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Death Valley ride takes bike below sea level
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The camera zoom lens magnifies the sea level sign.

In the 1950s and '60s, Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen, two of my screen idols, and some of their Hollywood cronies would head out into the desert on their motorcycles most weekends.

I read about their adventures and dreamed of the day when I might be able to do what they were doing. So when my daughter, Sarah, finally announced that she would marry last May, I had an excuse to be in Los Angeles where she lives.

I decided to fly out a few days before the wedding and rent a bike for my long-awaited excursion in the tire treads of my heroes. The wedding was on a Saturday early in May. I traveled out the Sunday before with a 2008 Harley Ultra reserved for Monday morning pickup. The '08 Ultra has a six-speed transmission that I was anxious to try.

I tooled north out of LA, picking up Calif. 14 just south of Santa Clara. The ride north was scenic in the clear desert air.

Along the way, I encountered some fairly steep hills where I could try the Harley's new overdrive. It's fine for long, flat expanses but it's a real dog on the hills. My five-speed Road King will hold speed on most any challenging incline. Not so for the new six-speed.

In Ridgecrest, Calif., I checked into a local motel and went searching for a good place for my evening meal. The motel had a continental breakfast and, armed with that the following morning, I headed north once again. At Olancha, Calif., I swung east onto Calif. 190, an incredibly beautiful ride through the high desert. I climbed through Townes Pass in the Panamint Range at just under 5,000 feet elevation. At that point, I began my descent into Death Valley, and it was spectacular.

The valley is about 100 miles long and I'll bet I could see a good 50 miles south as I cruised slowly down to Stovepipe Wells on the valley floor. There, I stopped to rest, gas up (there are not a lot of gas options and it was more than $5 a gallon last May) and have a cool drink.

It was close to noon and the temperature in the valley was already more than 100 F. The air, of course, is extremely dry so it's important to stay hydrated. From Stovepipe Wells, I headed to Scotty's Castle at the north end of the valley.

The story goes that Walter Scott was a down-and-out gold prospector in 1920s Death Valley when he came across Albert and Bessie Johnson, wealthy tourists from Chicago. Scott and Albert Johnson became fast friends and Scott convinced his new patron to build a vacation retreat at the north end of Death Valley. The Johnsons weren't there very much, so Scotty, as he was nicknamed by Johnson, was clerk of the works. He lived the rest of his life in "The Castle" as the Johnsons' caretaker. It's a unique structure that was never finished. Today, it isn't much more than a tourism oddity.

From Scotty's Castle, I blitzed (very little traffic) south to the Furnace Creek, Calif., and the Furnace Creek Inn (it's very nice; stay there, not at the Ranch Resort, which is much pricier). There I had a good meal and bedded down for the night.

I rose at 5:30 a.m. (sunrise) so I could get an early start and avoid the heat of the day, since the air conditioning of my ride was merely the breeze I could create. I rode south through the valley to Badwater Basin, which is 300 feet below sea level. There I stopped for a good while to absorb the surroundings and to take some pictures.

I've never experienced such desolation. Since school was not yet out for the summer, there were few people in the park (yes, it's a national park). Badwater is aptly named; it is a salt-laden valley about 12 miles wide with zero vegetation. Snow-capped mountains border the west side of the valley. I guess the lack of vegetation leads to no insects, which leads to no birds, which leads to no animals of any kind. It is a God-forsaken place. Since there is no wildlife, there are no sounds at all save the wind. It looked like what I imagine the moon to look like.

I took several pictures and turned to go. As I did so, I noticed a sign way up on a precipice behind me. I couldn't read the sign, so I used the 10-power zoom on my camera to magnify the image. The sign read, "SEA LEVEL." It was 300 feet over my head - a strange feeling!

With the temperature more than 100 F again at noon, I headed back to the inn and some lunch. In the afternoon, I braved the heat for a two-mile walk to get the lay of the land. Then I lay by the pool for the rest of the day.

On my third day out, I checked out of the hotel and headed south. After lunch, I picked up Interstate 15 and headed west to LA.

Along this route, I had one of my most interesting biking experiences. Traffic on I-15 100 miles east of Los Angeles was light and moving along in four lanes at about 80 mph.

I settled into the flow of traffic, when suddenly there was a fierce cross wind that whipped the bike around a bit. But I'm an experienced traveler, so no big deal, right?

Now, I generally wear a flip-up, full-face helmet - a carryover from my wife's influence and a good plan. The rental bike came with an open-face helmet. No problem; I've rented before that way and even ridden, in states that allow it, with no helmet.

So when this stiff cross wind whips across my face, it also collected my titanium-frame, lightweight prescription glasses - without which I'm close to blind.

And as they flew away, I remembered my spare set was back at my daughter's place.

I pulled well off the shoulder and walked back up the road to no avail. Not only were cars and truck zooming by, but I couldn't see a dang thing anyway.

What to do?

I had a fleeting image of calling my daughter and asking her to come pick me up, now two days before her wedding. I quickly decided that she might have something better to do just then than having to look after her wayward old man!

I was near a Barstow exit on the interstate, so I carefully and slowly rode to it and into an adjacent strip mall where I was lucky enough to find a California Welcome Center. I told the folks there my plight and they graciously gave me a list of optometrists in Barstow; but none could give me immediate service. One of them did tell me there was a while-you-wait optometrist in Victorville, 30 miles to the west.

So, after a call there to confirm that I could get new glasses there, I hopped on the bike - staying in the far right-hand lane at no more than 60 mph - and made my way to Victorville. Three hours (and $800) later, I picked up my new peepers.

At that point, I was tired and stressed from the afternoon's ordeal, so I checked into a local hotel and called my daughter to give her an update. After listening to my tale of woe, she exclaimed, "Dad, why didn't you take a taxi from Barstow to Victorville and back?"

"Oh, never even thought of that, Sarah," I replied.

"Well," she responded, "we're not going to talk about this right now, but we're not done talking about it!" I cringed, but she hasn't mentioned it since and I'm certainly not about to!

The following morning I cruised on into LA and returned the Ultra - a very nice, comfortable ride with loads of luggage space. I then took a cab to Sarah's - no way was I going to ask her to pick me up!

Oh, by the way, the wedding was terrific.