Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers
Mark Farley, 50, founded Elite Land Tours in 2003 after traveling to Kenya to participate in a safari. It occurred to Mark that no one was offering anything similar in the U.S., although he knew there were areas with tremendous biodiversity in his proverbial backyard of Palm Springs, California. Joshua Tree National Park immediately came to mind as a landscape he wanted to share with visitors to the area; today Elite offers 32 different tours within the Palm Springs area. Mark and I spent the better part of a few days together in early 2009 as he introduced me to the captivating and quirky environment south of the San Bernardino Mountains. His enthusiasm and zest for the region inspired me to appreciate not only the surroundings but also the fact that he had built a vocation doing something he loved — a power of example for me as someone newly on that path.
I hope you’ll enjoy this conversation with Mark, which offers a glimpse into the high mountains and low desert of Palm Springs, while touching on the joy of being in your element, and twin themes familiar to most travelers — curiosity and risk-taking.
What’s on the other side of the hill? — not knowing makes me go there!
Craig Woodson 1969–
Meg: If I recall correctly, you are originally from Chicago, and had an interest in architecture from an early age. Can you talk a little bit about this background?
Mark: I went to a college preparatory high school named Lane Technical High School. As a requirement, we had to take drafting. I really enjoyed it and made it a goal to become an architect. I had won several art contests in elementary school so knew had I had a tendency toward the creative.
As a child, I was always drawing and creating things. I had two aunts who were artists and one of them painted cathedrals on canvas. I thought that was quite an accomplishment. When I was about ten years old, I walked five miles through the city of Chicago to watch the construction of the John Hancock Building downtown (at that time, it was slated as the tallest building in the world). I always marveled at the skyscrapers and architecture in Chicago. There were many styles and I liked all of them — from gothic to modern and everything in between.
Meg: Then, as I recall, you spent some time with an aunt who lived near the desert and you fell in love with that particular type of landscape. Can you talk a little bit about the experience and what about that type of environment was so compelling for you?
Mark: After graduating from college, I went to stay with the same aunt who painted cathedrals on canvas. She lived near Marana, Arizona which is outside of Tucson. Her five acre ranch bordered what is now the Saguaro National Park. She was truly a woman way ahead of her time. She was a paleontologist who spoke seven languages and several Native American dialects. She had a special relationship with nature and the land and taught me all about the desert. Coming from a big city, it was all new and exciting for me. I immediately took to the desert and found it fascinating. There was so much life in a place that received very little water. When it did rain, everything popped. Plants would come alive and the wildlife would be moving about. My Aunt and I took several trips to extremely remote areas of the Sonoran Desert and saw things few people ever witness. We saw bleached-out coyote skulls, Gila Monsters, huge jackrabbits, coyotes, tortoises, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and more.
Meg: I think you then made a move out to L. A., and actually worked as a producer for Jane Fonda’s workout videos. What was that experience like? It had to have been fast-paced!
Mark: I moved to Calabasas which is a town just above Malibu in the mountains. I had two roommates — one was an actor and the other roommate owned a vitamin company. Being a creative person, I suggested to my roommate that he develop a video to promote his line of vitamins. He thought it was a great idea and put me in charge of producing and directing it. I was definitely up for the challenge. I knew I had to have a spokesperson so went after the best. I hired Debra Sue Maffett, Miss America 1983, and Dr. Earl Mindell, world-wide best-selling author of the Vitamin Bible and dozens of other books. The video won numerous awards and my career as a Producer/Director was born. I produced dozens of other long-form videos and commercials and won the Best TV Commercial in a large market by the Illinois Broadcasters Association.
It was an exciting profession. I enjoyed having control over the entire production — from casting to final edit. It is very satisfying to see others enjoy the fruits of your labor. Production can be very time consuming but the rewards are well worth it. The long days pay off when you see your work really create results for your clients. It was also a lot of fun to surround myself with creative people and was always a collaborative effort.
Meg: And bring me up-to-date from there, how you came to Palm Springs and founded Elite Tours?
Mark: After “retiring” (one never really retires from anything) from the production world, I wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of Hollywood. I had spent many weekends in Palm Springs and thought it might be fun to live in a place I enjoyed so much. It was still close to Los Angeles but really another world.
I went with a friend to a job fair at the Palm Springs Convention Center. I noticed a company there that was looking to hire guides to take people out into the desert. Since I had lots of free time, I thought that would be perfect for me since I already had a background in desert ecology from my aunt in Arizona. I took a part-time position with the tour company and really enjoyed it. I liked teaching others all about the local desert. Some of my guests wanted me to show them areas a bit further away but I was limited to the areas that this particular company did their tours. Out of the frustration to take guests further out, I created my own company. I wanted to provide a first-class experience. I had recently traveled to Kenya to do a safari and really learned a lot about how they conduct tours over there. My goal was to have the best vehicles, the best guides, the best locations, and even the best drinks and snacks.
Meg: Were there moments you felt frustration, like it wasn’t going to work? If so, could you describe, and how you dealt with it.
Mark: The process of getting the company up and running was the biggest challenge. Acquiring permits to conduct tours in California is tremendously time-consuming. Pages and pages of documents must be filled out and filed before the first tour can operate. Every entity you deal with requires a permit including the National Park, the National Forest, the Bureau of Land Management, the Public Utilities Commission, and others. It took almost a year to complete the process. It required a lot of patience and perseverance to get it all done. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
Meg: What was an early experience that made you feel pretty certain you were “in your element?”
Mark: We knew we were on to something based on the feedback from our guests. Sometimes the compliments we received were even embarrassing. I believe in going above and beyond what the guests expect and with that philosophy we knew we would be okay. Everyone was impressed with our knowledge of the areas we toured. That was very important to me. We also realized that our vehicles were less important and our knowledge was much more important so we pride ourselves in really knowing our tours. We take classes from time to time to keep up with current information.
Meg: Can you talk a little bit about the Palm Springs landscape in a general way, its attractions, its history, its diversity, the kind of people it’s attracted?
Mark: Palm Springs is really a great location for so many wonderful attractions California has to offer. We have incredible mountains — the two tallest peaks in Southern California. We have both a low desert and a high desert. We have nearby National Forests, a national park, and a State Park. We are also just a couple of hours from both Los Angeles and San Diego. And we can’t forget, the largest fault in the Western hemisphere runs right along Palm Springs — the San Andreas Fault. That geological feature in itself is one of the biggest attractions here. The most dramatic part of the 800 mile long fault is where we take our guests on the tour.
Palm Springs has a lot of Hollywood history and an incredible collection of mid-century modern architecture. We also have a lot of Native American history with the Cahuilla and history of early settlers that came to the area. Palm Springs is the second oldest city in the Coachella Valley. It was incorporated in 1938.
Because of our winter temperatures, Palm Springs attracts those fleeing the cold weather in other parts of the country. We also experience a big influx of “snowbirds” from Western Canada. There are many golf courses here which are also a big attraction.
Overall, Palm Springs draws a diverse crowd. We receive guests from Europe, China, Japan, Southern California, the Midwest, the East Coast, and everywhere in between. We have had guests from South Africa, Israel, Iceland, Russia, India, Australia, and many other far-away places.