Open love letter to the real superheroes of the Sonoran Desert | Wild Bunch Desert Guides

Open love letter to the real superheroes of the Sonoran Desert

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • February 13, 2021

“My sister and I had the opportunity to hike with Laurel and members of her amazing team. We were first timers to the Scottsdale area and Wild Bunch Desert Guides were recommended to us. We did two wonderful hikes, Gateway Ridge and Spur Cross in Cave Creek. Laurel could not have made this any easier -- hotel pick up, narration about the trails, the area, plant life, and she was fully stocked with water and snacks. For me though, what makes Wild Bunch so exceptional is the work on the front end. Laurel was rigorous during booking -- what did we want, what was most important, our assessment of our own skill level and then her follow-up questions. Everything was geared to us and for us. Laurel, Ellen, and Tommy (since retired) didn't just guide us, they hiked with us, and after four hours we felt as if we had made new and wonderful friends. They were also attentive to others on the trail, checking in with hikers who looked like they might need assistance and offering guidance to a mountain biker who had gone astray. These hikes were the highlight of our trip and truly I can't say enough about the experience. Pricing is more than reasonable and frankly the opportunity to spend time with these experienced guides -- Priceless!” – Katherine, Chicago, Ill., on Tripadvisor, May 2017

An old friend of mine helped relaunch my business website recently and, by extension, helped christen this new blog of mine by memorably mocking up a fake comic book cover of “The Devil Woman” -- the joking nickname he long ago branded me with when I was pushing him on the path to healthier habits.

Confession time: At least I have always thought he was joking. I mean, I rarely used a pitchfork to get the desired results while chasing/coaxing him along the roads and recreation paths.

Anyway, “Captain Comics” and his mischievous ways are back at it again today with Issue No. 2 to help me spread the good word about my Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

Oh sure, “The Avengers” and “Justice League” and “X-Men” are better known, thanks to the super-popular blockbuster movies. But, trust me, the Wild Bunch can match the resourceful teamwork and variety of superpowers on display in all those super groups.

And, to “The Devil Woman,” the real superheroes here in the Sonoran Desert are the cast of super loyal and amazingly talented guides that have helped grow my small mom-and-pop specialty shop over the last five years into one of the top-rated Arizona adventure tour companies in the vaunted “Valley of the Sun” in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area.

While I am more than willing to dress the part and break out my Devil costume for big events, the super team behind my business success is more like Clark Kent hiding in plain sight during the guided mountain bike tours or guided hiking tours offered by the Wild Bunch.

So, please allow me to amaze and dazzle you by introducing these superlative superheroes.

Rebel (right) readies for a bike ride.

Guide: Rebel.

Alter ego: Rebel.

Superpower: Humor.

Origin story: If rumors are true, this mysterious heroine’s “real” name is Rebecca, and her homespun Southern charm includes a twang few have pegged as straight from West Virginia.

Rebel has been with me since literally day one. Every single guest she takes on either a guided hiking trip or guided mountain bike tour absolutely loves her style. Rebel has a really amazing way of making guests laugh, crushing them on a bike or just doing her thing.

I cannot even tell you the number of times I have accompanied her on an adventure tour and found myself laughing out loud as well.

“Yee Haw!”  experiences come naturally to Rebel, who grew up playing with the boys and loving the outdoors. Native American and Wild West culture became her passion as her daddy used to bring home photos from his western travels in the U.S. Navy.

Rebel always has explored the outdoors via mountain biking, hiking and even “Jeepin,’” as she would say. Rebel loves educating people on how to prepare for off-the-beaten-path journeys, eat wild edibles and enjoy the exotic surroundings in remote locations.

She has been a real-life superheroine, too, as an EMT and Search and Rescue crew member.

Rebel was the first guide to do a tour for Wild Bunch, climbing Camelback Mountain with guests who remain loyal patrons who come back year after year after year to go on tours. That is a huge compliment to Rebel.

Ellen enjoys a ride. 

Guide: Ellen.

Alter ego: Epic Ellen.

Superpower: Persuasion.

Origin story: Another real-life superheroine, this retired firefighter brings all kinds of fun and enthusiasm to each Phoenix hiking adventure or Scottsdale mountain biking adventure.

Epic Ellen is one of the most fun and supportive, “YOU GOT THIS” guides in the Valley. And, with her advanced medical and safety training from her former career in Milwaukee, Wis., Epic Ellen also provides plenty of peace of mind for her guests with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

Epic Ellen could sincerely be the “Wonder Woman” of this operation. She brings a specific energy and vibe that makes everyone loves to be in the Sonoran Desert with her.

She also is one of the most genuine, supportive friends I could ever ask for – she always has a hug for me and has some helped me through some truly tough times with tears and smiles.

Epic Ellen is supremely skilled, too. Let me put it to you this way: This woman will hand it to you on a bike in 2 minutes, but she also can kick it down a few notches and ride with beginners and make them feel as if they are the best in the world.

Matt (right) pauses for a group pic on a guided hike. 

Guide: Matt.

Alter ego: Spider Guide.

Superpower: Shorter to list his “Kryptonite” super weakness (a need for salsa).

Origin story: Rated one of the best climbing guides in the Southwest, this West Central Wisconsin native is the whole package as a superhero Arizona adventure tour operator.

Matt is a professional guide for a wide range of active-sports disciplines, including hiking, backpacking, climbing, canyoneering, rappelling, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and mountain biking.

Ol’ Cheese Head, as they might nickname him in the comic books, holds outdoor certifications including PADI Open Water Diver, Basic Sailing and Wilderness First Responder. Besides being in the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, Matt is an avid wilderness conservationist, member of Arizona Mountaineering Club, steward with McDowell Sonoran Conservancy and founding board member of Friends of the Sonoran Desert National Monument.

By day, Matt operates his own strategic marketing agency RadPrime. His fascinating background includes work as a reporter and editor at a daily newspaper and as a journalist specializing in economic change during his travels in Eastern Europe. Matt’s interests are many and he has done everything from surfing to Ultra running to pack rafting while exploring the Western wild lands, taking photos along the way.

Matt also is one of my go-to ears for all kinds of different business questions, so he always seems to be on the other end of the many days of me just running my yap, and he never hangs up the phone until I am done. He is amazing because he is loyal, direct, honest, and always one offering help on many different levels.

Spider Guide never has had a bad review with the Wild Bunch because Matt is the kind of guy that stays out there longer than he should and gives guests the ultimate Sonoran Desert experience. One of my favorite days with Matt was in Sedona when we both worked for another guiding company and I was trying to wow our guests with local coffee, and it was kind of a disaster. Matt was so calm and awesome with me, assuring everything would be OK. He is just that kind of guy.

Jason (left) poses on the summit of Phoenix-area landmark Camelback Mountain. 

Guide: Jason.

Alter ego: Shining Star.

Superpower: Knowledge.

Origin story: Jason became a part of the Wild Bunch via losing his guiding position at another company that decided to turn their dream into a retail store. He came highly recommended to me and has been a shining star ever since.

The one thing I adore about Jason is he always is honest with me and always has my best interests as a business owner in mind.

Jason is great for our guests, too. He has an extensive adventure background and works not only for Wild Bunch but a few other extremely high-end, popular, adventure tour companies.

How incredible is Jason? We only recently taught him how to mountain bike, yet he has quickly become one of the guides I put out in a lot of beginner and intermediate scenarios because he absolutely crushes it.

Don (left) helps a guest with her bike helmet.

Guide: Don.

Alter ego: Wheeler dealer.

Superpower: Salesmanship with the Gift of Gab.

Origin story: A real-life car salesman locally, Don moonlights as a guide to get his mountain biking fix.

Don specializes in beginning mountain bike guided tours. It takes an amazingly patient person to get rookies on mountain bikes safely and have them return with smiles on their faces. Don is my go-to when people are apprehensive or nervous about a guided mountain bike adventure because of his real-world skill set. The man could sell snow to Eskimos.

Many times, Don also gets a call when I question myself about a business decision because of his incredible depth of knowledge and diverse background. His first college degree came in Biology/Chemistry, and he worked for a pharmaceutical company before opening his own consulting firm with clients in industries as varied as Aerospace, Automotive, Computer Manufacturing, Food, Government, and the Military.

Among the other highlights on our ageless tour guide’s long resume, Don has been a professional magician and a professional musician who still owns his own home recording studio. He also is an avid Disney fan who owns countless tales to share.

Jay and Laurel toast another successful adventure.


Alter ego: The Grizzled Vet.

Superpower: Experience.

Origin story: During a random meeting one day at a bike race, I knew Jay would be an awesome fit for the Wild Bunch. He has been in the saddle longer than most of us have been alive.

Having lived in the legendary “Valley of the Sun” since the early sixties, Jay has experienced many of the wonders offered by the Sonoran Desert in Phoenix/Scottsdale. He started mountain biking in 1984 when the movement first started after racing motorcycles in the desert in the 1970s.

There is little Jay has not seen from a bike seat. He has been president of a road cycling club, ridden thousands of miles on road and mountain bike adventures, and participated in numerous charity events raising awareness and funds through cycling for those in need. Jay also is a certified cycling instructor through the League of American Bicyclists, teaching safety, skills, and mentoring, both on and off road. Since retiring as an Aerospace Machinist, Jay also works part-time in a bicycle shop.

We almost lost Jay in December 2019 when an extreme bowel obstruction nearly cost him his life. But thankfully, this much-loved man has come back with a vengeance, which is so fantastic to see because he is so dear to me as a friend.

Jay always is willing to do anything I ask, and we have had some really deep moments of laughing and crying and all sorts of other insane stuff. I can always count on Jay because he has been extremely loyal. He also is one of the best mountain bikers on the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, and to be quite honest, no competitor should ever discount Jay as being an “old guy,” because that is a sure recipe for disaster.
Mike (center) pauses with Wild Bunch guests to take in the scenery on a guided mountain bike trip.

Guide: Mike.

Alter ego: Super Dad.

Superpower: Incredible effort.

Origin story: Mike is currently an amazing stay-at-home dad as we navigate through some really insane times.

But while his time is limited right now, Mike’s outdoor skills are just the opposite. The former football player and Ohio farm boy is a born adventurer, having raced mountain bikes and run long-distance relay races. Besides family camping visits to National Parks, Mike’s latter-day adventures have taken him on multi-day trips to Colorado, Utah, and the Baja in Mexico while “bikepacking” – that’s long-distance mountain biking while carrying camping gear. Mike also has experienced guided Enduro riding in the Provence region of Southern France. 

A chance meeting at a kids' playdate, and sharing a mutual admiration over mountain bike adventures, led to Mike joining the Wild Bunch Desert Guides in a dual role, as both a qualified biking and hiking guide. Mike often leaves a little blood and sweat on the trail, all while wearing an endless smile.

Because of his family commitments right now, Mike is a guide I only reach out to in specific circumstances. Mike has made so many of our guests smile with his background of riding, and the fact he is an amazing dad brings a whole different perspective. He is one of the most-valued adventure tour operators in the Southwest, not just the Wild Bunch family.

Mark (left) on a scenic ride.

Guide: Mark.

Alter ego: LINX.

Superpower: Golfing skills.

Origin story: Mark joined the Wild Bunch Desert Guides after constantly running into me while working with guests on the trails at Brown’s Ranch. Always a pleasure to stop and get a hug from, Mark always took the time before joining the team to make guests feel like they had a new mountain biking pal in Phoenix and Scottsdale.

Then one day, a Facebook message arrived, explaining Mark might as well join the mission, since he was spending so much time with guests of one of the best adventure tour companies in the Sonoran Desert.

Mark has a business of his own right now, which limits his time, but I know if we had a big corporate group booking, I could reach out to him. He is the kind of guy I know supports everything the Wild Bunch does.

Mark is so genuine, so down-to-earth, and so humble, without someone like me shouting from the rooftops, you never would know he is a former pro golfer. He helps many frustrated duffers with their swing and game via his personal business -- THE GOLF YOGI.

Mark also has stories to tell from his 40-plus triathlons, including the Ironman.

Laurel (center) enjoys a laugh with Rebel and Ellen.

Guide: Bill.

Alter ego: Backbone.

Superpower: Selflessness and details.

Origin story: This might sound strange to some readers, but my former husband Bill is probably the biggest superhero of them all.

Not to get into all the personal experiences, but Bill has been a genuinely loyal friend to me as he stated the day we signed our divorce papers under a notary at a local UPS store.

Bill always has had my back, remained loyal in certain positions within the business, and has always made time to help me and the Wild Bunch.

Think Bosley from Charlie’s Angels. Since the days when he researched the viability of opening my own business, Bill has been the quiet strength standing behind me.

The Devil Woman patrolling the Sonoran Desert.

Me? I get to be the Tinkerbell of the operation. I get to fly in and swoop right back out, spreading glitter and pixie dust along the way.

Oh, sure, as the small business owner, I get the behind-the-scenes worries and details. The troubles and the challenges are supposed to stop at my desk.

But as the public-facing primary contact for our guests, I also get a lot of smiles and love back from happy patrons, as well as a whole lot of self-satisfaction helping make people’s dream adventures come true.

Perhaps best yet, though, I also get to interact with each one of the amazing Wild Bunch Desert Guides and revel in their shared magic and separate superpowers.

I marvel at each one of them.

I am uplifted by their willingness to selflessly share their talents with total strangers. I admire their individual humanities and collective spirit. I am humbled by their friendship and loyalty to me and the business.

I worry I am too hard on them, that I expect and ask too much, that instead of being grateful I instead grate on them by sometimes being too emotional, too stressed out, or too over-communicative.

I know I fail to tell them often enough how much love and respect I have for them.

After all, the Wild Bunch Desert Guides are the foot soldiers on the front lines. They stand right besides “The Devil Woman” to fight the good fight for the All-American pursuits of fun and adventure.

They have sacrificed and taken care of the small, thankless details. They have picked up the slack when needed. They have answered the last-minute calls, the late-night calls, and the way-too-early calls. They have all had my back and held my hand and offered much-needed support at crucial times.

No way I could do all the heavy lifting by myself.

They are the reason the Wild Bunch is rated five stars across the board by the trip-review websites. They are why we have earned such incredible media coverage despite being a small, private boutique specialty service. They are why this passion play of mine has survived this withering pandemic.

They are the ones putting on the masks, the boots, the costumes, and the capes.

For “The Devil Woman,” they are my heroes.


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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