Culture Caylee Hankins: The Artifacts We Leave BehindRemembering The Life And Work Of This Lil' Rebel.
- Words Iron & Air Staff
- Images Caylee Hankins, & Stephanie Sian-Smith
Last spring, after leading seven women across the Sahara Desert on a weeklong motorcycle adventure, photographer Caylee Hankins was diagnosed with cancer, and in late October 2020 she passed away at the age of 31. Her untimely death rattled the international motorcycling community, because anyone who met Caylee instantly loved her, and understandably so. She was a fearless, pint-sized terror on the flat track but also a bubbly ball of joy when she was in the pits, making conversation with anyone and everyone, speaking genuinely and unapologetically. Insatiably adventurous and gleefully curious, Caylee traveled the globe with camera in hand, and once you saw the world through her eyes and her lens, you loved her even more. Her mother, Jane, says, “Caylee was the kind of person who had to figure what she didn’t want before she figured out what she did,” and when Caylee started riding motorcycles and shooting photography, it became her entire life. “It was the freedom, the adventure, that she was looking for. It was our Caycay on a never-ending adventure, loving life and knowing how to do it properly. She was a magnet for all things joyous and fun, and never gave up trying.”
As a young girl Caylee was always diving into new projects, trying dance, ballet, and every school performance possible, and she was one of the fastest on sports day. She joined Northampton’s girls football team and soon got the opportunity to trial for Coventry City. She owned and cared for a horse which soon spiraled into owning three horses and competing, always coming away with a rosette or trophy. Whatever she put her time and energy into she wanted to be at the top, but she hadn’t quite found something that felt like hers.
Caylee was the kind of person who had to figure what she didn’t want before she figured out what she did. Her love of photography spawned from a disposable camera that captured her love of her friends and sporadic hobbies, and then traveling became another hobby and cemented her need for adventure. I remember Caylee asking me, “I have all these projects and jobs and not one of them stick, when will I know what my thing is, what my career will be?” As her mother all I could do was reassure her that she would find it, and she did.
After moving to London in her mid-twenties Caylee found a new social circle and spotted an interest in motorbikes and flat tracking. It was going to be like all of her other hobbies, and she was going to throw herself in. She paired this hobby with her love of capturing her travels, friends, strangers, and love of bikes through the lens. Practicing her photography craft only grew with her hunger and style as a rider, and soon she was flat tracking and getting booked for photography gigs. It seemed she had firmly placed herself on the right path. We didn’t know it was going to be the thing she was searching for or that it was going to become her entire life and encompass all her interests; it was the freedom, the adventure, that she was looking for.
As a mum I got the sleepy Caycay showing up with bin bags of washing and stories after the jobs ended, from repairing bikes on the side of the road in small villages in Thailand to being held up at gunpoint in South America. It never quite felt like someone talking about their work. It was just our Caycay on a never-ending adventure, loving life and knowing how to do it properly. I told her, “This isn’t a trial run, you only get one shot,” but she never needed reminding of this.
Looking back now, knowing all I know, I would say to Caycay how proud of the amazing woman she is. Her work was her life, and neither would have happened without her tenacity, love of people, and talent. She was a magnet for all things joyous and fun, and never gave up trying.
Who gets their motorcycle license and immediately pushes off to the other side of the planet to ride the wild roads of Vietnam for two months? Caylee was unlike anyone I’ve met— a magnetic beacon of energy— and instantly I knew she would be in my life forever. When she returned home to London, we bought ourselves two vintage Hondas and before long were immersed in motorcycle culture.
We raced side by side at the Dirt Quake finals in 2016, when Caylee flew full speed into a massive wall. I remember cupping her face in my hands and kissing her and saying, “I don’t know what I would do if something happened to you.” Next thing you know Cay’s doing jumps off a ramp on my bike in a field behind the arena. An absolute nutter, nothing could stop her. Bruised but never broken.
Caycay worked harder than any person I knew, and nothing fell into her lap. She hustled, made connections, followed through, and always showed up, and yet still made time for motocross, flat-track races, and surf trips, always practicing, shooting, and leaving a trail of hearts uplifted by her enigmatic personality and effervescence. “Spanks” was fearless and would pick up a conversation with anyone at anytime, anywhere, and be absolutely unapologetic about every goddamn thing she said, yet so mindful and kind. Her soul was coated in gold.
It took 31 years for me to find her, and that’s as long she lived. She taught me so many valuable life lessons and continues to do so in death. I thought we had all of the time in the world, even though we lived like there’s only the here and now. She rides with me every day and you best believe that she’s sending it, full throttle on another astral plane. If I listen close, I hear the echoes of her snort laughing like the absolute goofball that she is.
“Good morning, lovely bum! I woke up on the right side of the bed. Let’s get out and fucking ride.” If you knew Caylee, you’ll re-read this quote and hear that unforgettable voice of hers in your head. Rugby and Daventry, via East London. If you didn’t know Caylee, you’ll instantly recognize the adventurer she was.
Every fiber of her being coveted dirt and engine noise. She was accomplished rider and technically adept, but never a show-off, and she rode fast and hard, and inspired others to do the same, unpretentiously leading by example. I am fortunate to be just one of the women who Caylee galvanized with an irrepressible, urgent need for travel and her positive attitude toward, well, life. She was an accidental hero for many, though I’m not certain she ever knew it.
In 2019, we traveled to Morocco together for a week of riding, and the desert turned out to be one of Caylee’s best-loved habitats. She adored the infinite sweeping landscapes, those powdery crumb-capped dunes rolling as far as the human eye can distinguish, rubbing up against dusky rose-colored skies. It’s a place embodying such celestial beauty and mystery, and Caylee wanted to conquer it, own it, and rode for days over hundreds of kilometers, searching for a decisive response to the question every adventure rider asks themselves at one time or another: Am I done yet?
She was spectacular and relentless, but she hadn’t finished with those dunes and left a piece of her heart there, and in 2020 she went back to find it. Given a chance, I’d wager she’d be out there again this year, ringing herself dry, hunting down her most satisfying desert experience yet. Wherever I go next—Namibia, the Gambia, California, or those Moroccan dunes—Caylee’s cheerful song will continue to rattle around my lid. I will get out, and I will fucking ride.
Late one night at Babes Ride Out in October 2019, I overheard a bubbly British accent chatting about enduro racing with a friend of mine. I jumped into the conversation and met this powerhouse of a woman, and it only took about 30 seconds for me to fall in love with Caylee Hankins. She looked me in the eye and asked, “We’re riding dirt bikes across Morocco, want to join?” We barely knew each other but she had me figured out, and five months later we were reunited at a kasbah in Marrakech with six other women.
We ate each other’s dust while passing caravans of camels, white-knuckled through hail storms in the Jbel Saghro mountains, rode up to the crest of a dune for sunset beers, and bivouac camped under the dark desert sky. Little did I know then that the handful of days spent trekking across the Sahara would be my final moments with Caylee. Reminiscing about the epic memories we made in Morocco, little in-between moments began to surface where the depth of Caylee’s character shone through: her generously offering encouragement as we struggled in the deep sand to her abundant kindness toward every local we crossed paths with. She got tossed off her KTM while ripping through a dry riverbed and jumped right back up without complaint, only a smile and enthusiasm to press on.
Caylee was joy personified. She pulled people together and loved hard. Her warmth was palpable and she had this way of making you feel seen and known. Fearless, intrepid, and filled to the brim with curiosity, ready to jump into any adventure with her camera in hand. One week with this remarkable woman will never feel like enough, but every second of it was a gift.
At a flat-track race, I spotted this whirlwind of energy, laughter, gorgeousness, and fierce determination, wrapped up in a bright red set of leathers with “L’il Rebel” emblazoned across the back. My then 13-year-old daughter also saw her and said, “She’s very cool, I want to meet her.” We went up to Caylee, who ended on the podium that day, and she made my daughter feel listened to and seen. She had a way with people and particularly kids; you can’t bullshit kids because they can tell if you are not genuine, and my daughter immediately fell for her, like many of us did.
A year later we met again at the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride in London, when Caylee was taking photographs hanging off the back of a motorbike, riding pillion, but backwards, way more intent on getting great shots than her personal safety. A few weeks later I asked her to join my production company as a photographer and director in the making. She had serious talent and a great eye, but also a steely ambition and creativity bubbling out of her. She listened and learned, and there was no stopping her, or so it seemed.
The rest we know, and it wasn’t supposed to be this way, but that’s not what I remember her for. I remember one of the most amazing humans I have had the pleasure to know and love, and I am grateful for every moment I spent in her company.
Caylee was the type of friend you can only dream of having in your life— a pure spirit, always kind-hearted and welcoming. She packed as much as she could into every day, week, and month, while still finding time to be there for her friends, and she taught me to not waste a single day and made me realize that all we have are our memories and those we share it with.
One of my favorite memories with Caylee is when we met Cherry Charters, AKA “Pink Pilot,” and spent the day with her on an island just offshore of Kent, photographing her life in her pink caravan, and at the end of the day Cherry offered to take us both up in her 1953 Cub to fly over London. It was one of many happy experiences we shared.
As I reflect and remember, though, it’s the simple things that I miss the most. Those morning coffee moments, sitting down and plotting what to do next as if there was not a moment to waste. Caylee was always coming up with ideas, with boundless energy to fulfill them. Her infectiously spontaneous attitude was so captivating that you could never say no to her; even if you didn’t feel like base jumping off a bridge in France, you’d do it anyway.
Despite her illness, which she never dwelled on for too long, Caylee was always plotting the next adventure: moto-surfing in Costa Rica, road tripping to Devon for the summer, and converting her van into a camper home. She couldn’t wait to get better and live free on the road to do all the things she loved, equipped with her motorcycles and surfboards, leaving London in her rearview mirror. She was unstoppable in so many ways, and I miss her endlessly, forever grateful to have had such an adorable little sidekick in my life.
The last time I saw Caylee, she visited me in Southern California and we spent a month together, riding, surfing, taking pictures, and sleeping side-by-side in my EuroVan, camping down at the beach as often as possible. Our last weekend together we planned to relax and hang out at my house, but then Caylee heard that the Born Free Sportsman’s Cup flat-track race was happening and that a friend from England had a bike she could race, so we packed up and took off, and camped under a full moon near Lake Cachuma.
At daybreak we drove to the track, where Caylee busted out the cooking gear from my van and made us an English-style breakfast before proceeding to gear up, duct taping a much-too-large, borrowed metal hotshoe to her boot. She didn’t hesitate to jump on the Harley-Davidson that she’d never seen or ridden, and proceeded to kick some very serious ass, winning first place in the “Run What You Brung” class. With her with a trophy in one hand and a beer in the other, we jumped our dirty selves back into my van and headed to the beach to meet some friends. Caylee again cooked us an amazing meal, under the light of the moon and a few headlamps, and in the morning we pulled on our wetsuits to grab a morning surf as a seal and pod of dolphins bobbed around in the water.
That night she missed her flight home, and in hindsight I’m so grateful because I was gifted another 24 hours with this “Li’l Rebel.” If you spent one day with Caylee, she’d be your best friend or, more specifically, you would be her best friend. For a pint-sized person, she lived big and loved even bigger. Thank you, Caylee, for years of friendship and inspiration.