While casting about for a post-college sport after my fastpitch softball career was over, mountain biking pulled me in more than any of the other extreme thrills biding for my time. So, my Wild Bunch Desert Guides is a perfect extension of my passion for life behind a set of handlebars, and I absolutely LOVE any chance to expose guests to my sport-of-choice with Phoenix mountain bike tours. However, when guests are asking about a large group activity in the Sonoran Desert, Phoenix hiking tours are the better choice – primarily because everybody is travelling at a similar speed and sharing the same superb experience.
Phoenix hiking tours: Sun still shining
“I can't say enough about how personal, friendly, and fun Laurel is as a guide. My wife and I had a blast hiking with her and two others from the Midwest. We are looking forward to another trip back to Arizona and we will definitely be calling Laurel and Wild Bunch Desert Guides to make our trip another memorable occasion!” – Christian on TripAdvisor, Feb. 2017
Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner Laurel Darren poses for a picture with her loyal Plot Hound Daisy Mae during happier times on a Phoenix hiking adventure.
The Wild Bunch Desert Guides barely got to commemorate our sixth anniversary of business last month with anything more than texts, emails, and Social Media posts of congratulations.
With a flood of tourists flocking to the Valley of the Sun -- to continue the busiest busy season in the memory of many in the Phoenix/Scottsdale adventure tours industry – there simply was not enough time to mark the milestone with a full-fledged celebration.
So, I have a lot of belated thanks to share with my loyal guides and guests who have helped make my dream come true.
One thing I have learned since opening my own mom-and-pop specialty shop is operating a small business is incredibly hard work.
Unlike a job where you can punch-in and punch-out, the worries never leave you. The concerns are 24 hours, 7 days per week for 365 days each year.
I find myself wondering all the time – “Did I take care of that detail? Did I email this person back? What am I forgetting? What could be the latest and greatest challenge coming next?”
Yet, I am ever so grateful to be wrestling with this tornado of craziness.
This is what I have wanted to do since my earliest days after arriving in Arizona more than a decade ago now – guide guests on my dual passions of Phoenix hiking tours and Phoenix mountain bike tours. I get to show off the beauty of the Sonoran Desert and make a difference providing a safe, fun, healthy activity full of memorable vacation moments.
Smiling faces and five-star reviews are more than enough self-satisfaction to fuel my everyday desire.
However, the daily challenge I love to meet became even tougher to manage earlier this year because of some life-changing circumstances swirling at the same time that left me spinning even more than usual.
Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner Laurel Darren (left) enjoys a Stellar Adventures UTV ride with her mom (right) during happier times for the two.
Phoenix hiking tours meet ‘real life’
Before the holidays, a family member let me know I might want to check on my mom back home in Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois.
The many miles between us since my move to Arizona had amounted to an uncomfortable distance in the last few years with the pandemic travel restrictions and COVID lockdowns doing us no favors.
But thanks to the tip, I finally flew home unannounced in December to surprise my mom with a page-turning hug and the words, “I love you.”
I am glad I did because I discovered my mom had reached a point in her life where she was now struggling with her independence.
Heartbroken and concerned, I returned to Arizona after the visit – but after being unable to sleep for nights on end because of the worry, I quickly raced back home a couple more times before hatching a plan with my mom to move her closer to me.
The final trip home was an emotional tear-jerker. With the help of some dear friends, we managed to pack my mom’s entire home into a moving van in less than 48 hours one weekend for the long drive to Phoenix/Scottsdale.
As an only child, I am now taking the responsibility of being “the mom” to my mom.
While she remains functional and living on her own, I am now taking care of more and more details for my mother to ensure her quality life.
Coinciding with this curveball, my loyal sidekick and longtime hiking partner – my beloved dog Daisy Mae – started limping on one of her hind legs around the same time as the first distress call about my mom.
The original diagnosis was Valley Fever.
But when medicine failed to do much good, a friend recommended an expert opinion, and my boyfriend Brett took Daisy Mae for a follow-up examination and exploratory surgery during one of my trips home.
Cancer was discovered in the affected leg on the operating table – forcing an immediate amputation of the limb.
But as we prepared Daisy Mae for life as a tripod dog, the biopsy revealed a fast-moving cancer without any cure.
Seeing X-rays full of cancer left me with only one decision that made sense to me – and that was putting her out of her misery and sending Daisy Mae to hound dog heaven.
I know in my heart I made a loving decision. But just because it was the right thing to do hardly made it easier.
All the while I was grieving Daisy Mae (and I still do) -- my mom remained a daily concern – and of course I have had to juggle those dueling emotions with the most-challenging stretch of business in the history of my Phoenix hiking tours and Phoenix mountain bike tours.
The timing of all this was like turning on a fire hose full blast to take a sip of water.
So yeah, when it rains, it truly does pour.
A final family photo before Daisy Mae was euthanized. Laurel (left) with Daisy Mae and Brett (right) with Waylon pose in front of a picturesque Sonoran Desert background (Photo by Michelle Craig Photography).
Challenges for hiking tours Phoenix
My first reaction at the time was typical.
“Are you kidding me? What in the hell just happened?”
There were also the usual questions that haunt everyone when circumstances go bad – “WHY ME? WHY US? WHY RIGHT NOW?”
I mean, business was going SOOOOOO good for my Phoenix/Scottsdale adventure tours.
When the sun is shining? There is not supposed to be a downpour, right?!?
Thankfully, a number of people stepped up to offer either help or guidance in my time of need.
You really see who your friends are -- and the strength of your support system -- when you are most in need.
And luckily for me I have so much support physically and mentally. There are so many people who have my back and are by my side when times get tough.
Also comforting is finding out the hundreds of people who respond with genuine messages of love and advice on Social Media forums from across the country.
I am fortunate to have a number of friends from high school – and special guests from Wild Bunch Desert Guides -- who have stayed in touch with me. And their comforting messages come cascading in with such frequency, there is no way I can directly thank them all sometimes, you know?
But I am so grateful that I am supported and loved – especially on the days where I am at the edge of my rope and wondering, “Are you kidding me right now?”
Along with strength of your relationships, a stretch like I had also reminds you of your own inner fortitude.
It is revealing how in a moment of doubt and pain – when you believe you are crumbling – you can muster the power to overcome any obstacle.
The old line is God never gives us anything that we cannot handle, right?
It really is all mental. You just have to find a way over the hurdle or around the obstacle. There is no special secret to success. You just have to put your head down and decide to do it.
Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner Laurel Darren believes her recent personal challenges have only made her stronger (Photo by Michelle Craig Photography).
Sun shines on hiking tours in Phoenix
As mentioned in previous Blogs, I see a spiritual healer a couple of times each month. I have found those visits have helped me grapple better with the many questions and doubts we all have – as well grow and become a better person by looking for the positives in every situation.
Lately, the spiritual healer has helped me work through the many emotions of euthanizing Daisy Mae – even though I know I did the right thing.
“You can handle anything. And always remember things could be worse,” she said during a recent visit. “So, you need to shift your thinking and outlook and know -- first and foremost -- everybody has a struggle that they are trying to get through.”
My spiritual healer was so right. All you need to do is think of the many children’s cancer hospitals around the country to be reminded of kids who have yet had a chance to truly live before facing life-threatening circumstances.
So yeah, it could be MUCH worse. And there are challenges everywhere for us all to overcome.
Soon after that visit with my spiritual healer, I was guiding a group of 11 on one of our Phoenix hiking tours. The morning was a bit overcast, but suddenly rays of sunshine poked through the clouds, and it made me think of Daisy Mae and all of our great days in the sun, hiking trails in the Sonoran Desert and elsewhere.
I took those rays of sunshine as a sign. That was her way of saying, “Hi, mom. I am here. I am in hound dog heaven. I am having a blast. I love you. I am above you to try and brighten your day just like I always did. I am your guardian angel. Just know I’ve got you!”
Now, every time I see sunshine sneaking through the clouds, I know Daisy Mae still is with me.
When you shift your thinking – and turn “What the hell is going on?” to “I was meant to be in this moment, and I can handle it” – life’s struggles become easier to manage.
Oh, I still cry my tears about Daisy Mae. I especially think about her when I come home every day and she is not standing at the door waiting for me.
With daily reminders like that, it is easy to get down. Everybody gets upset or disappointed, depressed, or angry. That is the range of natural emotions for us as humans.
But when you think positively instead of negatively, you realize we are supposed to feel sadness and loss because those emotions remind us of how good the good times feel.
Laurel and Daisy Mae share a tender moment in the Sonoran Desert (Photo by Michelle Craig Photography).
Phoenix hiking tours ‘grateful’
Looking back, Daisy Mae hung on last summer to do some amazing hikes with me during vacation in Colorado. She pushed through when we never knew she was so sick.
And when I was back home in Iowa to help my mom on to her next chapter, Daisy Mae hung on again through her illness – and especially after her surgery -- until I could get back before she started showing signs of stress in her breathing.
So, I feel like Daisy Mae exited my life because she knew I had other things that demanded my attention. It was like she was saying to me – “You are needed elsewhere now – and that’s OK, mom.”
The toughest part of losing Daisy Mae was the feeling I was saying goodbye to my emotional rock.
Daisy Mae was there for all of the recent challenges in my life.
She was there when I started my business and through all of the struggles. She was there during my divorce and living in a studio apartment. She was there when I started dating Brett – and when we moved in together.
And Daisy Mae was there to greet me at the door telling me everything was going to be all right during the pandemic -- when I was pulling long hours driving a delivery truck to keep myself busy and keep alive my small-business dream of operating my own Phoenix adventure tours.
But now the torch has been passed and I am on to the next chapter of the adventure without her. And as Daisy Mae might communicate with her big eyes – “That’s OK.”
I can smile again simply by opening my heart to change, knowing that when you do that, wonderful things come back into your world that are awesome and amazing. You feel love hundreds of times over when people feel love coming from you.
I truly feel people are getting the best version of me right now. The challenges have made me stronger and wiser and more thoughtful.
I look back to this time in 2020 and go, “Wow. I am totally different and here is why because of all these experiences.”
I do believe we are all put in a certain place and time for a reason.
So, I know I am here now ready to take care of my mom AND I am ready for all the business success the Wild Bunch Desert Guides have been hoping, praying, and building toward since Day 1.
And most all I know I am regrettably ready to face these dueling challenges without the unquestioned love of my Daisy Mae.
I just need to remind myself I am ever so grateful Daisy Mae was a big part of my life when I needed her the most.
I am also grateful that my mom is close again – both physically and spiritually – and we can tackle this next chapter of our lives together.
I am grateful, too, for my loyal guides – and our industry friends – and what they have done for my small mom-and-pop specialty shop.
And I am ever so grateful for all of our guests who put their trust in the Wild Bunch to deliver once-in-a-lifetime memorable Phoenix hiking tours and Scottsdale mountain bike tours.