A ‘Dream Team’ behind Phoenix hiking tours success

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • September 26, 2022
The start of the Major League Baseball playoffs annually coincides with the beginning of a new tourist season in the Phoenix adventure tours industry.

So, while my Cubbies again missed making the World Series hunt on the diamond, this October still promises to be another Fall Classic for me personally because of the pennant-winning all-stars supporting me and my small business, the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

I have been especially reminded of the strength of that championship team around me during the past year.

Despite my time and attention being impacted by finding the proper care for my ailing mother, my small mom-and-pop shop still delivered on the promise of exclusively private and customizable once-in-a-lifetime experiences with five-star reviewed and rated Phoenix hiking tours and Phoenix mountain bike tours.

I have so many great people to thank as we open our seventh season in business, I could not possibly recognize them all by name.

But if I had to give you a batting order to rival the 1927 “Murderers Row” Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig – this is a detailed “scouting report” of my lineup for the one-game, winner-take-all that is life.

Laurel Darren (right) shares some smiles recently with childhood friend and high school softball teammate Kelly Finch.

Laurel Darren (right), owner of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, shares some smiles recently with childhood friend and high school softball teammate Kelly Finch.

Phoenix hiking tours starting lineup
  • Pitcher: The most important position on the field also is occupied by my MVP – Most Valuable Person. My boyfriend Brett Talcott has endured a metric ton of tough times with me -- especially this year. He supports me without question and is my must-have voice of reason. He’s my best friend and love of my life. I can always count on him telling me the unvarnished truth – especially when I need a dose of sobering reality and not some flowery, politically correct “yes man” bullshit. Brett is as straight up strong as a shot of Everclear. If there is a problem, he fixes it – and normally he simply takes care of things without telling me because he neither needs credit nor any fanfare. He’s down-to-earth and selfless and has taught me so many things about life. I like to think I’m pretty tough – and I have sharpened elbows as a competitive athlete and former roller derby girl – but Brett has helped toughen me up my skin in the business world as the operator of Phoenix hiking tours and Phoenix mountain bike tours. He’s the lockdown savior getting the biggest outs for my club.
Laurel Darren (left) shares an off-roading experience with her boyfriend Brett.
Laurel Darren (left) shares an off-roading experience with her boyfriend Brett.
  • Catcher: There’s no question – because she caught me many times for real on the softball diamond growing up in Western Illinois. Kelly Finch is one of my oldest and dearest friends. I have been so lucky to reconnect with her when she did a rotation as a traveling nurse in Arizona during COVID. She is a true backstop in every way – gritty, strong, dependable. The kind of battle buddy you always want by your side when the bullets are flying. Kelly catches me on good days and bad – as someone I can call any time, day or night, no matter the hour. She always provides that safety net we all need to help us when we fall. Kelly is someone that I know has my back and would never hesitate to be straight up honest and direct with me, even if it hurts my feelings. She's the kind of friend that has that respect to just tell me like it is and accept the emotion that goes with it. She also makes a powerful team with her girlfriend Kate Serrano, who is also in the health care industry as a hospital administrator. They are simply amazing human beings who you can count on for anything.
 Laurel Darren (center) enjoys a laugh with high school softball teammate Kelly Finch (left) and Kelly's girlfriend, Kate Serrano.
Laurel Darren (center) enjoys a laugh with high school softball teammate Kelly Finch (left) and Kelly's girlfriend, Kate Serrano.
  • First base: My Lake City friend Lydia McNeese is my Albert Pujols – the everyday go-to block of granite you love to see at first base defensively and as a big bat, first ballot Hall of Famer in the middle of your order. I miss her so much when I am back home in Arizona after spending my extended summer working vacation in Colorado. I have been on a lot of mountain bike rides with Lydia this summer where I have descended into tears – worrying about my mom or having trouble dealing with her care. Lydia is a Special Education teacher in Lake City and she was able to give me both guidance and advice that I needed to hear. She is the kind of friend that always has something good to say about a situation. She always comes from a place of love. I’ll never forget on a hike this summer, we were sitting at the turnaround sign, and I gave her an example of all the struggles I’ve ever had with my mom. Lydia just looked right at me and said, “Laurel, you just have to love her.” It was a really powerful moment because it was so simple and made so much sense. Sometimes, when you're in a really rough spot with someone, all the past struggles weigh you down with anger, frustration, and regret. But there comes a point where none of that matters anymore, and you just have to find the love.
Laurel Darren (center) is flanked by Lydia and Laurel's Plott Hound Waylon while posing atop Colorado's Handies Peak.Laurel Darren (center) is flanked by Lydia and Laurel's Plott Hound Waylon while posing atop Colorado's Handies Peak. 
  • Second base: My other bestie in Lake City, Amanda Hartman, has to be on the diamond for me because she’s another five-carat friend. Along with Lydia, we are the Three Amigas during the summer in Colorado – so she already patrols a “keystone” position for me. She has been through a similar diagnosis with her mom. When I flew back to Iowa last December, I was nervous because my mom had no idea I was coming -- I was just going to show up randomly to see firsthand what was happening. I was on the phone with Amanda at 6 a.m. that morning at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport – and she took my call. I'll never forget -- she was super supportive, assuring me I was doing the right thing and reminding me, “You need to do this and you need to do that and you need to make amends and you need to make peace with where everything is at.” When I was back in Arizona this summer to move my mom into a different facility to better help her, I sent Amanda a text -- and understand, she's in slamming busy season as the owner and operator of San Juan Soda Company. Yet, when I sent her the diagnosis -- and shared the heartbreaking moment when my mom didn't know who I was when she walked into the room -- Amanda responded immediately and talked me off the ledge by offering some really sound advice. She could relate with her own mom – and what’s more, dropped everything to do it.
Laurel (right) and Amanda pause for a picture with a breathtaking background behind them. 
Laurel (right) and Amanda pause for a picture with a breathtaking background behind them.
  • Shortstop is a position that fields a lot of groundballs – and except for catcher, might be the toughest everyday grind. The best shortstops are game changing MVP candidates, too – such as Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez or like Javy Baez was for my Cubbies when they won the World Series in 2016. One of those Most Valuable Persons for me and my business in Scottsdale is Jay Stewart. He epitomizes the Wild Bunch Desert Guides. Jay is no rookie, but he is still hitting them out of the park, taking the most tours this summer when a lot of my staff took some major time off. Jay always does extra stuff, too – like moving the business into a new building – or being one of the first to show up and help move my mom this summer -- or sending me texts on a regular basis, making sure I’m OK and reminding me that we’re doing everything right. He’s a grizzled veteran and always has a positive vibe – you know, “Hang in there; you got this/or you can do this.” When we moved my mom, he gave me a big hug. “You’re a good daughter,” he assured me. He is more than an employee; Jay is a genuine friend.
 Laurel Darren (right) joins Jay Stewart in toasting their shared success with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
Laurel Darren (right) joins Jay Stewart in toasting their shared success with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
  • Mike Claffey is my third baseman. As busy as you think you are? Mike is truly on the hot corner every day. He's the owner of GMF -- Grey Matter Bicycle Shop -- and also operates his own construction business here in the Valley of the Sun. Oh, and Mike is a fantastic husband to a great lady and wonderful father to their incredible children. Mike’s also handled plenty of bad hops, too – the worst came when his 20-year-old son Kyle died in 2014 after a repeat battle with brain cancer – and the shop is Kyle’s lasting legacy (read). Mike has always been a good friend -- one of the really good guys out there that would do anything to help me and my business. I've called him so many times over the years with business questions -- he never judges, but he's super direct and is unafraid to share his opinion. But recently, where Mike was a real shining star was when I was considering the next step for my mom and Hospice was a consideration. When you hear the word, most people associate Hospice with end-of-life care – and so that scared the shit out of me. But, instead, Hospice is long-term care that meets certain criteria. When I was back in Arizona this summer making that decision for my mom, Mike and I rode mountain bikes and he lent me his Shadowcat, which is an awesome bicycle and incredible gesture. But even better was when Mike called me out of the blue as I was getting my mom her favorite, an unsweetened iced tea from Starbuck’s. Mike asked me, “Are you OK?” And soon, tears were streaming down my face as we talked about Hospice and the final hours of Kyle’s life. I knew Kyle personally but learned so much more – and was so honored to have Mike share the most gut-wrenching moments of his life. To have a friend so interested to call and share like that gave me a great amount of strength when I needed it the most. Mike also offered at the end, “If your mom needs ANYTHING, please do not hesitate to call.” To have somebody be so supportive – and at just the right time -- still gives me chills.
Laurel Darren (left) enjoys a mountain bike ride with Mike Claffey.Laurel Darren (left) enjoys a mountain bike ride with Mike Claffey.
  • The designated hitter on this team has got to be my mom’s caretaker and my good friend, Annie. She was a concierge at the DoubleTree that I met during my first year of business with the Wild Bunch. Annie began taking care of my mom when I left Phoenix this summer for my working vacation offering Colorado summer hiking tours. Annie did everything possible she could to assist with my mom until things got to a point where she couldn't handle it anymore. Annie was put in an impossible situation with my mom. She has always been honest with me. I respect and value her friendship. When I came back to Arizona to move my mom into a permanent facility, I shared a lunch with Annie where both of us just sat there and cried. I totally understand what she was dealing with -- and I give her a lot of kudos for trying her best. I owe her my life. Like a great DH, she also delivered the clutch hit -- sending my mom to the ER when the situation continued to worsen, and that in turn gave me an open door to have my mom evaluated and moved to a place built to better help her. 
 Laurel (left) and Rebel enjoy one of their many Phoenix mountain bike tours together.Laurel (left) and Rebel enjoy one of their many Phoenix mountain bike tours together.
  • There are nothing but “Angels” in my outfield. Included is my Colorado buddy Tracy, who owns Cabin Fever Mercantile. She’s always asking me if I'm OK -- always texting me when she hasn't seen me for a couple of days. We are great business friends, too. I buy a lot of stuff from her shop and send it to people because it’s so distinctly Lake City. Her business is a meeting spot for my Colorado summer hiking tours – and a hub of activity in Lake City in general. Tracy is the type of friend that I could go a week without talking to -- and it's OK. We just pick it right back up from where we left off. … If Tracy is in centerfield, the corner outfielders are naturally Rebel and Don from my loyal Arizona staff at Wild Bunch Desert Guides. They have both been with me so long – and been so loyal – they are like family to me. Rebel and Don have done such great work over the years, they have helped build my small business into something special – delivering five-star reviewed Phoenix hiking tours and Phoenix mountain bike tours. When I rushed back into town this summer for my mom, Rebel was the one that picked me up at the airport, and when we had to get rid of some of my mom’s stuff, Rebel was like, “You can’t just give this stuff away. We’re selling this! I can get you money for this.” Rebel is someone I can count on for prayers and keeping things in perspective. She's been such a good friend of mine for 10 years. Don also has experience dealing with parents and mental disability, so they have been great sources of advice. The one thing I don't have in common with them is I am an only child and Rebel and Don both have sisters. So, they told me, it’s a little harder because there’s not another sibling there to share the load. So, they stepped up to do that -- showing up to help me move my mom’s stuff in 100-degree heat. They never bailed or gave up and were there to the end – taking items to Goodwill or my house.
Laurel Darren (right) poses on a mountain top with Glenn Heumann of the Lake City Hiking Club. 
Laurel Darren (right) poses on a mountain top with Glenn Heumann of the Lake City Hiking Club.

Long bench for hiking tours in Phoenix
The best teams also boast a deep and talented bench. The same is true for my Wild Bunch Desert Guides and the Phoenix hiking tours and Phoenix mountain bike tours we offer.

In current baseball terms, championship squads require a “Swiss Army Knife” – the multi-positional role Ben Zobrist played so well for my World Champion Cubbies in 2016.

Qualifying as role players providing star power are the members of the Lake City Hiking Club, especially the group’s indefatigable leader, Glenn Heumann.

These folks were so welcoming when we hooked up last summer, they inspired my expansion to Colorado summer hiking tours this summer. They also were so great when my late dog Daisy Mae was taken from us earlier this year – and with frighteningly shocking speed by a fast-moving cancer. Glenn and Company were genuinely grieving with me when we had to put Daisy Mae out of her pain.

Also in my dugout is the staff at Lake City Brewing Company, where I work part-time during my summer retreat. The rest of the staff are kids between the ages of 21 and 23 – so I could be their mom. But if I was, I’d be a proud mama, because when I had to rush back to Arizona this summer for my mom, they were all so awesome.

We're all in a group text and they were texting me hugs and support, and constantly asking me if I was OK. Same thing with the brewery’s new owner, Justin

There were times where I had to come in late this summer because I had a call with an attorney or something that I had to handle for my mom -- and they all covered my back.

Watching me go through this hopefully is a good lesson for them because some day they might be taking care of their parents. If so, their parents are in the good hands of a compassionate, generous, and kind next generation.

My bullpen also is brimming with big-time arms – and great shoulders to cry on if need be.

I get so many text messages on my phone or responses on Facebook or Instagram, I can’t hope to reply to all of them. All I can be is grateful for the positive vibes and votes of confidence sent from friends all over the world

Like Mirna Valerio -- The Mirnavator – checked in the other day.

She was riding bikes this summer in Kenya. She’s living the life, jetting here and there, but she still takes the time to let me know she’s thinking of me.

One day this summer, she texted me: “You are an AMAZING human being.” That’s something I want to read every day. How can that not inspire you and give you strength to get through the toughest times?

But then I am blessed with so much goodness around me and so many supporters behind me. There is always a great “fielder” there to catch me whenever I fall.

Laurel (left) and Lake City Brewing Company owner Justin enjoy a hike together.
Laurel (left) and Lake City Brewing Company owner Justin enjoy a hike together.


About the Author

Laurel Darren is the founding owner of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, a 5-star rated adventure tour company that offers guided hiking tours and guided mountain biking tours in Arizona’s picturesque Sonoran Desert in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. Arriving in the legendary “Valley of the Sun” in 2012 -- from the home of John Deere in the Quad Cities of Eastern Iowa/Western Illinois -- this corn-fed Midwest girl brought 30 years of athletic chops under her chaps. A 3-sport high school standout and former college softball player – who won her conference’s Athlete of the Year award as a prep senior – Darren has graduated to competing in many races as an adult, from road running and cycling, to cyclo-cross and Mountain Bikes, and even Duathlon and Triathlon “Ironman” competitions. Darren was a popular, top-rated senior mountain bike guide at Arizona’s Outback Adventures before branching out to start her own small adventure business in 2016. To book a guided mountain bike tour or guided hiking trip – or a combination of the two adventures – please visit the home page www.wildbunchdesertguides.com or call 602-663-0842.


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