Two years ago, Wanda Flanagan rediscovered her inner cowgirl.
That’s when she joined Sisters on the Fly, a group of women who enjoy camping, outdoors activities and female fellowship.
“It’s sort of like Girl Scouts, but with martinis,” she joked.
Flanagan, 63, a retired Absarokee elementary school teacher and entrepreneur, is now one of nearly 2,500 sisters nationwide whose motto is: “We have more fun than anyone.” They have three rules: no husbands, no dogs and be nice — although sometimes husbands, called “mister sisters,” are allowed. Membership is $60 a year.
Across the nation the sisters embark on adventures — learning to fly fish, whitewater rafting, attending cowgirl college in Kaycee, Wyo., and organizing cowgirl caravans to locations around the country. At the campgrounds they choose for gatherings, they cook Dutch oven meals, mix signature lemon drop martinis and laugh around the campfire.
“It’s something that’s really spectacular,” said Maurrie Sussman, one of the founders of the group.
The group was dreamed up by Sussman (Sister 1) and her real-life sister Becky Clarke (Sister 2) — while they were fly fishing in Montana. The former Billings residents were having such a good time that they thought that sharing similar outings with friends would be even better. The group was launched in 1999.
“It’s all about getting women to be girls again and going out and doing fun adventures,” Sussman said. “Our lives are so pressed for time. The trailers give us time-out space.”
Flanagan (Sister 1570) was drawn into Sisters on the Fly after meeting Sussman at a Fishtail coffee shop. Sussman owns a house in nearby Absarokee and had stopped by.
“We had coffee and she was telling me about it,” Flanagan recalled. “It just sounded so interesting and a fun thing, so I called her and joined.”
She stressed that it’s not a group strictly for retired women. Members range in age from 21 to 92. Sister 4, Mazie, is the mother of Sussman and Clarke. She turns 93 this year.
“There’s no definition of age, race, religion or politics,” Flanagan said. “When we hit the campground that’s all gone. We just support the sisterhood.”
The group is easily distinguished at campsites by the sisters’ colorful trailers. Many are from the 1950s and 1960s and have been refurbished and decorated with detailed murals of cowgirls or other Western scenes painted on the outside.
Flanagan’s 1979 Komfort trailer, now named the Dusty Rose, was previously owned by her brother. After agreeing to sell her the camper, he suggested he might borrow it during the hunting season. But since Flanagan hand-painted the trailer pink and lime green, and redid the interior with a cowgirl theme, she thinks that idea has been laid to rest. On the front of the trailer, “Nana’s Timeout” is painted above the window.
A website and a book about Sisters on the Fly tell how to go about finding and restoring a camper, with stories from sisters who have done the tough work. The book makes suggestions for outfitting the campers with antique-style gear and collecting furniture for around the campfire. Some things have to be learned by experience, though.
“I’m still in training for backing up and hooking up the trailer,” Flanagan said. “The first day you hook it up is a great day, though. It’s a huge feeling of achievement.”
Last week, Flanagan demonstrated why the sisters have so much fun. Wearing cowboy boots, a turquoise and silver necklace and with her red curls spilling out from under a black hat, Flanagan showed off her glamour camping, or glamping, setup. Her trailer was parked next to the Rosebud River, on property that has been in the Flanagan family since 1892. Outside the trailer there was a cloth-covered table set with fresh chocolate brownies. Vanilla-flavored coffee brewed in an enamel pot over a cottonwood fire. Cocktail napkins decorated with cowboy boots read: “Kick up your heels and party.”
Inside the trailer, knick-knacks and antiques were displayed, including a glasses case that read: “Good cowgirls go to heaven, bad cowgirls go everywhere.” Spread out across the bed were patches that Flanagan had earned, like scouting honors, for different achievements. A Rosie the Riveter badge, in honor of the women who worked in armament factories during World War II, is given to those who restore their own trailers. One patch, decorated with a pink skirt, cowboy hat and boots, marked the cowgirl prom. Another was for pitching a tent.
When it’s time to party, Flanagan pulls on a red frilly tutu over her jeans and hangs a red feather boa around her neck.
“If you want to get the girls ready to go out and dance, they can be ready in five minutes,” Flanagan said.
Flanagan has wasted no time jumping into Sisters on the Fly with both boots. Last summer, she hosted a Grannies on the Loose get-together for fellow sisters on the Rosebud property that attracted 14 campers and four tenters.
“We just have this perfect place so we helped coordinate it,” she said.
To boost interest in the group in south-central Montana, Flanagan has parked her trailer at Cabela’s in Billings and attended a book-signing event in Red Lodge.
“One of our goals it to try to do more events right in this area,” she said. “We’re trying to get a little more interest in the sisters.”
To that end, the sisters will hold a fly-fishing school Aug. 9-13 in Fishtail. In late August, September and October, the sisters will tour Montana rivers, including the Yellowstone, Madison and Missouri, to sample trout fishing. Caravan trips include stops in Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona, to name a few.
“And we do like to shop,” Flanagan pointed out, noting that antique shops along cowgirl caravan routes are often raided for old items like wash buckets, baskets and pans.
“It’s like resurrecting the old trailers,” she said. “It seems to go right along with the vintage.”
The group also has a philanthropic side, raising $35,000 for the charity Casting for Recovery, which takes breast cancer survivors fishing at no cost.
John Flanagan, Wanda’s “mister sister,” thinks the group has been good for his wife.
“I thought it was a great deal,” he said. “They have more dang fun.”
And he added that he now knows what to buy for his wife: antiques and knick-knacks for her newfound glamping lifestyle.
For her part, Flanagan said she is happy with returning to activities that remind her of her carefree childhood spent outdoors, yet with a decidedly adult cowgirl bent.
“We go out and it’s just women doing what men have done forever,” Flanagan said. “We’re from all walks of life all together. It’s relaxing. You share — just sitting around the campfire, smoking cigars and sharing.”