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Sisters on the Fly hit the road in vintage trailers

CINDY HOEDEL
McClatchy Newspapers
Modified: May 15, 2012 at 5:01 pm •  Published: May 15, 2012
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photo - Members of Sisters on the Fly, Terry Dykstra of Topeka, Kan., left, and Pam Willcott of Linwood, Kan., seen at a gathering in Louisburg, Kansas on April 21, 2012, are proud of the artwork on their camper. Sisters on the Fly is a national group of camping enthusiasts founded by two actual sisters who love fly-fishing in Montana. (Jill Toyoshiba/Kansas City Star/MCT)
Members of Sisters on the Fly, Terry Dykstra of Topeka, Kan., left, and Pam Willcott of Linwood, Kan., seen at a gathering in Louisburg, Kansas on April 21, 2012, are proud of the artwork on their camper. Sisters on the Fly is a national group of camping enthusiasts founded by two actual sisters who love fly-fishing in Montana. (Jill Toyoshiba/Kansas City Star/MCT)
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Brawny pickups and SUVs sporting trailer hitch ball mounts and license plates from Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma pack a scrubby rock courtyard behind a picture-postcard farmhouse in Louisburg, Kan. Around front, eight camping trailers stand stem to stern in tight formation facing the open doors of a two-story white barn.

Extension cords have been laid, canopies staked, logs for the campfire cut and stacked, coolers and camp chairs arrayed in a circle. The sun hangs low in the west, and the campers are ready for a hard-earned happy hour.

One by one they emerge from their trailers in cowboy boots and lace petticoats, floor-length gowns and mod '60s sheaths topped with fur stoles. They sip lemon drop martinis and snack on sliced Twinkies speared with toothpicks and crackers sprayed with canned Easy Cheese as Marvin Gaye wails "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" on a boom box. Fragrant pinion wood smolders in a tiny chiminea.

The campers are women from the region who belong to Sisters on the Fly, a national group of camping enthusiasts founded by two actual sisters who love fly-fishing in Montana.

The sisterhood has three rules: No husbands. No pets. Be nice. The founding sisters, Maurrie Sussman and Becky Clarke, have seen their sorority of adventurers grow from a dozen in 1999 to about1,700 active members today in all 50 states and Canada.

"The idea was always to get women into the outdoors," Sussman says. National events draw up to 100 women to campgrounds and beaches across the continent, sometimes towing trailers in long caravans across interstate highways and scenic byways.

National events last a week, and smaller regional "git-togethers," like this one in Louisburg, typically last three or four days.

Sisters learn or practice skills such as fishing, shooting, kayaking, horseback riding, cattle-roping and cooking over a campfire.

But playing cowgirl is only half the appeal to the women, ages 21 to 93, who make up Sisters on the Fly.

At the Louisburg campsite, half an hour south of Kansas City, the parked posse of Oasis, Comet, Scotty and Forester trailers confirms that the sisterhood is as much about rescuing and personalizing classic trailers as it is about camping.

The trailers are painted on all sides with bold, retro-looking graphics depicting cowgirls on the open range, horses, bikinis dangling from a clothesline strung between palm trees and oversized sunflowers. Each is emblazoned with a name: The Kansas Kid. Giddy Up Girl. Toto's Tin Can. Cowgirls in Paradise.

Inside the trailers, most Sisters have preserved where possible original features such as wood siding, laminate dinette tables, gas stove/oven combos and electric lamps, while opening up the floor plans by removing closets and replacing convertible couches with full-size beds. They have also taken extreme liberties with decor.

Inside Ramblin' Rose, curtains hang from garter straps. Faux logs glow inside a mock heater. A framed "license for prostitution" issued to one Midnight Rose and "signed" by Wyatt Earp hangs on the wall. Above the red-satin expanse of a bed hangs a painted wooden sign proclaiming "Just put on your big girl panties and deal with it."

This open-road boudoir is one of four trailers owned by Karla Jones, a retired mounted policewoman from Broken Arrow, Okla. It is the most recent of 19 she has purchased since joining the Sisters in 2006.

"She changes trailers like she changes underwear," a fellow Sister calls out.

Sisters on the Fly has turned out to be a blessing for Jones' husband of 30 years, Guss, and not just because it gives them both some personal space.

"He was looking for a hobby after he retired," she said. "Now he restores trailers."

Sussman, the founding Sister who divides her time between Phoenix and Montana, says the uber-outfitting of the trailers comes down to comfort.

"We enjoy dragging our bedrooms with us, so after a hard day of fishing and hiking we can sink into our own featherbeds."

In that regard, Sisters on the Fly are reviving the dream that fueled the golden age of trailer travel in the 1930s through the 1960s: experiencing the great outdoors while bringing all the comforts of home with you.

They are also rescuing and reviving the actual aluminum and wood trailers Americans pulled behind station wagons half a century ago, before cheap air travel allowed us to overfly the nation's great national parks and kitschy roadside attractions, author Irene Rawlings notes in "Sisters on the Fly: Caravans, Campfires and Tales From the Road" (Andrews McMeel; $15).

As swelling strains of Paul Simon's "The Boxer" mask the occasional traffic on Kansas 68, several campers have changed out of cocktail attire into their normal get-ups of designer jeans, elaborately tooled Western boots in jewel tones, straw cowboy hats, fringed leather jackets and rhinestone headbands. They are carrying homemade foods from their tiny trailer kitchens into the barn for dinner: chicken enchiladas, cheesy potato soup, cowboy beans, clover rolls and sweet potato pie.

Sharon Morrisey of Louisburg owns the farm where 12 women from three states have gathered on this late-April weekend. Morrisey and her husband, Tom, bought a 1970 Serro Scotty HiLander in 2006. The couple, who have three children and six grandchildren, picked up the trailer in Maryville, N.Y., after finding it online.

"It was going to be me and Tom's trailer," Morrisey says. But she was intrigued by a line she had read in another online ad: "If you buy this trailer, you'll be the hit of Sisters on the Fly."

When the couple got home after picking up their trailer, Morrisey Googled the organization (sistersonthefly.com) and told Tom about it. His reaction was, "That looks like fun. I think you should do it."

She did, decorating her trailer with vintage linens depicting buxom cowgirls cavorting near streams and mountains, beaded lamps, decoupaged leather suitcases for storage and a blue-fringed valence decorated with covered wagons and wildflowers.

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