Great Escapes – Arizona’s Best-kept Secret

Robb Report Photo

The Robb Report  – Photography and Article by JoAnn Richi

For Larry Farren, the desert’s a metaphor for real life. “Mountains. Climbing up one, down another. Getting there, reaching for the top, and depending on other people.” His eyes sweep the surrounding desert. “Amazing breakthroughs happen out on those trails. People open up in ways they don’t on a golf course. Ideas flow. Things happen.”

Dark hair, darker eyes, a wrestler’s build, with a voice at once soothing and a little intimidating, Larry Farren’s an enigma. A desert lover with thriving businesses in Phoenix and Seattle, he’s a man with a mission, a company insider turned business consultant, with razor-sharp insights into what makes corporate America tick. He’s also the proprietor of a retreat center devoted to holistic health – mind, body, and spirit. Farren has a clear theory about what the average millionaire CEO needs in order to forge team-building skills among the executive troops, ignite creativity and enthusiasm for the job, and boost company morale: healthy food, a natural setting, total privacy, and the warm glow of personal accomplishment from hiking up the side of a mountain and down the other.

This is what he offers at his desert retreat-a place where trail life becomes a microcosm of real life. The emphasis is on hiking, working together on the trail, going farther each day, and always going up the mountain and down the other side. “What’s the point of climbing all the way to the top just to turn around and go back the same way?” That question underlies the philosophy of Farren’s retreat center -and his outlook on life. As Farren explains, “Life on the trail requires honest communication and real teamwork. Safety depends on team members being truthful and dependable, whether in maintaining water supplies or in making decisions about which trail to follow. Out there in the wilderness, it doesn’t matter whether you own the company or you’re an executive assistant. It is a great equalizer.

“Six years ago the man with that dream bought a mansion in a desert and transformed it into one of the best-kept secrets in the upscale international resort/retreat/spa industry. The address is unpublished, the guest list is privileged information. The place is DesertFarren, named after its owner, a maverick business consultant and Wild West entrepreneur. Farren’s desert oasis is a welcome change from the stereotypical corporate retreat centers where mandatory wilderness experiences and forced group-think sessions are de rigueur. Larry Farren is an escapee from that culture. Billed as an exclusive corporate retreat center, DesertFarren is the antidote to organizational overdose. His concise information packet alerts potential guests: “The heart of the program is a three-day or a week long series of rigorous day hikes through the Arizona desert. “No managerial psychobabble here. No leadership gurus revving up the troops with hackneyed productivity mantras. Farren has a different approach. Health. Wellness. Delicious gourmet vegetarian meals. Five- to 15-mile desert hikes under the watchful eye of an experienced trail leader. And at the end of the day: deep muscle massage and a steaming soak in the courtyard hot tub, tired muscles relaxing under the panorama of the desert sky. A high-intensity experience. I was introduced to DesertFarren the usual way: practically blindfolded.

NO UNINVITED GUESTS.

After escaping the tense, gridlocked, claustrophobic drive through the frenzy of Phoenix traffic, being tailgated at 90 mph on freeways that crisscross and loop like roller coasters, I finally break free of the cacophony of life in one of the fastest-growing cities in America and slide into the beginning of the desert, heading north to a town aptly called Carefree and to my destination: DesertFarren. The faxed instructions made it clear that no other directions would be provided, and there are no uninvited guests. “To preserve the solitude of the site, all guests will be picked up at a predetermined location. No on-site parking is available.” Following the instructions, I park my car and call DesertFarren for someone to come and take me on the last leg of the journey for my three-day stay. Within minutes, “Trail Master Greg” pulls up in an all-terrain vehicle, dusty from the trail. The air conditioned vehicle is ice-cold, a welcome relief from Arizona’s infamous dry heat. Greg is an athletic, outdoorsy type of guy, 30ish, blond, with a wiry build and the steady gaze of someone who knows all about rattlesnakes and how to avoid stepping into a nest of them. Greg revs up the engine, and we roar off into amaze of twisting unpaved roads.

The remnants of civilization are swallowed up by saguaro-encrusted hills. All ties to the familiar loosen, replaced by a windswept desert and jagged mountaintops cutting into a cobalt blue sky. Thick white clouds float surrealistically above the wide expanses as we are catapulted into the immense spectacle of the high desert. A hawk soars low, its wings spread wide. It is like being in an old Western movie in vivid color: desert, mountains, cacti, rocks, dizzying heights, and sudden, deadly cliff drops. Spectacularly beautiful. “The Retreat is located near Carefree, Arizona, 45 minutes north of Phoenix airport. The elevation is 3,000 feet” Directions would be useless; without the constitution of an Eagle Scout and a Hummer to navigate the trails, you would be hopelessly lost long before reaching your destination. With Greg at the wheel, we surmount the top of the last hill, and there it is: an adobe brick mansion, a miniature castle both monastic and majestic. Desert Farren. The eerie quiet is punctuated by the rustling of the wind and a far-off chorus of coyotes.

PURE ISOLATION.

Built more than 30 years ago, the main house has nine bedrooms, a great room, a pool visible from the dining room, and a state-of-the-art high-tech kitchen. A balcony providing a magnificent view of the desert in full bloom runs along one wall. Everything is exquisite, every feature lovingly constructed by Mexican artisans and craftsmen hired by the original owner. The beds may look simple and rustic, but they are well made the best money can buy smothered in down comforters and feather pillows. Appetizing aromas from the kitchen drift throughout the rooms; a chef has been brought in from Phoenix to cook for today’s guests.

“Don’t leave your towels on the ground,” Greg cautions while showing us how to turn up the heat on the large circular hot tub just outside the main doorway. “Scorpions like warm, moist places. “Later we would dutifully hang our towels on those hooks jutting out from the 100-year-old wooden vigas in the bougainvillea festooned courtyard. Straight ahead is a cliff with a sudden drop. The closest neighbor is a local millionaire, living the good life in the desert in a large adobe home set precariously atop a nearby mountain, far from the stress of Phoenix. Nature enriches the pure isolation. Phoenix. Seattle, Chicago, and New York have vanished. Except for the lushness of the flowers, vines, and fruit trees and the stark beauty of the mission bricks against a pure azure sky, we could be on the surface of the moon. It is that isolated, that quiet, that serene, that unfamiliar.

Inside, carved wood and intricately patterned bricks cover the walls. A massive stone fireplace in the great room towers over soft overstuffed chairs. A huge dining table doubles as a conference room for inspiring post-hike brainstorming. Rows of massage tables line the balcony overlooking the desert, sheer white gauze curtains billow in the breeze, and the view stretches out to the horizon. DesertFarren is the retreat of choice for corporate movers and shakers hungry for a little R&R. It has been a hideaway for celebrities, professionals, and politicians, all drawn by its privacy and unique mixture of tough-love fitness and intensive pampering. “Drop-ins” are few and far between. “There’s no paparazzi here,” growls the gravel-voiced Farren.”Our guests’ privacy is sacrosanct.” The uninvited who succeed in beating a path through the wilderness to the front door are quickly ejected.

BATTLING DILBERT

Taking a break from his demanding Seattle consulting schedule to enjoy the place he calls home, Larry Farren holds forth on corporate America, “the cult of Dilbertism,” and just what it takes to kick-start paradigm shifts in corporations mired in group think. With years of experience inside the corporate world, Larry Farren decided not to stray too far when he made his great escape. Big business is where he came from, and where he focuses his innovative ideas about nurturing and team building. “When I decided to spread the word, I went right to the corporate market.” He characterizes most company situations as “Dilberts bumping around trying to generate new ideas in stifling corporate environments.” His resort, Farren says, creates an atmosphere for creative thought by focusing on feeling good physically and emotionally. The physical aspect of the program is far from easy. “It’s not designed to be easy, but it’s not a boot camp either,” he says.

Under the watchful eye of experienced wilderness professionals and exercise physiologists, DesertFarren’s less conditioned guests start slowly and initially go a short distance. The participants go a little farther each day, and as their stamina and self-confidence build, they feel accomplished and nurtured –not pampered and definitely not waited on. Farren is adamant about the difference between the two. “There is a difference between service and nurturing,” he explains. “When nurturing goes up, the demand for service goes down.” Triggering feelings of accomplishment in his guests is what it’s all about. “It’s all in the path,” he says. “Six to eight people on a hike is the ideal number. They hike together, they begin to communicate.”

The monastic feel of the sprawling adobe dwelling belies Farren’s love of the finest things in life. Simplicity is the name of the game. There is one phone available for outside calls. There are no televisions, although the living room area boasts direct outlets to the Internet. Rugged, challenging, stimulating, invigorating, idea-inducing: That sums up what Farren is aiming for in the middle of the desert. What feedback does Larry Farren want to hear after the corporate guys have packed up their laptops, put away their hiking boots, and polished off the last of the gourmet vegetarian lasagna? He tips back in a leather and carved wood chair and rattles them off one by one:”Great place,…’Food’s delicious’…’Did I come up with the greatest idea’. . . and oh, yes: I’ll never forget DesertFarren.’ “