Survival drive delivers lessons in gratitude
Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • March 13, 2021
“I recently had foot surgery and am still recovering but wanted to do a hike with my daughter on our visit to Arizona. We had the great joy of hiking with (Wild Bunch Desert Guides) on a 2½-hour hike through the Sonoran Desert. Not only was our guide understanding of my slow pace and incredibly accommodating, he also is an incredibly intelligent young man. As people from the East Coast, my daughter and I really didn’t know much about the local landscapes, so we loved learning throughout our hike. … Our guide also was very respectful of the ongoing pandemic and ensured that he wore his face mask throughout our hike, provided us with hand sanitizer, and maintained the appropriate distance. We really cannot say enough wonderful things about him and the experience he gave us. We can’t wait to come back to Arizona and book with Wild Bunch again!” – Donna, Abingdon, Va. on Tripadvisor, July 2020
Laurel sits atop a rock last March while contemplating an uncertain future.
I was at Phoenix’s Dubliner Irish Pub, about halfway through green beer number four, when last year’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration came to a crashing halt for me.
A cancellation popped up on my cellphone for a Scottsdale guided mountain bike tour. “Ah shoot!” I thought.
Another sip later, a Phoenix guided hike pulled out via email. “Crud!” I shouted in my head.
I took a big gulp of beer to wash the bad taste out of my mouth.
But just then, another of both Arizona guided adventures withdrew.
I about spit out my beer.
Then another group dropped. And another. And another. And another.
Pretty soon, the party was over – literally and figuratively.
All the 2020 bookings to that point were wiped off the board for the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, the small mom-and-pop specialty shop I own and operate that offers Arizona adventure travel tours in the “Valley of the Sun.”
Everything was a blur, and it was hardly because of the alcohol.
I sat in stunned silence as dire news of the CoVid-19 pandemic spread and shutdowns were announced across the country.
I felt so helpless and hopeless. I was literally crying in my green beer.
The last Wild Bunch Desert Guides group hike before the pandemic hit, taken St.
Patrick's Day morning before all of the remaining 2020 bookings were cancelled in a
withering half-day span.
January and February in 2020 had been awesome months for my Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
March was off to an equally great start, too, for one of the highest-rated Arizona adventure tour companies.
All those days of going to Scottsdale resorts to network, all the hours of driving around and leaving brochures at Phoenix hotels, all the times I have put my Wild Bunch Desert Guides stickers at a bar in Old Town Scottsdale. All that legwork was finally paying off nearing my fourth anniversary in business.
The Wild Bunch was on a roll.
Then, bam, just like that, the world stopped, and the dream seemed to be over.
As a week of shutdowns quickly turned into two weeks and then a month full of nothingness, I began to fear for the future of my small boutique shop.
I recall multiple emails with my former husband Bill, who still takes care of some parts of the business, wondering if Wild Bunch may be eligible to get one of those Small Business Administration loans.
I knew I did not qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program, because I am a sole proprietor with independent contractors.
So, as Bill put time into securing Wild Bunch a tiny SBA loan, I tried to figure out what the hell I was going to do with myself all day every day because my personality does not allow me to slow down nor does it allow me to ever, ever, ever, ever give up.
So, I landed a job as a full-time delivery driver to help pay the bills and keep me busy.
Laurel masked her fears while fighting the pandemic.
Delivering fun differently
I know what you are asking yourself: “Who would do that during a pandemic and put themselves in a position that was a possible health risk?”
However, I knew there was no way I could sit still much longer and stare out the window. Binge-watching Internet-streamed TV programs is hardly my style. I have one life to live, and damn the torpedoes, I am going to live it to the fullest, preferably at 100 mph.
I also figured, I am blessed with good health, and I knew in my heart that the chance of delivering smiles and fun to people is at my core.
I knew working as a delivery driver was something I could do for the common good, and that it also would be good for my soul.
My direct boss at the delivery job also was the cat's meow. He knew I owned and operated one of those crazy Arizona adventure travel tour companies, and my goal was to someday continue offering Phoenix guided mountain biking and Scottsdale guided hiking -- or a combination of both adventures, as well as iconic Camelback Mountain guided hikes.
The Boss Man knew delivery driving was a side hustle that helped pay the bills, but also meant I did not have to worry about paying myself out of the business if Wild Bunch fired back up.
As the months went by, I drove around and delivered people's groceries, toilet paper and other essential items including Christmas gifts.
I worked 5 days a week, sometimes 6 days when there was more than enough work at the height of CoVid-19 crisis.
I worked during the pandemic “summer of hell” in Arizona, where we had 115 days in a row of 110-degree or above temperatures, and 23 of those days hit 116.
I carried packages upstairs at apartment complexes, banged my head against the steering wheel frustrated, and even dressed like the Grinch on Christmas Eve to deliver packages to people.
I did all this to contribute to the world when the world needed people that were healthy and could maintain some sort of normalcy and stability.
I am not telling you this so you can nominate me for sainthood or a civic medal.
This was just my way to cope with the stresses of living through the craziest of times and trying to survive to see the next day of life and business.
Laurel cleans and sanitizes bikes before the next group of guests.
The drive for survival
Trust me, all the days I had 200-plus stops with 350-plus packages was not always fun.
However, the quantity of work kept my mind busy and also gave me hope that I could keep things going for the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
From the delivery job, I learned that making people smile comes in weird ways.
Sure, taking guests on a Phoenix guided adventure is a flat-out thrill, but delivering rolls of toilet paper was kind of fun, too – especially seeing the faces of gratitude and relief when the essential package appeared.
Listening to my ‘80’s hairband music was comforting during the most-challenging times. Or, while driving around delivering, listening to the Mike Broomhead Show on KTAR 92.3 FM radio was a real treat that kept me going, too.
I never have met Mike personally, but I cannot begin to tell you the number of days while driving around that I screamed at the radio at the same time: "Hell yes! Woooooo! You tell them Mike." Or "Talk about the hospitality industry???" Or "Can we please just stop talking about all this shit?"
Even when Arizona opened back up, and Wild Bunch began offering Phoenix guided hikes and Scottsdale mountain bike tours again in September 2020, the schedule was slow enough that I juggled my dual roles – delivering packages while also setting the table for guides to take care of our Wild Bunch guests.
That little delivery job helped pay the bills and keep me afloat until the bookings recently returned in full force.
I owe that job a debt of gratitude for keeping me sane during the craziest of times, so I am still rostered today as a backup driver, ready at a moment’s notice if needed.
Unable to provide a full guided tour, Laurel rented bikes instead to groups for a short period in 2020 to help keep the Wild Bunch Desert Guides afloat.
The whole package
I was looking at some guided adventure photos the other day, picking out a bunch of images to send to Joe, who manages my Instagram account.
That is when it struck me: A year ago, I did not even HAVE an Instagram manager; I was still doing my own social media.
A year ago, I did not know what the hell was going to happen to the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, much less myself.
Now? I am fighting a losing battle trying to carve time in my schedule for myself and my boyfriend Brett. The small-business owner fears still haunt me. “I need to answer that phone call. … I must answer that late-night email. … No way can I allow a possible guest booking to walk away looking for answers with another business.”
So, life is crazy right now – but it is a good kind of crazy busy – and I would not have it any other way.
To think, one year ago life seemed to be falling apart. Yet, today, I am just beside myself that my Arizona guided adventure tours company not only survived, but now is thriving to the point where I had to turn off online booking for a few days in the next couple of weeks because we are sold out.
I felt terrible recently having coffee with a friend and my phone was blowing up left and right with texts, calls, and emails regarding booking guided Scottsdale mountain biking..
And now, as I sit here writing this Blog, my phone is blowing up again about guided Pheonix hiking in Arizona's beautiful Sonoran Desert.
Just today on the phone, I booked over 10 tours in the next two weeks combined. Six more groups came through via our online booking system. Three other sets of guests arrived from Tripadvisor tours.
For a small business such as Wild Bunch, that is an awesome number.
So, my head is absolutely spinning from the grateful energy I feel for being so busy.
Laurel (right) and boyfriend Brett react to stay-at-home orders by the Arizona governor. The duo were "hanging out, in
the middle of nowhere," Laurel recalls, when the announcement was made. Both were surprised to find they had cell
reception to send this to friends.
Gratitude comes in many packages
I am grateful for all that has happened the last few months for Wild Bunch Desert Guides and the many other companies that have survived this challenge of our lifetime.
I am especially grateful for everybody in the Wild Bunch -- every single guide with me before the pandemic hit still is with me, and still going strong and giving amazing adventures to all our guests with reviews that knock your socks off.
I also am grateful for the many business friends that stood with me when the pandemic news seemed darkest.
Included: Crystal Topham of Spur Cross Cycles in Cave Creek. Crystal rents bikes and provides maintenance service. She is a one-woman small business and great friend who I appreciate and love dearly. We have spent lots of hours together sharing epic Arizona mountain bike rides. And occasionally, Crystal bails me out with a special rental in Cave Creek.
There are some others we have a great relationship with, but Grey Matter Family Bike Shop merits special mention as our main go-to. I f’ing love Brandon and Jason. They do not do rentals – referring guests to us instead – but GMF takes care of our entire fleet as the local Marin Bikes dealer.
Ted, Brooks, Laura, Carol, Renee, Mike, Jennie, April, Jaime, Shannon -- they all know who they are and what they do professionally – and they helped keep Wild Bunch in the front of their and the public’s mind during the toughest months in 2020. None of them ever gave up on my small mom-and-pop specialty shop.
Bruce, who took my call many times when I wanted to throw the towel in, talked me off the ledge every time and has always had my back in business. I mean ALWAYS.
And, of course, I am super grateful for my super supportive superhero boyfriend Brett.
He is a story unto himself. So, stay tuned. As the announcer used to say, “Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel next week kids!”
P.S. – The Wild Bunch Desert Guides are completely sold out this St. Patrick’s Day – as well as the day after -- so no green beer for me this year. I am ready for a different party.
For me, that is simply another sure sign how far we all have come in 365 days.
No more crying in my beer. My Irish eyes are smiling this time.
Laurel pauses to smile during one of the last maskless pre-pandemic hikes in Feb. 2020. Masks are a remnant of the
CoVid-19 crisis, but the hikes and smiles have returned.
About the Author
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