Nobody loves the referees, it has been suggested, except by their families and friends -- and that's assuming those officials stay away from working a game involving a favorite team of those loved ones. If so, Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner and operator Laurel Darren is a notable exception – and for one very good reason after one of the Phoenix mountain bike tours she guided recently.
This woman’s adventure tour company truly a ‘wonder’
"I can't speak highly enough of Laurel and Wild Bunch Desert Guides. No one is better! The energy, knee-high socks, Devil costume, and tunes brought smiles to everyone’s face. Laurel is encouraging, supportive, and can see where support is needed before the mountain bike riders even realize it. This organization is reliable and goes above and beyond to offer a unique, memorable, and amazing trip.”
– CyclingCentre, Oakville, Canada on Tripadvisor, Oct. 2016
Among the many colorful nicknames I have earned over the years from my family and closest friends, “Devil Woman” has been one with incredible sticking power because it sums me up perfectly.
I am unapologetically a strong woman with a whole heck of a lot of soul; I have a wicked sense of humor and a devil-may-care demeanor; and as a hard-working taskmaster, I like to bring the heat in more ways than one!
I even have a costume I break out for big events so there is no need to wonder which superheroine is working that day. After all, I do not want to get confused with or get a lawsuit from Gal Gadot or, for you traditionalists, the incredible Linda Carter.
These days, “Devil Woman” can be found fighting the “crime” that is this CoVid-19 pandemic, while waging a never-ending battle on the forces conspiring against small businesses everywhere even in good times, to help deliver socially distanced fun in the legendary “Valley of the Sun” with guided adventures such as a Phoenix mountain bike tour or Scottsdale hiking trip.
While the grit and gloom of Gotham is the appropriate backdrop for the brooding darkness of Batman, Arizona’s sunny Sonoran Desert in turn offers the picture-perfect place to patrol for the “Devil Woman.” A hot climate certainly is on-brand with my alter-ego, as is the other-worldly surroundings, but instead of hell this is pure paradise for hikers, mountain bike riders, fitness enthusiasts and nature lovers alike with hundreds of miles of trails to explore on a guided mountain bike trip or guided hiking tour.
The “Devil Woman” and her loyal band of fellow do-gooders – the Wild Bunch Desert Guides – first teamed together in March 2016 to rescue visitors from the ho-hum, joyless journeys of the cookie-cutter corporate outlets by bringing a lot of personalized sunshine into the lives of our treasured guests.
The origin story is a simple and inspiring little yarn: The Wild Bunch began as the love child of transplanted mountain biking and hiking enthusiasts, who simply wanted to share their devotion to those activities and their passion for Arizona’s beautiful Sonoran Desert with the many tourists coming every year to Phoenix and Scottsdale.
With a dedication to customized details for each trip, first-class customer service from expert guides, and an unwavering commitment to deliver once-in-a-lifetime experiences to every guest, the Wild Bunch has grown quickly into one of the premier adventure tour companies in the Southwest.
Wild Bunch Desert Guides caters to all skill and fitness levels, and often handles large special events, such as corporate outings, organizational retreats, and customer appreciation events. However, because of our flair for the personal touch -- and a belief the devil is in the details -- the Wild Bunch continues to specialize in small groups, especially families with children and those celebrating milestones, including birthdays and anniversaries.
From humble beginnings, the Wild Bunch have grown to earn the top rating – five stars – across the board from Tripadvisor, Yelp, Google, and Facebook. Those guests getting personalized attention are now loyal customers, regularly singing the praises of their unforgettable adventures on Social Media. The private boutique service also has earned acclaim from the tourism industry as an award-winner among adventure travel companies.
Despite the many and mounting accolades, though, the Wild Bunch remains the same, small, local mom-and-pop specialty shop, which is the reason personal attention and homespun hospitality continue to be our greatest super powers.
While our view from the top is as breathtaking as the 360-degree, panoramic vistas on Phoenix’s iconic Camelback Mountain, the “Devil Woman” truly appreciates how “Wild” this improbable ride has been to the fifth anniversary of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
After comparing notes with others in my position, the first couple of years revealed the same super villians every small business owner battles against in an anxiety-filled, learn-as-you-go, mistakes-and-questions riddled existence.
Year one for the Wild Bunch was all about trying to just get in “The Game” of providing guided mountain bike tours and guided hiking trips.
Were our prices too high? Are we competitive? Should I undercut the competition? Do I have what it takes to stick with this?
What do you mean I need a website? What is Instagram?
Uh-oh, I have to pay the resorts a commission? Oh no, I need permits to do organized hikes in certain areas? And the annual question that haunts every small business: Whoa, that liability insurance is how much????
While there were lessons learned and some answers finally became apparent, there still were more questions in Years 2 and 3.
"Yes," I recall telling resorts and concierges, "we have been in business now a year and I will continue to come by each week and drop off my brochures."
"Thank you so much for at least taking time to meet with me," I remember telling so many. "I know you use Company A on a regular basis, but I would at least like to be considered if you ever find yourself in a last-minute jam."
And, a piece of Kryptonite for any small business owner: "I know I missed your call because I was in the bathroom. Actually, I was just wiping away the tears because I know I missed the call, and you called another company because you just could not wait."
Also, another super power-sapping conversation with the resorts: "I can only afford this much amount of commission on the tours you book with me, so I hope that is OK?"
There also is a question that still comes up often and provokes this Wolverine-like natural defense: "No joking; you want to go literally in an hour from now???"
However, nothing has been more challenging than the pandemic of the past year.
Not to bore you with the grim details of that fateful day, but it was March 17, which was St. Patrick’s Day, and I was three gloriously green beers into my annual celebration when the cancellations started rolling in for every guided mountain bike trip and guided hiking adventure on the Wild Bunch calendar.
In the darkest of days last spring, the "Devil Woman" was like every small business owner in America, feeling absolutely powerless, wondering if the love of my life, my passionate pursuit, could possibly survive.
Thankfully, this is hardly a woebegone tale, though.
And, frankly, I know the "Devil Woman" is lucky to be in a state that re-opened so quickly, and I operate a business that proved naturally safer than many others.
Also, the "Devil Woman" is blessed with a great crew of patient guides and some equally fantastic guests who loyally support local small businesses, knowing how indispensably important they are to the survival of mom-and-pop outfits such as the Wild Bunch.
I shudder to think of the wasteland of small businesses permanently shuttered now in the wake of many shutdowns and rampant uncertainty. The popular saying certainly applies: There but for the grace of God go I.
Now, the CoVid clouds could be parting for a new year.
It has been an incredibly satisfying journey and amazingly organic growth since founding the Wild Bunch with my former husband and still-great friend (and business proponent) Bill Simmons.
At the urging of so many people to start my own business – and with Bill selflessly researching a way for me to continue my love of giving people adventures -- I walked away from the comforts of working for an established, well-respected adventure company in 2016.
Now, the “Devil Woman” can hardly wait to take on the next challenge.