New year, renewed resolve for same great Phoenix hiking tours

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • January 09, 2024
St. Elmo Bar in Bisbee, Arizona, is one of the Top 10 dive bars in America.
(TOP) St. Elmo Bar in Bisbee, Arizona, is one of the Top 10 dive bars in America. (COVER) Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner Laurel Darren (left) and her longtime
boyfriend Brett Talcott enjoy a New Year's Eve celebration at St. Elmo's.

Like so many, I took a break from the workaday grind to enjoy New Year’s Eve.

Instead of worrying about Phoenix hiking tours or Phoenix mountain bike tours for my Wild Bunch Desert Guides, my longtime boyfriend Brett and I spent the holiday in one of our favorite places in the world – the Tombstone area in southeast Arizona.

Specifically, we went to the old Wild West for a wildly good time visiting my all-time favorite dive bar.
St. Elmo Bar -- in the old Arizona mining town of Bisbee -- is affectionately referred to as the “shittiest shithole” on the planet and often has been compared to the cantina in Star Wars (only with a more out-of-this-world atmosphere and mixture of patrons).

Those who have visited can easily understand why it seemingly makes every list of the Top 10 dive bars in the United States.

For a good dive bar, all I need is a jukebox with ‘80s tunes, an actual bar where you can sit and enjoy a cheap drink with great conversations, and a small town where there are ample down-to-earth characters to help make every visit memorable. Bonus points for a pool table, dart board, live music and all sorts of kooky wall hangings, but what really makes a dive bar like St. Elmo’s special is the place having as much character as the characters inhabiting the establishment.

And St. Elmo’s is simply bursting with history – opening in 1902 and ranking as the longest continuously operating drinking establishment in Arizona.

Yes, it even survived Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s by transforming itself into a soda shop – although the current owner suspects they still sold alcohol illegally thanks to a mine cart system in the basement with an opening under the flooring directly behind the bar.

John Wayne, the famous late actor who made the Western a Hollywood staple, was even known to visit the old watering hole when shooting his latest blockbuster movie in the area. Other celebrities have also made the pilgrimage.

You can easily imagine the old West outlaws stomping into this place with their spurs and six-shooters back in the day. Heck, I think Wyatt Earp and his OK Corral gang are still holding court in a back booth.

Oh, and did I mention, the place is seriously haunted? But don’t call Ghostbusters – these are friendly, harmless specters.

As legend has it, laughter and dancing is occasionally heard from a closed-off upstairs area which used to house a brothel. The jukebox also has randomly turned on when not plugged in, and passersby have reported ghostly figures wiping down the bar in off-hours when the joint is closed.

So, a visit to St. Elmo’s is always so much fun – and this time that put me into the perfect frame of mind to follow through on the only New Year’s resolution I annually make – to avoid being haunted by doubts or the curveballs life has a way of throwing to all of us during a given year.

Instead, I want to take stock of the past 365 days and look back with gratitude to the people and experiences who made for another remarkably memorable year.

A couple pauses during one of the Wild Bunch's Phoenix hiking tours to take in the breathtaking scenery together.
A couple pauses during one of the Wild Bunch's Phoenix hiking tours to take in the breathtaking scenery together.

Phoenix hiking tours: Another great year
Again this year, I have had the pleasure of enjoying some really fun, amazing and epic adventures with my small business, Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

Looking back on this Blog alone, the Super Bowl came town – and I enjoyed my time guiding something other than five-star rated Phoenix hiking tours or Phoenix mountain bike tours when we were not “Super Busy.” 

I also got to see a World Series game when the Arizona Diamondbacks hosted the Fall Classic – and I remain ever thankful for friends like JJ Briles of Stellar Adventures and local TV star Jaime Cerreta.

There are always so many people I have to thank, I can’t possibly name them all – but I did get to mention my guides, fellow business owners and many friends such as Matt Kalina from Mad Desert Trekking.

I started 2023 with a bang – guiding a Phoenix mountain bike tour for a college football official working the Fiesta Bowl – and finished the year the same way by avoiding the traditional lump of coal from Camelback Santa in my always colorful stockings.

I even got to celebrate one of my behind-the-scenes guys who has become a dear friend.

But my “Tales from the Trail” Blog is hardly an all-inclusive – it is merely a milepost on this long and winding road.

To protect the privacy of our guests, I was unable to reveal again when the Wild Bunch guided any Phoenix adventure tours involving any of the young go-getters on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list.

Wild Bunch also seems to attract a steady flow of award-winning journalists and elite athletes – but we keep their stories confidential because often they just want to be a normal person on vacation with their family or significant other and remain out of the spotlight for once.

In particular, one young entrepreneur that I took hiking was really cool. Same for a writer with a flamboyant pen name who visited the Valley of the Sun.

Sometimes when we get calls from VIP guests, I can’t help myself but Google them and research who they are. But other times I just go blind and like to be pleasantly surprised on the trail. Some of these people are extremely wealthy, but most are also surprisingly down-to-earth -- and it is fun hearing the many compliments from super-successful people about my business.

Laurel Darren, second from the left, poses with multiple generations during one of the Wild Bunch's Phoenix mountain bike tours. The variety of people, backgrounds and trails keeps the daily challenge fresh and new for the Phoenix adventure tours owner.

Laurel Darren, second from the left, poses with a group of Senior Citizens during one of the Wild Bunch's Phoenix mountain bike tours. The variety of people, backgrounds and trails keeps the daily challenge of delivering five-star rated experiences fresh and new for the Phoenix adventure tours owner.

More great Phoenix hiking tours coming
However, whether you have status or are simply an “Average Joe,” I am forever thankful for all of the guests who choose Wild Bunch Desert Guides for their Phoenix hiking tours and Phoenix mountain bike tours.

Among my favorites annually are the adventures we guide involving kids. I always try and be involved on the trail especially when Wild Bunch is entrusted to guide a family including children who have never ridden a mountain bike before.

Those are always epic, once-in-a-lifetime moments and potentially life-changing events. I can’t tell you how many kids over the years have started riding with us only to become state champions back home or life-long enthusiasts of my favorite sport.

I love being that person that puts a kid on a mountain bike and watches them slowly become better and more confident. That is always something that I take to bed at night and smile and thank my angels for their help.

One of my Colorado angels – my good friend and guide Lydia McNeese – had one of those experiences this year in my summer vacation home of Lake City. Lydia took a young lady from Texas on an adventure to Handies Peak.

Amanda was our guest’s name, and she was so stoked about doing her first ‘14er – so-called because the peaks are 14,000 feet or more in elevation – she could hardly stop talking about it at Lake City Brewing Company, where I happen to serve as a bartender for fun when not guiding. The energy coming off her was contagious – and her pure elation was unlike anything I had ever seen before – which only confirmed to me again how lucky I am to be in a very special service industry.

Toward the end of the year, I also was working to help my buddy out at Detours American West with a private tour to Jerome and Sedona on a private tour where I had a really cool family from St. Louis.

Thank God I knew my 1980s Chicago Cubs from my childhood because these guys were diehard St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Blues fans and have had season tickets to both teams for years. They were so impressed by this random Arizona chick being able to name Ron Cey, Shawon Dunston, Ryne Sandberg, Jody Davis, Rick Sutcliffe and others.

You always take a risk when you see a St. Louis Cardinals hat and say, “Hey, I'm a Cubs fan,” because you might end up walking into a bitter rival. But instead of a heated debate, that got us talking about shared experiences as native Midwesterners. And it led to a familiarity and comfort level that had one of the guests casually sharing with me she has Stage 4 Thyroid Cancer.

Her reveal was very nonchalant – and very quiet – and it did not change where I was going to take their scenic private tour. But that did offer more meaning to the adventure and made me think to myself, “Wow, I am on her bucket list of places to go and I get to be that person that shows her and her family something beautiful and unforgettable.”

Those kinds of moments humble you and make you more thankful and grateful for what you have, what you have experienced and what you can do to make life better for others – even if only for a brief few, fleeting moments.

I am a big believer in karma -- that the universe aligns you with certain people for a specific reason – and this family convinced me of that fact.

At lunch time, I apologized when I had to step away briefly to take a call from my mother’s doctor because she has dementia. They were so gracious and supportive when I returned, and it turned out they had been through that same nightmare with a few of their parents, so that was another thing we bonded about.

It never seems to matter – whether I am guiding for Stellar or Detours or Mad Desert Trekking or the Wild Bunch -- I always seem to draw the best guests.

I also always seem to get the people celebrating a milestone anniversary in their marriage – and that is always fun on the trail, hearing how they met, how their first date went, and what has kept them together for so long when few nowadays enjoy the lasting permanence of our grandparents or great grandparents.

There are dozens of moments like that celebrated on the trails every year -- from engagements to anniversaries to birthdays. And it is especially great when we know that ahead of time so we can help make the occasion extra special.

I truly love my job because you meet such a wide variety of people from wildly diverse backgrounds and from different parts of the country or, in some cases, the world. No day or tour is ever the same. Every guest has a unique story if they are willing to share it with you – and that is so energizing.

I am grateful that I chose this career.

I don't make a lot of money, but I am rich in terms of the incredible people I have had the pleasure of meeting in epic places and in amazing moments. I get to be part of someone’s memory that could last them a lifetime, and that is the reminder that inspires me to resolve to make even more magic happen in 2024.


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 or call 602-663-0842.


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