A New Form Of 'Retirement': What It's Like To Leave Your Kids, Spouse, And Fears Behind
Imagine, for a moment, that you are cruising down some lonesome highway in the great American West, the wind in your hair and a sunset blooming across the sky. A truck appears in your rearview mirror. As it speeds along, you notice it’s pulling a glinting silver camper — and that it’s not alone. Behind it roll dozens of other cars, all hitched up to trailers, each with a woman at the wheel. One after the next, they whoosh by your window, some of the women drivers wearing rhinestone bedazzled cowgirl hats, the decked out trailers streaming behind them painted to look like barnyards, fields of flowers, rodeo queens on parade.
Who are these women and where are they headed? You wonder, as the last one passes you by and the caravan starts to speed out of view. You wouldn’t be the first, or the last, to ask that question. These are the Sisters on the Fly. And they are on their way to have an adventure.
Founded by Maurrie Sussman and her actual sister, Rebecca, in August 1999, Sisters on the Fly began as a small social club for women who wanted to get together and fish (as in: fly fish). In the nearly two decades since, its membership has swelled from a handful of friends to more than 10,000 members across America — and a few in Canada, too. Across its channels, the group proudly describes itself as the largest women’s social outdoor adventure group in the country.
“We don’t care about religion, or race, or how old you are, or whatever your sexuality is.”
Some of them have vintage trailers. Some have brand spankin’ new RVs. Some don’t have trailers at all — that’s not a requirement. Some fish. Some hate to fish. (Fishing isn’t a requirement, either.) Together, they go camping and kayaking, take welding classes, tour wineries, talk late into the night by dwindling campfires. They dress up in candy colored cowgirl boots and fluffy tutus, or they do nothing of the kind (as you can tell, preference is key). They raise money for causes they care about and open up their curbs, homes, and hearts to Sisters who might be passing through town with a trailer in tow.
Some of “the girls” (how they refer to themselves) have always loved the great outdoors and some are just getting started; others joined up when their kids left for college, after they retired, found themselves newly single, lonely, or otherwise had more time on their hands than they knew what to do with. “We don’t care about religion, or race, or how old you are, or whatever your sexuality is,” Sussman says. Anyone is welcome, so long as they abide by the rules, which are simple enough: Be kind. Have fun. No men or kids allowed.
“You can drink too much and nobody cares. You can throw up and nobody cares — we’ll just clean you up and send you on your way,” Sussman adds. Stay up late. Turn in early. Laugh until you cry or hang out in your camper with a book by yourself. Sister trips are like a grown-up slumber party where you get to do whatever you feel like doing.
Which brings us to the last rule: What happens on a Sisters on the Fly trip stays on a Sisters on the Fly trip. In that way, Sister time is a little bit sacred.
One thing you should know about Sisters on the Fly (SOTF) is that it’s not always easy to get a gal on the phone. It’s not that Sisters don’t want to talk — they do, and once you make contact, they’ll get back to you and be generous with their time and their stories — but at the beginning it might be tough because, well, active members of SOTF are out there enjoying life, away from computer screens and sometimes cell phone service.
Take Sussman, the founder. I sent her messages on Instagram, Facebook, and over email— enough outreach that I felt compelled to promise that I wasn’t a stalker, just a reporter looking for a story. When she wrote back, she explained that she wasn’t avoiding me: She was just busy doing the stuff that most of us wish we’re doing in the summertime. She was meeting a couple of Sisters up in Red Lodge, Montana, one weekend, and planning a SOTF event where a bunch of women would be learning to weld. In the weeks to come, she had plans to head to California for an annual event called Grandmas on the Loose, the only official SOTF outing where kiddos can come along, too.
When I reached out to Geri Brennan, an Idaho-based Sister who is also a “wrangler” for the group — which means she helps plan and organize official functions in her state — she got back to me quickly over email. But it took a couple days for us to find time to talk. Brennan was in the middle of Yak Attack, a gathering of about 25 women who were — what else — spending a couple days kayaking.
For obvious reasons, summer is prime SOTF season, although gatherings go on year round. Sometimes these are simple meetups, where someone gives a shout on the Facebook page that they’re coming into town — does another member want to get something cooking? There’s also a registry that members can belong to, called Sisters on the Curb: When you put your name down, it means that a Sister passing through can feel free to park at your place, even if you’ve never met each other before. The larger, tier two events are organized by a Sister who decides to formally gather everybody up and commit to an outing, like Yak Attack.
There are also the major SOTF events, which are slightly fewer and more far between, if only because they require a lot of work to pull off. “We are huge park supporters,” Sussman says. “But we can’t always get into the park to camp — it depends on the size of the group.” A couple years back, an event in Northern California drew 135 members; it took 18 months to put the whole thing together, and women came from Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, and beyond. They camped out in the beach, cramming dozens of tiny trailers into single spaces that would otherwise have been taken up by one oversize RV.
“I didn’t have a sister. And now I feel like I have all these different sisters who are my friends, and I can call on for anything.”
Though the sweet spot for Sisterhood is when you reach your 50s and 60s, Sisters range in age from their 20s — you have to be 21 to join — up into their 90s. Sisters are wives, mothers, members of the workforce; people depend on them, and not everybody can go off galavanting whenever the mood strikes. The group’s Facebook page and Instagram followers are packed with women who are tickled by the idea of becoming a Sister but haven’t yet pulled the trigger; there are also plenty of official members who wait awhile to join in on activities. They’re just waiting for the right moment.
If she’s being honest, the first time Robin Maillet went to a SOTF event, she wasn’t exactly sure she wanted in. A lifelong outdoors enthusiast, she’d always been intrigued by the adventures one of her friends was having with the girls. But when she got to this particular outing, something about it rubbed her the wrong way. She arrived home that night unsure that she belonged.
Not long after, Maillet received a phone call from another Sister, asking her to give it another chance. “Don’t judge a whole group by one member,” she remembers the woman saying. She took that Sister’s advice to heart and decided to go for it. Membership to SOTF is $70 per year, which covers mostly administrative costs; members can be as involved, or on the sidelines, as they want. With such an easy buy-in, Maillet figured she didn’t have much to lose.
In 2003, she became Sisters on the Fly member #1470 — each sister is known by her number — and she’s had zero regrets. A few years back, she became the organization’s West Washington wrangler, taking over the role for another sister who needed to take care of an aging parent. Fifteen years after that first meeting, Maillet says she found her people. “There are tribes within tribes,” she tells me. That’s just how it is.
It’s not always easy being the new girl in town, even when you’re an adult woman going to a potluck. Making new friends can get even more difficult as you get older, which is, ironically, a time where women may need one another’s companionship most. Lynn Ahlers is a married mother of three who, like Maillet, spent years thinking about becoming a member. For Ahlers, it was a matter of waiting for her kids to go off to college so she’d have more time on her hands.
“When I was young, my girlfriends and I would just lay on the bed, looking at the ceiling, and talking, laughing — and that’s what we do now.”
Still, as excited as she was for her first official SOTF outing, she remembers sweating all the way there, worried she wouldn’t fit in. “You feel like you’re back in junior high again, wanting to be liked by the popular kids.” On her way to the meeting, she was pulled over by a cop; she didn’t realize that, when it was pulling a camper, her car had to abide by a truck’s rules of the road (he let her off with a warning).
When Ahlers finally arrived, she was pretty keyed up. But her fears dissolved when a bunch of Sisters welcomed her immediately and asked her to sit at their table. In her six years in the group, she’s made lifelong friends, many of whom she never would have met were not for SOTF. (More experienced Sisters have also given her the scoop on how to be a “girl in the campground, but a woman on the road,” by teaching her, and others, best safety practices and camper-specific driving considerations.) “I grew up with just one brother. I didn’t have a sister. And now I feel like I have all these different sisters who are my friends, and I can call on for anything,” she says.
Nowadays, Ahlers feels like she has hundreds of girlfriends in the state, and thousands across the country. “I think, my very first event, not knowing anybody, being that scared newbie, having people come up, say hello, invite me to eat at their table for dinner, just be so welcoming,” Ahlers adds. “It was just what I needed. I knew I was in the right place.”
In the course of conversations about Sisters on the Fly, it’s impossible not to talk about the fact that many of the vibrant, adventurous women in this group also happen to be rounding the bend toward a life stage that we used to think of as old age. But as life expectancy has risen, and quality of life has improved, one thing that Maillet pointed out is that, at her age, which is 57, there’s still a lot of living to do.
“In the first half of your life, you hit these mile markers: You become a wife maybe, a mother, a member of the workforce,” she says. Your roles in the world are defined. But as women advance into their golden years, it’s not always easy to know where to go from there. That’s another SOTF boon: Maillet says that this is the time in her life that she’s getting to know herself better, and deepening her friendships; now she has the space, and the time. In a way, it’s like being a teenager all over again — or, as Maillet calls it, being a senior-ager. “When I was young, my girlfriends and I would just lay on the bed, looking at the ceiling, and talking, laughing — and that’s what we do now,” she says.
“Just because we’re retired, just because the kids are gone, doesn’t mean you have to sit in a rocking chair and wait to die.”
And it’s not just the warm fuzzies, or the campout costume balls, that give Sisters a way to discover something new about themselves. It’s also the chance to feel empowered. “Some of these gals were raised in a more traditional environment, where the man worried about what the condition of the tires were and how to hook up the trailer,” Maillet says. “These women are learning you don’t need a penis to do that.”
Ahlers shared a similar thought when she told me that some of the women on the Yak Attack trip were kayaking for the first time — in their 70s. “Their kids are going, ‘Mom, what are you thinking?’ And they’re like: ‘We’ve got this.’ They are realizing: just because we’re retired, just because the kids are gone, doesn’t mean you have to sit in a rocking chair and wait to die. You can go. You can do. You have people to do it with. You don’t have to do this alone. There is a built-in, nationwide group of women to do it with.”
Brennan also brings up that old adage: You’re only ever as old as you feel. “I think some people choose to get old,” she says. “We have women who are in their 70s, who are pulling their trailers every week. But they’re not old. In their age, they are maybe. But in their mind, their spirit, they’re not. Because these women all make an effort to get a trailer, decorate it, nail it, get out on the road — go — and not just sit down and do nothing.” For the record: She is 56. And she’s not planning to get old anytime soon, either.
There are good things and bad things about the fact that SOTF has grown so much in recent years. On one hand, it’s great that they’ve tapped into something that so many women so desperately wanted: companionship, something to do that’s just the girls, a vehicle for exploring the open road and getting to know women they might not otherwise encounter.
But, as Sussman points out, it’s meant a lot of paperwork and planning, which isn’t exactly the fun part. While they don’t do any paid marketing, and women mostly come to them through word of mouth — or sometimes, after seeing their shenanigans during an event and becoming intrigued — there are still things that she wants to accomplish (like, for example, growing the group to include more women of color and reworking the website so it’s more user-friendly) and only so many hours of the day she wants to spend engaged in administrative duties.
The second time she and I spoke, it was in the middle of the welding course, and Sussman was itching to get in there and try her hand at it, make her own horseshoes and boot pulls. Instead, she was making sure the catering for lunch was running on time, taking care of organizational odds and ends, and, of course, fulfilling her responsibilities as the head of the organization by hopping on the phone with a reporter.
“I want to weld in the worst way, I’m so jealous,” she told me with a laugh — but she also meant it. When SOTF was small, it was less work to pull off. The tradeoff is that, as it grows, the hard work becomes increasingly more rewarding.
All that said: It’s not anything she would ever consider giving up. When she used to lead trips early on, she’d be driving at the front of the caravan and look outside her rearview mirror. There would be women with their trailers behind her, as far as the eye can see. “It was the funniest thing,” she says. All these Sisters following her, like a line of baby ducklings.
“That’s when I realized: Sisters on the Fly was not about me,” she says. “It was about giving these girls the freedom to do these things they’d never done before, and trusting my sister and me to take them places they’ve never been.”