Common Tread

Reconnecting on the road: Getting my sister back on two wheels

Jan 01, 2018

I’m used to this: long days aboard a bike. Riding in sweltering heat. Giving up sunshine for a thick blanket of fog veiling the narrow mountain road ahead. I can easily forget the thousands of pin-pricks at my fingertips from a frigid ride, only to do it again.

Many, like me, gladly endure it all for those fleeting moments on our motorcycles. But all of this was foreign territory for my sister, Gigi. It was her first time packing a motorbike, let alone traveling any significant distance on one. Would her inaugural voyage consequently become the finale? Or would she say farewell to this quest anxious for the next? We were about to find out.

Gigi and Kyra
Gigi and Kyra, on the road together on two wheels for the first time. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

My sister’s first motorcycle tour

There’s an 18-year age difference between my sister and me. Growing up, I had more or less no connection with her as I had just accomplished complete sentences by the time she graduated college. As one might expect, it was Gigi who obtained her motorcycle endorsement first. I was shocked. And proud. Then weeks turned to months, months into years, and life hadn’t afforded her the time, the resources or the peace of mind to actually buy a motorbike. That was understandable. Her son was still very young, her husband worked full-time and luxuries like long-distance motorcycle expeditions couldn’t yet fit into her lifestyle.

Fast-forward a few more years and now I am a licensed motorcyclist. Justin and I are in perpetual motion, mostly by way of motorbike. Whenever we pass through Portland, Oregon, Justin and I gratefully bunk in my sister’s basement bedroom and Gigi would always ask: “Now where are you headed?” Asked not with a timbre of indifference or cordiality, but with a sort of fascination.

Maybe it was self-serving. Or maybe I could tell she, too, craved the thrill of travel. But I wanted to encourage my sister to jump back on a bike. Motorcycling was a subject she’d bring up like a lost dream, slowly losing its sharp edges. It would be a shame if she never revisited her desire to ride. And so, we decided to take my sister on an adventure. An opportunity to put her behind a set of handlebars.

What better bike than Honda’s new Rebel 500? The Rebel line is famous for introducing fresh faces to the tarmac’s two-wheeled division, and 2017’s models were completely updated to suit the needs of the modern world.

Honda Rebel 500
The old Honda Rebel was a first bike for many new riders, including Gigi. The new Rebel 500 is a big improvement in terms of modernization. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

When she’d said “yes” to our ambitious offer (we’ll get you a bike and gear and make all the plans; you practice like hell and give us 10 days in June), her seriousness wasn’t obvious until she brought home said ultimate go-to “beginner” bike: a clapped-out Rebel 250. Apropos? Then, as promised, she rode like hell…

Sharpening her abilities wasn’t easy, but Gigi’s skills improved rapidly. As the weeks progressed, she finally felt ready to take the Intermediate Rider Training course with Team Oregon Motorcycle Safety Program. The instructors were very hands-on, informative and constructive. They gave her tips on how to improve on her shortcomings and gave her added self-assurance in the skills she’d already picked up.

Come June, when we landed at LAX ready to ride, she was confident in her abilities. So was I. Then we pulled out of the garage and I was startled as “Ah, damn it!” echoed into my SENA headset.

You’d think I’d be concerned, or a little upset, when I turned to see my sister hopping away from her brand-new loaner Rebel 500 leaning on its luggage against the tarmac. I’m not going to lie. It was kind of funny. Hell, I knew she was fine and, frankly, I know exactly what it’s like — being embarrassed and frustrated for tipping my (wait, no, someone else’s) motorcycle. As far as I’m concerned, feeling like an ass at least once during an excursion is par for the course! At least this happened in a small way now, instead of later in a big way.

Minor mishap aside, we were well on our way to meet Justin 40 miles away, tackling her first and most formidable challenge: Los Angeles traffic. We moved slowly at first, but on the freeway, it’s a ready or not, here I come scenario, and I continually nudged my sister’s speed ever faster.

As if her earlier mistake meant not a thing, she bobbed and weaved, scanned the roads and made quick decisions. She followed my lead but rode her own ride. She rode like someone more seasoned. And it was then that all my fears for her melted away. We bonded over our achievements through our communication devices. Dodging this “jerk.” Or squeezing between a narrowing gap of cars like Indiana Jones in a high-speed boat chase. It was invigorating, hilarious at times, stressful at others, and the most fun we’d ever had together.

riding in the Sierras
Into the Sierras. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

A recent ride through the Sierra Mountains had left a good impression on Justin and myself. We took Gigi to experience a region rich with history, beautiful landscapes and two-lane mountain passes untouched by daily commuters. There, we discovered giants in the Sequoia National Park, down McKinley Grove, and explored everything on our way to China Peak Mountain Resort. At 8,000 feet, the road led us into the clouds. We clawed our way through cotton to reach our accommodations for the weekend. Frost nipped at our gear and when it finally broke through the fabric of my gloves, a freezing burn crept up my appendages. We went on. Because by this point, there was no going back. And a few nights of clear skies and moonlight at China Peak would do us some good. Giving us the time we needed to recoup before escaping the impending storm. When we left for good, the thermostat read something like “F-ing Cold” and stayed that way until we reached the base of the mountains, where we hastily stripped off our layers on the side of the busy highway.

changing gear
When the weather changes and its time for a gear change, it's good to have a helping hand. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Having escaped the cold mountains, we rode the Pacific Coast Highway for days, trying to keep cool in what felt like a massive heat wave. Gigi soaked it in, looking around and taking her time. Allowing her muscles to develop their memory so she could stop thinking and just cruise.

Along the Pacific Coast Highway. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

The real treat came when we ventured inland to New Cuyama and traversed Los Padres National Forest heading south on Highway 33. Massive rolling hills opened up to golden fields and plains stretching as far as the eye could see. When we’d least expect it, green would fill our peripherals only to give way again to sand and horizon. We were speeding like demons through this section, but the road put us in our place. We had been at the heels of two adventure bikes and a small Toyota for several miles and nearly dog-piled around a blind corner where a DOT truck clearing vegetation slow-rolled at a pace as good as parked.

My heart jumped out of my chest. The back tire chirped as it skipped behind me. First thought: Was Gigi able to stop? Is she spooked? Can she continue to ride?

“Gi? Are you OK?”

She’s OK. She kept calm. And I’m impressed by her resolve. Never skipping a beat, we continued the journey.

So will this motorcycle thing stick the second time around?

By the time we reached Honda’s garage to drop off our Rebels, we’d challenged herds of cars, twisted through alpines and paralleled the ocean — determined to let Gigi experience the full gamut of what California has to offer. Those last days on the road gave us a chance to reflect. To recall the exciting moments, discuss the lessons and make promises for the future. I’d learned more about my sister — her courage, level head, independence and laid-back demeanor — from watching her in my mirror than I had from years in her kitchen or cooped up in a car. Motorcycles do that. Building bridges and bringing people together. The Rebels did it for us. They were the catalyst for this trip and our new connection.

riding in the Sierras
A first trip made Gigi into a motorcyclist. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Months have passed and Gigi’s still riding. When Portland isn’t pouring rain, she runs errands and joyrides by herself, for the fun of it. And, honestly, I feel vindicated that what I had seen in her inquiries at the dinner table wasn’t a shallow attempt at conversation, but instead, genuine intrigue. Even a little innocent envy. And all it took to reignite her passion was a push. I’m proud to have had even some small part in that.

Now, when Justin and I sit with my sister at her dining room table, it’s we who ask, “Now where are you headed?”