 Holiday trailer; Elsie Mae, a 1954 Aljoa; or her 1943 Franklin, dubbed Pretty Shield. You could say the same about Sister #2, who drives a Ford F-150 and tows Twisted Sister, a 1957 Aljoa, and Sister Sioux, a 1958 Aljoa.
Now, imagine there are close to 3000 "sisters" like this, who travel in eye-popping caravans with 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. Few vintage trailers and caravans can turn heads like the colorful and kitschy decorating schemes of this modern-day wagontrain that is unique in another way, too: It's women-only at the wheel. But they aren't anti-male, as there are a few exceptions to the rule.
The Cowgirl Caravan Club is part of the all-female organization called Sisters on the Fly (SOTF), where for a few days at a time the sisters 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 across the U.S. The ever-growing collective now has even spawned clubs as far away as Australia!
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 dubbed Grandmas on the Loose offers activities for grandkids -- an exception to the group's no-kids rule. All events combine wilderness or other terrain with valuable safety skills.
SOTF started in 1999 when two biologically related sisters, Sister #1, Maurrie Sussman, and Sister #2, Becky Clarke, had a eureka moment while sipping wine on a drift boat, fly fishing against a picturesque Montana backdrop. They decided to turn their pleasurable pastime into a profession. Sussman, who has a business degree, studied Native American history, and is a horsewoman, was already a seasoned entrepreneur. Going on camping expeditions throughout the Northwest and California with their mom had turned the sisters into ardent outdoor enthusiasts, a passion they instilled in their children, as well as anyone else lucky enough to be invited along.
"We said to each other, this is more fun than anything you can imagine," enthused Sussman during a recent interview, chuckling 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, "SOTF is like a Girl Scout group that drinks martinis." A badge featuring a martini glass commemorates that idea.
The seeds for SOTF really started to grow in Montana, where Sussman, who splits her time between Phoenix and Big Sky Country, has had a second home since 1969. It was there she began to regularly visit her son, Austin Lowder, who was getting a degree in fish biology at Montana State University in Bozeman. When his mom would drive over with her petite vintage trailer in tow, he taught her fly fishing and introduced her to his most prized fishing spots. Lowder is now a guide on some of the trips.
Sussman always considered Montana like home, from the first time she camped there with her family as a child. After hearing story after story from her sister about the sheer joy of fly fishing amid Montana's pristine beauty with a comfy, cowgirl-themed, creatively decorated trailer as a base camp, Clarke bought a trailer, decorated it, and traveled along.
"We started bringing girlfriends with us and kept adding trailers," recalled Sussman. Sisters on the Fly was born and, as it has continued to grow, new activities have been added, including canoeing, kayaking, and even ziplining. 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 to 24 feet.
Sisters who prefer tents, the bed 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 who have a desire for adventure," explained Sussman, who recalled how one fly-fishing trip to gorgeous Lees Ferry, Arizona, 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 and had become hopelessly stuck in sand in the middle of nowhere.
"SOTF is for a women who have a desire 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 at the legendary Hole-in-the-Wall, Kaycee, Wyoming, 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 -- the views of Red Rocks, the history. In June, for my next birthday, I want to be riding a horse in the middle of some awesome place as this."
Apart from the caravans, SOTF sisters also can sign up for fly-fishing adventures in remote locations led by Lowder, now a fishing guide, with wife Julie and their three children. They run a business on the west coast of Florida, but from the end of July through October, Lowder shifts his focus from the ocean to Montana's pristine rivers.
There are now 14 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 the cattle round-ups.
Fun stays center stage, and club members are encouraged to name and outrageously decorate their trailers inside and out, as touring in them is how money is raised for Casting for Recovery. If painting a trailer is out of the question for a member, SOTF even sells decals. Additionally, SOTF's website, www.sistersonthefly.com, offers a variety of cowgirl-related merchandize such as apparel, gifts, and, of course, the merit badges.
"We're constantly learning something," said Sussman. "The purpose of SOTF is not just adventure, but learning something about the local history, indigenous tribes, the land, and food in the areas we visit."
**There is no anti-man aspect of this women-only organization.
Source: Sisters on the Fly
SOTF charges an annual fee of $60.
Annual Adventure Trips Include:
Cowgirl Boot Camp
Rivers of Awe Trip
Three Montana Rivers SLAM!
Fly Fishing "101" School
Couples on the Fly Trip
Couples Steelhead Fishing
Grammas on the Loose
Mazie's Birthday Celebration