Star Magazine

Camping in style: Luxury meets the great outdoors at Hoot Owl Hill

It’s a balmy spring day on Hoot Owl Hill as Brenda Wrischnik scampers across Kelly-green grass in pursuit of a stubborn chicken that has flown the coop.

Scooping up the clucking Speckled Sussex and plopping it safely in a wire enclosure with fellow menagerie mates, including golden-beaked Indian Runner ducks, Brenda walks briskly toward a field dotted with three colorful bell-shaped tents.

Destination reached, she stops momentarily, surveying the wind-blown hill, hands stuffed into faded overall pockets.

“Welcome,” Brenda beams, “to glamping, Paola-style.”

Glamping is the marriage of glamour and camping — the absence of sleeping on lumpy ground, complemented by resort-style amenities.

The trend swept Europe several years ago and found an adoring fan club in the United States. Glamping is Hoot Owl Hill’s specialty.

A jaunty pink bandana tied around Brenda’s neck and her blousy cotton-candy-pink linen shirt suggest more citified farm girl style than glamp-ground proprietor.

“Here,” she gestures toward a spacious structure with flaps tied back, “is your tent.”

Propped against the exterior, a wooden sign proclaims “Keep Calm! Glamp On!”

Softly illuminated by late afternoon sun, the tent’s cozy interior — with a 10-foot-high ceiling — is reminiscent of the romantic Meryl Streep-Robert Redford tearjerker “Out of Africa.”

“One of my favorite movies,” Brenda says.

Forget that the backdrop isn’t a lush East African plain, but a 1,050-foot-high east central Kansas hill with sweeping vistas of territory rich in Civil War history.

Territory that was abolitionist John Brown’s hangout back in the day.

Territory that now plays muse to contemporary entrepreneurs such as Brenda and husband Steve Wrischnik, goat farmers and winery owners along the popular Somerset Wine Trail.

Brenda’s personal tour of the glamping tent reveals attention to detail.

Layers of antique quilts are piled on a queen-size bed. Marshmallow-plump pillows beckon sweet dreams.

Chunky candles in lanterns are scattered on linen-topped tables, floral-pattern rugs disguise the tent’s floor, and generous wicker chairs flank the bed.

The Wrischniks have embraced the glamping trend, which took off in the Pacific Northwest several years ago and spread eastward.

Glamping accommodations are as varied as the region. There are yurts overlooking Big Sur, canvas tent-houses nestled in rustic Wisconsin woods and fancy canvas tents with electricity and buckets of bubbly in upstate New York.

Glamping’s common denominator, regardless of geography: creature comforts and a measure of relaxation.

The Wrischniks’ interpretation is situated on 14 acres of country paradise overlooking the picturesque Marais des Cygne River Valley. The rural Miami County location is about 45 minutes from Johnson County’s bustling southern suburbs.

Avid gardeners and entertainers, the Wrischniks purchased the property perched on Paola’s second-highest elevation after making a tough decision to sell their painstakingly renovated 125-year-old Paola Victorian. They moved to Paola in 2000, after getting married. Brenda is from Overland Park, Steve originally from the San Francisco area.

“That rehab was a combination of blood, sweat and tears,” says Brenda of the home and grounds they resurrected. It became a place for garden parties and Christmas homes tours.

Self-proclaimed “project people,” Brenda, 60, and Steve, 65, knew something else was on the horizon — they just didn’t know life’s new chapter would involve unkempt land adorned by a 1960s-era abandoned house. She is an administrative assistant to the CEO and the branch manager of First Option Bank in Paola. Steve is an independent real estate appraiser and is self-employed.

“Steve brought me here on a summer day in 2011,” Brenda says, “and I saw possibility amongst overgrown grass and dead trees.”

But before the Wrischniks purchased the property, they wanted their friend Lenora Larson — whom Brenda considers her “barometer of reason” — to take a peek.

“As Steve and Lenora explored, I stumbled across a concrete statue of an owl, half-buried in dirt outside,” Brenda says.

The rest of the story: Larson loved the property, the Wrischniks signed on the dotted line and their new adventure was christened Hoot Owl Hill.

The Wrischniks lived in a recreational vehicle parked in the driveway during six months of construction. The forlorn house was torn down, and a log-sided home was built on the existing foundation. The couple replaced wild foliage with flower, herb and vegetable gardens.

In 2012, they planted 400 grapevines. They bought guinea fowl, native to sub-Saharan Africa, to eat insects and ticks and stocked up on chickens for fresh eggs and ducks just for the heck of it.

They created gardens from hay bales and consulted with a butterfly expert to cultivate a habitat.

A cat found its way to Hoot Owl Hill, took up residence and started a family.

Finally, the Wrischniks were ready to share their piece of nirvana.

“It was time to put out the welcome mat,” Brenda says.

Steve remembers when Brenda first mentioned glamping.

“ 

‘OK’ was my response. I went with it.”

The couple researched glamping and in 2013 purchased Sibley-style tents from England. They scoured their belongings and flea markets for tent decor.

They found a covered wagon on a Wyoming ranch and shipped it to Paola for another cozy lodging option.

Brenda developed a glamping menu. Guests can bring their own food or enjoy one of her gourmet dinners, often made with home-grown ingredients, on the home’s wraparound porch. A hearty country-style breakfast, including Brenda’s from-scratch cinnamon rolls, is served at the house or delivered to the tent.

Steve built an open-air wooden outdoor spa, outfitted with a chandelier and shabby-chic sink. The piece de resistance: a vintage claw-foot tub for bubble baths under the stars.

“More than anything, we want glampers to relax and enjoy the surroundings,” Steve says, “and that includes a campfire. Lots of s’mores and hot dogs are cooked at the glampsite.”

Finally, the Wrischniks were ready to test the setup on the most critical of focus groups: their family.

Reviews from the grandkids to the kids’ boyfriends were robust, so the Wrischniks hung their glamping shingle out on Osawatomie Road.

“Our first customers were as eclectic as the experience,” Brenda recalls. “A young woman from New York City who produces MTV videos and her Australian boyfriend with

dreadlocks.”

Hoot Owl Hill’s debut season was a success, despite a trickle of glampers.

“We got a late start and had to build excitement and educate people on what glamping is all about,” Brenda says. “All of our business was word-of-mouth.”

Now in their second season, the Wrischniks are finding eager disciples, including a septet from Kansas City who kicked off Hoot Owl Hill’s 2014 season one recent Saturday.

Glamp leader Kellie Overocker’s parents discovered Hoot Owl Hill during last year’s Miami County Farm Tour.

“My folks knew this was my kind of thing,” says Overocker, a Mission resident, hairstylist and mother to a 9-month-old daughter.

Overocker has gathered six pals for the girls’ glamping weekend. They’ve toted in cheese, crackers and snacks, adult beverages and s’mores fixings, along with maracas and other rhythm instruments for entertainment.

Before the women settle in, they hop the Miami County Trolley for a day of wine tasting.

Brian and Michelle Roberts, Paola residents and trolley company owners, started the shuttle business along the Somerset Wine Trail about the same time as the Wrischniks opened Hoot Owl Hill.

“We usually pick up our customers on the Paola Square, but if a group of guests is staying at a bed-and-breakfast in town or Hoot Owl Hill, we go to the property and take them on the tour,” Brian Roberts says. “It’s wonderful to collaborate with the creative business owners in this neck of the woods.”

The wineries include Somerset Ridge Vineyard Winery, Nighthawk Vineyard Winery, Middle Creek Winery and White Wind Farms.

Brenda likes the Roberts’ convenient concierge service, and the two have a symbiotic relationship.

“When we get reservations from folks interested in going on the wine trail tour, I always refer them to Miami County Trolley, for safety’s sake and the fun factor,” Brenda says.

Returning to Hoot Owl Hill in late afternoon, Overocker and friends swoon over two large tents Brenda has customized for their home away from home.

“Can you believe this?” Overocker crows. “I’ll just move in.”

As milky dusk descends on Hoot Owl Hill, twinkly lights from Paola’s downtown appear in the distance. A moon rises in the wide-open expanse of sky, and owls hoot from clumps of cedar trees. A plaintive train whistle carries across the crisp night air.

Steve stokes a roaring campfire as the women, wrapped in sweaters and blankets, cluster in chairs around the flames, enjoying nature’s symphony.

As dusk melts into dark and constellations light the sky, Brenda prepares dinner at the house: tri-tip roast with potatoes, sautéed cherry tomatoes and fresh rolls. Mason jars of espresso pot de crème with mounds of fluffy whipped cream chill on a tray in the refrigerator. Wedges of Terabithia Dairy Goat Farm cheese from the Wrischniks’ neighbors are served with glasses of iced tea.

The next morning, Overocker and her entourage are greeted with egg-and-sausage casserole and hot cinnamon rolls washed down by steaming cups of coffee.

Reluctantly, suitcases are collected afterward. Overocker and her friends snap selfies by the covered wagon and invite Brenda and Steve to pose on the front steps of the house.

“We are coming back, you know,” Overocker teases. “We’re already making plans.”

“Remember, glamping is a state of mind,” Brenda reassures, waving the season’s first crop of satisfied glampers down the driveway.

As if on cue, a multihued butterfly floats past Brenda. She smiles contentedly, spying the errant chicken on the loose once again at Hoot Owl Hill.

Hoot Owl Hill: Glamping 411 Slumber in

Spacious bell-shaped tents or cozy gypsy wagons put a glamorous spin on camping. Stylish decor includes beds covered in linens and quilts.

Awaken to

Birds, moos of neighboring cows, beautiful gardens and groves of cedar trees.

Glamp on

Rates start at $75 per person per night, depending on the season, which runs April through October, and the options visitors choose (such as dinner). A hearty homestyle breakfast is included.

Reservations are required. Go to

HootOwlGardens.com

or call

913-271-7451

to inquire about availability and special events.

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