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Tour the West on a rented motorcycle

VALLEY OF FIRE STATE PARK, Nev. — If you love touring by motorcycle, but your destination is too far from home to take your bike, a rental may be the perfect alternative.

Motorcycle rentals are available almost anywhere worth seeing, whether it's riding from Chicago to Los Angeles on Route 66, through northwest Canada to Alaska, or even in the Himalayas or the Alps.

My choice was a Harley-Davidson for a ride through an expanse of desert in southern Nevada, where the scorching summer temperatures were matched only by the breathtaking vistas. Petrified sand dunes have been shaped here over the millennia into red formations with illusions of flames that give the place its name and feel: Valley of Fire.

My trip started in Las Vegas, where no fewer than three dealerships offer motorcycle rentals. I took a deep breath when I first gazed at the 1,500-cubic centimeter bike I rented, twice the size of the 750-cubic centimeter BMW I've driven for 33 years — and a tad bigger than the motor in at least one car I've owned. But as I became accustomed to the feel of the big machine, I was grateful for its power and weight, which kept the machine stable as it cut effortlessly through gusts of blast-furnace wind that whipped across the highway.

The trip was a family affair, with my wife riding with me; two of her brothers, each driving, and her sister-in-law, who proved to be quite adept at snapping photos while driving her machine one-handed. A note for the faint of heart: My 77-year-old mother-in-law went along too, riding on the back of her son's bike.

Leaving the glitz, gambling and neon 40 miles behind us, we stopped at a cantina that specialized in three items: Beer, fireworks and slot machines. For us, it was a water break. With the temperature already over 100 degrees and headed up to 115, we needed all of the bottled water we'd socked away in our saddlebags and drank at every possible opportunity.

The shimmering two-lane highway led to the park, where the roads cut sweeping swaths and tight S-turns through the highs and lows of the valley. We sidetracked to the White Domes Trail, which offers vistas of towering, multicolored formations molded over time by erosion and wind.

Back on the main trail, we passed mountain ridges rising from the flatlands where creosote and burro bush were the main inhabitants, aside from the occasional coyote, roadrunner and lizard.

There's no store or gas station in these parts, so a ride to Overton, a sun-baked town northeast of the park, was necessary to fill our tanks, cool off and rehydrate ourselves.

The importance of water can't be overstated, and in our case we hired an air-conditioned chase car to follow us. That proved to be the right decision, because before our 150-mile trip was over, three of our riders were near heat exhaustion and off the bikes for a cooler ride back to Las Vegas.

The desert ride is just a taste of what the avid biker can sample on a rental. Companies such as EagleRider, Ayres Adventures and Alaska Rider offer rentals, self-guided or guided tours on a variety motorcycles in an array of settings.

Ours was a fairly simple rental, with no set itinerary and just a bike for 24 hours. My bill, including taxes and $30 supplemental insurance, came to $196.56.

But rental tours can get a lot more elaborate in an industry that seems as boundless as the American West.

Los Angeles-based EagleRider, which started in 1992 with four motorcycles rented out of a garage, now has a fleet of 3,500 bikes from Harley-Davidsons, Hondas and BMWs to Vespa scooters, said company marketing manager David Goff.

"In the last five years, business has doubled," said Goff, adding that the company has 85 locations worldwide.

EagleRider's 16-day Wild West tour is one of its most popular, following a loop that swings through places such as Palm Springs, Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Las Vegas, Yosemite National Park and San Francisco. The cost for a guided tour, about $4,600, covers one bike, hotel rooms along the way and a support van to haul the riders' gear.

Another popular run, said Goff, is its Route 66 tour from Chicago to Los Angeles. The tour passes through places including the Grand Canyon, Santa Fe, N.M., and the cemetery where Abraham Lincoln is buried in Springfield, Ill.

Route 66 is a powerful draw for foreign bikers, who are accustomed to two-wheel travel and love the wide-open spaces of the American West, said Goff. Because it draws 40-50 percent of its business in the United States from international travelers, EagleRider provides bilingual tour leaders.

"Our first four (Route 66) customers were Austrians," said Goff. "They loved it so much they took the four owners of EagleRider out to dinner."

The company operates on a franchise basis from locations that include Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, France, the United Kingdom and other nations. It is reaching out to the growing market of female bikers, and books a number of all-women tours.

Ayres Adventures books tours in Africa, South America, New Zealand, Europe (including the Alps) and North America (especially Canada and Alaska).

Its 17-day "Escape to Machu Picchu" has an itinerary that sounds like it was borrowed from "The Motorcycle Diaries," winding 2,500 miles through Brazil, Argentina and Chile before reaching Peru's Lost City of the Incas. (The last leg to the Inca site is by bus and train; the ruins recently reopened after flooding.) Ayres takes up to 10 motorcycles in a group and also supplies support vehicles. The price for a single rider and motorcycle (BMW) rental, including lodging, breakfasts and 16 dinners, is $8,975 for this season.

The Machu Picchu trip is the one most-often booked full, said founder Ron Ayres. "It's very popular and we've been doing four of them per year for the last five years. Guests get to enjoy Iguazu Falls, Lake Titicaca, the Atacama Desert, and of course the high Andes and Machu Picchu," Ayres wrote in an e-mail.

Tom and Annie Holman are seen on a rented Harley-Davidson during a tour of Valley of Fire State Park, northeast of Las Vegas last fall. Motorcycle rentals are easy to find for domestic travel, but multi-day motorcycle tours to exotic locations around the world also are widely available. - AP