The sharp crack of the bat connecting with the ball, the cheering of the crowd and the brush of the helmet against her ears.
That’s what made up the soundtrack to Rilee Stookey’s life for the better part of a decade.
Home plate was the only home the recent Southern Utah University graduate needed in her teenage years as she found success on the softball field, but an overwhelming schedule and growing expectations soon led her to a new home in the tropical paradise of Hawaii.
After graduating from Desert Hills High School in 2017, the avid softball player found herself with a full-ride sports scholarship to College of Southern Nevada.
A stellar performance freshman year earned her the Female Rookie of the Year award out of the entire pool of CSN athletes, and she carried it with her to SUU in fall of 2018 and Utah State University Eastern the following spring.
However; the years of softball began to catch up with Stookey to the point that, according to her, the sport “became too much of a job and lost the fun.”
By the end of the 2019 spring season, she made the decision to hang up her cleats and traded them in for a ticket to the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
“I got done playing college softball and said ‘I’ve always wanted to go to Hawaii’ so I packed my bags, found [Brigham Young University-Hawaii] housing and googled things to do in Laie, Hawaii,” Stookey said.
The island paradise became her summer home and the gentle chorus of the waves lapping at the beach was the new soundtrack to her life as she guided zipline tours for Climbing Works Keana Farms, an outdoor Hawaiian adventure company on the island.
“It was a blast and super pretty,” Stookey said. Everyday she took in the beauty of the island from a vantage point some people only ever experience once in their life if they’re lucky.
Each tour lasted three hours and featured eight side-by-side ziplines, four sky bridges, two controlled rappels and panoramic views of the Ko’olau Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
Stookey started her tours by leading her group to the first zipline where they were fitted with harnesses and given instructions. Then she began her favorite part of the tours.
“I would push them,” she said with a smile. “I get them all hooked up and ready to go then I give them instructions and when I tell them to practice by putting their legs up I give them a shove.”
Screams would follow Stookey’s unforeseen move, but more often than not they changed to excited shouts and laughing down the line.
“I would have people be super scared,” she said. “But by the end they would be loving it.”
Her days on the island would consist of six to seven hours of zipline tours, and when that fun was over, more began.
The island never failed to provide off-hours entertainment for the Utah native and her co-workers who would find new beaches to explore, enjoy the ocean and make the weekly trip to Kaneohe for five-dollar movie nights on Tuesdays.
“My coworkers were the best part,” Stookey said. Between work adventures and after-hours trips, she made a number of friends from the group of 30 guides working with her that summer.
However, like all sunny days, her time working at the zipline drew to a close as the fall semester neared.
She returned to Utah where she continued pursuing her agriculture degree at SUU during the fall of 2019, but her time in Hawaii was not quickly forgotten. It was only a matter of time before Stookey began looking for more opportunities that would take her back to the islands.
Early on in the spring of 2020, before COVID-19 had surfaced in America, she began the process of applying for another guiding job on the island of Oahu, but instead of ziplines she would be leading horseback tours.
Stookey learned about the Gunstock Ranch through her previous research of the island. The ranch offered a number of agritourism experiences including eco-tours, horseback rides, tree plantings and off-road adventures.
As an agriculture major and an experienced tour guide, she was excited to try for a job with the company. She filled out her application, had a virtual interview and when all was said and done, she was preparing to return to work on the island.
Just as she began packing her wardrobe and making arrangements at home, COVID-19 concerns escalated, resulting in multiple lockdown and work-from-home orders being initiated in many states.
Uncertainty and travel restrictions barred Stookey from returning to the island to begin her new role during the summer of 2020. Instead, she returned to SUU to complete her final semester and her bachelor’s degree in the fall.
Deep into the semester with finals approaching, she received a call from Gunstock Ranch asking if she would be willing to accept a job at the ranch right away as business was booming.
“In November they had a big rush,” Stookey said. “And I was at the top of their list.”
With classes going remote after fall break, she accepted the position, and began training in time for the Christmas rush while finishing her classes online.
At the 970 acre ranch, Stookey guided tours through the pastures and forests of the property. With a herd of 100 cows in the thick of calving season, it was not uncommon for her and her group to come across the animals and their new young.
Stookey became acquainted with the horses and came to learn each one’s personality as well as their “pecking order.”
“I learned all the horse’s names and who goes with who and who’s trying to kill who today,” she said.
There was never a dull moment on the rides as some horses would lay down or spook, but working with the animals was a highlight of her time there.
The softball player, turned zipline instructor, turned cowgirl returned to Utah on Feb. 1.
“I felt like it was time,” she said. “I was ready to come home.”
Now the 2020 graduate plans to work closer to home and possibly pursue a master’s degree in therapy later on. For now, she hopes to find a more permanent residence, noting that “picking up and starting over every four months is hard.”
Although she does not plan to return to the islands to work anytime soon, she is grateful for the memories and lessons learned during her time there and for those she was able to work with.
“Everyone is always looking out for everyone,” Stookey said. “It’s like a big family.”
Story by: Mikyla Bagley
Photos Courtesy of Rilee Stookey