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The Minister from Montana

For those of us who ride motorcycles, one of the things you realize after many years of riding and owning a variety of bikes is that the imprints motorcycles leave with us after we sell them are not always the same. Some bikes are more memorable than others; sometimes the people we encounter, and the memories we make as the world unrolls before us on the saddle are memories that last.

I had purchased a 1990 Honda VFR750 from a collector in Grand Rapids. The bike, red with spotless white rims, was sold to me in mint condition, practically as-new, with a shop manual and pages and pages of service and maintenance documentation that went all the way back to when the bike was purchased. A true "no stories, no excuses" bike, with about 13,000 miles on the clock. Having recently sold my SV650, I was in the market for a sport-touring bike that would hopefully not embarrass me too much at an occasional open track night. With its solid single-sided swingarm and silky smooth V-4 with gear-driven cams and about 105bhp on tap, the bike was a capable performer, yet very comfortable, even by modern-day standards.

I loved that bike. I've owned eight motorcycles at various points in my life, and the VFR is still my favorite. It carried me safely on trips all over my home state of Michigan. I had two great seasons riding the bike, and many adventures with it. I had bought the bike with the intention of "running the wheels off it", and I did. The first summer I had it, I used it to travel all over the state to visit with relatives, as I was exploring the genealogy and history of my family on my father’s side. I made trips to Traverse City, Clare, Mt. Pleasant, Greenville, and multiple trips to the village of Gowen to research in the archives of the Little Denmark Church (now Settlement Lutheran Church). The research was fascinating, though I had to learn how to read a little Danish to translate the records in the archives. While I was in Gowen, I headed north a few miles and stopped at my great-great grandfather’s farmhouse in the tiny village of Trufant. My great-great-grandfather, Hans Peter and his wife Dortea had immigrated to this area from Denmark in the 1870's. The house, which is still standing today, was built in 1896 after the original farmhouse they had built had burned down. The house was owned by my family through the 1970s. The couple who owns the house today were remarkably kind and invited me in for a tour, showing me several photos of my ancestors that they had found in the attic when they moved in. The farmhouse was quite large for its time, and the current owners have done a great job maintaining it. While I was there, the gentleman asked me to follow him outside. We walked about 50 yards behind the house under tall trees until we came out to a clearing of farmland. A really big clearing. "Look around", he said "all this land was once Hansen farmland. You can't see it all from here; the farm slowly grew as your family added acres and acres through the years." It was true; I knew that several hundred acres of farmland had been slowly liquidated after my great grandfather, Jay, passed in 1973. On the way back to the house we walked past what remained of a sealed well, and a subtle chill went through me. My great-uncle Walter had tragically fallen in that well and drowned in 1887. Walter was 5 years old. I had found the newspaper article about the accident in the microfiche newspaper archives at the Greenville Library. The farmhouse had a large wrap-around porch, and the owners insisted I "walk the porch" as my ancestors had done and they took a photo of me doing it. I am the only fifth-generation Hansen in my family to have done so.

My family, on the porch, 1909 The Hansen Farmhouse today

But back to Hondas...

I took other memorable trips on the bike as well, including a couple of blasts to the Upper Peninsula, journeying across the Mackinac Bridge, with a ferry ride over once to explore Drummond Island. A couple of trips up north just to ride M-22 and see the tunnel of trees on M-119, and miles and miles in between those trips for work in and around the Kalamazoo area. It seemed as though I was always taking the long way home, just to put in a few more miles of fun every time I rode it. Almost immediately after purchasing the bike I outfitted it with a tank bag, saddle bags and a tail bag; more than enough storage for occasional overnight trips. The bike was also a reasonably competent and stable track bike, and saw a couple of track nights at Grattan and Gingerman.

So why sell it?

The truth is I didn't really want to, but I noticed after the birth of my second child that I was not riding the bike nearly as much as I used to. A couple of close calls, one on M-22 and one at Gingerman helped me see that killing yourself on a motorcycle while you have a newborn at home is one of the more selfish ways to bring tragedy to a young family. So, the bike mostly sat, under a cover in my garage, and that third season I owned it I got it out maybe once a month. In the two preceding years I had put over 12,000 miles on the bike, and the third year I had only ridden it about 500 miles. It bothered me sitting there. When I was riding it regularly, I was maintaining it meticulously; cleaning it all the time and immediately tending to everything that it needed as the miles wore on. I had even made arrangements to park the bike in a warehouse across the street from my office on days I rode the bike to work to keep the 23-year-old plastic and original paint from baking in the sun all day as I rode it to work as often as I could. A decision point was coming; sell or ride. So late that summer I halfheartedly placed an ad on Craigslist with a link to a YouTube video I had shot of the bike. I priced it at the upper end, as it was still in amazing shape.

I heard nothing for about a month, and as it was headed into the fall I was thinking the bike was going to go into storage for the winter after all. Maybe I didn't want to sell anyway...

Then one afternoon in early September my phone rang. The caller asked if I still had the Honda for sale. I said that I still had it, but was considering keeping it. We talked about the bike for a few minutes and I learned that the caller was from Montana. He had watched the video of the bike and was adamant that this was the bike he wanted, as he had bought a red VFR 750 new in 1990 and sold it after a few years. In a fit of nostalgia, he wanted another VFR and was scouring the country for the nicest one he could find. Would I be willing to hold the bike until he could fly in to Michigan to pick it up and ride home?

"No problem" was my reply, but I insisted he bring cash or mail me a check that would clear my bank before he took delivery. He said he would bring cash, and for my full asking price. He said he would make travel arrangements and let me know when he was coming. Truth be told, I was a little skeptical at the time, I didn't really believe this deal was going to happen. A week went by with no contact, I didn't think much of it, and then I got another call... He had his plane ticket; in three days he would be flying to Grand Rapids, renting a car, and driving south to Kalamazoo to pick up the bike. We made arrangements to meet at the airport in Kalamazoo where he could drop off his rental car and ride out. That night, I went out into the garage to uncover the bike and get it ready to be picked up. When I took the cover off, I noticed a little oil on the ground under the left front fork. Leaky seal. A visit to the Honda dealer the next day scored me the necessary fork seals and the night before the bike was to be picked up my brother and I dismantled the forks and replaced the seals on both sides. Forks reassembled, air bled, and leak-free, the bike was ready to go. I was supposed to meet the buyer at the airport around 6 PM the next night.

A flight delay in Minneapolis caused him to not get to Kalamazoo until nearly midnight. He came walking up in the dimly lit parking lot carrying a helmet, wearing leather boots, jeans, a riding jacket and a backpack. He had long dark hair and a scruffy beard. As he approached, several things occurred to me at once- I was meeting a stranger alone, (I had dropped off my car at the airport earlier that day so I could drive back home) this was a craigslist deal, it was the middle of the night, and I was supposed to walk away from this with several thousand dollars cash. The guy walked right past the bike and eagerly shook my hand, introducing himself with a smile. He seemed in a hurry, and almost immediately after shaking my hand, he pulled a big wad of cash out of his pocket. I tried to slow things down a little.

“Why don’t you have a look at the bike first,” I said. I had brought along a flashlight for him to use, but he passed on that and walked a quick lap around the bike, not bothering to hear it run. “Looks great, man, this is just what I’ve been looking for!” Again, he pulled out the money.

We sat on a bench in the parking lot while we inked the deal. I filled out the title to complete the sale and he handed over the money for me to count. I had thought to bring a counterfeit ink pen to check the bills with and checked several of them with no issue. With the money counted and tucked away, we exchanged the paperwork and I walked over to the bike with him, asking what his plan was. He planned on riding to Chicago that night and finding a hotel. From there, he was going to make his way across Iowa, South Dakota and Wyoming. He was planning to meet up with his son at Yellowstone National Park and spend a couple of days riding around the park with him on his way back to his home in Butte. I asked what he did in Butte and he said he was a minister of a small church there, and a roofer on the side as well. We spent a few more minutes in pleasant conversation talking motorcycles, family and careers. With that, he climbed on the bike, we shook hands, and I watched him ride off into the night, off on adventures, making memories of his own, on one amazing bike. Standing there in the middle of a cool September night, my faith in the decency of humanity momentarily reaffirmed, a thought came to me- until it’s proven to me otherwise, I’ll continue to believe the tagline coined by the company in the early sixties- “You meet the nicest people on a Honda.”

Happy Motoring.

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