In 2002, Janine Pettit read an article in Country Living magazine that changed her life. The story profiled a group of adventurous women who went by the name Sisters On the Fly. They traveled all over the country in what they called Cowgirl Caravans, carefree expeditions that involved fly fishing, trail riding, camping and other outdoor adventures—all minus the menfolk. And they did so with all the comforts provided by their signature vintage campers.
For four years Pettit, a mother of three who lives in Hamilton, kept the article in a folder, occasionally taking it out to read again. “One night my husband said, ‘Are you going to join that group, or just stalk them?’ So I went for it,” she recalls.
To be a true sister on the fly, Pettit, 52, needed a vintage camping trailer. Thanks to eBay, she found a 1959 Field and Stream camper in Asheville, North Carolina. She headed south, hitched her find to her minivan and brought the new treasure home. She’s been a sister ever since—one of only five in New Jersey.
“I think a lot of women are afraid to strike out on their own,” Pettit says. “They think camping is men’s territory. But this isn’t an empowerment group. It’s just a group of women who like to do things outdoors. And you don’t have to fly fish or hunt or trail ride. Maybe you Dutch-oven cook. Maybe you paint. Maybe you just like the outdoors. Whatever it is, this is just a fun group of gals.”
Started in Montana in 1999 by real-life sisters Maurrie Sussman and Becky Clarke, Sisters On the Fly has expanded to dozens of states and boasts more than 2,200 members. Members take great care to custom-design their campers, often hand painting the exteriors in vibrant colors that depict outdoorsy scenes like horseback riding and, of course, fly fishing. Prices of these “canned hams”—so-called because of their distinctive, ham-like shape—range from as low as $200 to as much as $15,000. It all depends on how much you’re willing to spend on custom renovations.
Last September, Pettit hosted her fourth annual Farm Girl Weekend, a gathering of 15 Sisters who sojourned to her Burlington County farm from as far away as Texas, Oregon and Arkansas. The gathering included an airplane mechanic, a nuclear physicist, an FBI agent and a retired housewife—all united by a love for camping and fellowship with other adventurous women. (Pettit and her husband have since sold their three-and-a-half-acre spread.)
The Sisters created their own mini village that weekend, parking a colorful assortment of trailers around the farm’s grounds. The rigs sported an array of vintage kitchens, elaborate window dressings and exterior displays of Sisters’ imagery and memorabilia. Each is a self-contained home away from home, with beds, a miniature fridge and a hookup for running water. The only thing missing is a bathroom—but that’s part of the fun of roughing it.
The time was passed playing bingo, trading stories over campfires, cooking Paula Deen desserts in a Dutch oven over coals and trading tips on everything from fly fishing to trailer design and restoration. By all accounts, they had a blast.
“I have a husband and a daughter, but that’s not all I am,” says April Tierney of Hillsborough. Tierney, who has been a member since 2006, arrived at the Pettits’ farm that weekend in her restored trailer bearing the name “Jersey Girl.”
“Sometimes I don’t want to answer to Mom, or ‘Hey babe, what time is dinner?’ Sometimes I just want to hang out and chill and be with these women, and maybe not wear a bra and maybe not shave my legs,” continues Tierney. “Being a Sister has also forced me to learn a lot of stuff I thought I needed a man to do. It forces you to learn what you’re capable of doing, and can do, but have chosen to let your husband do for you.”
Relaxing inside her 1959 Field and Stream—decorated with the look and feel of a cozy spare bedroom—Pettit declares she’ll be a Sister for the rest of her life. And she hopes to find more New Jersey women to join in the fun.
“I would love to build up the New Jersey sisterhood,” she says. “There have to be women who camp in New Jersey. But they should know that this goes beyond just camping. This is a subculture.”
Club membership runs $60 a year. Annual events include national “git togethers” and Cowgirl Caravans. To sign up, visit sistersonthefly.com, which has pages of tempting SOTF merchandise. On the second weekend in November, the Sisters will hold their annual season-closing campout in Frederick, Maryland. For more information, contact Pettit at firstname.lastname@example.org.