By Maritza Cruz
The tour poured into the “enchanted heart” of Valley of the Moon. Stars peeked through the canopy of trees that cloaked the crumbling grotto, giving the illusion of a faraway land. Twinkle lights hung from the branches overhead, and fairies dwelled in tiny stone houses. Families sat down on the stone ledges that poked out of the grotto walls.
A woman sat on the edge of a miniature dock enveloped in a tangle of leaves. She peered through large square glasses at the children and parents sitting shoulder to shoulder around the dock. She sang “If You’re Happy and You Know It” as the children chirped in unison.
“I saw a fairy,” a little boy in a striped shirt squealed.
Valley of the Moon inspires magic and imagination. After sundown, the 2.3-acre park transforms into a fairytale, illuminated only by the strings of lights hung in trees and the icy February moon.
On the first Saturday of every month, Valley of the Moon puts on a campfire singalong to provide families with a free, safe environment to gather with the community.
Community was one of the valley’s most important values dating back to the founder’s vision. George Phar Legler, also known as “The Mountain Gnome,” his magical alter ego, moved to Tucson from Indiana in 1917. Legler believed that kindness was the key to happiness. He dedicated his life to this mantra and spread his message to the community, especially children.
The idea for Valley of the Moon emerged after Legler visited a sick 14-year-old girl who was dying of tuberculosis. Legler decided he needed to do something to bring happiness into her life. He built a mountain scene, complete with a waterfall and lake, outside her bedroom window that she could visit at any time.
Legler eventually decided that there should be a place where people could heal their mind and souls. He constructed Valley of the Moon with the help of his friends and homeless volunteers who worked in exchange for food and board. About 200 tons of stone and 800 sacks of cement later, the valley was born. The year is 1926, a sign on the side of the road read, “Valley of the Moon, Tucson’s Picture in the Third Dimension and Mental Health Center.” Over the decades, the Valley of the Moon continued Legler’s vision of storytelling, community and imagination. In 2015, Valley of the Moon was declared a Tucson Historical Landmark, making it one of seven.
Zack Jarrett is president of the Valley of the Moon board of directors. “Probably the most important thing we do is give children these life experiences that transform them and that they keep with them for the rest of their days,” Jarrett said. Jarrett dressed up as his magical alter ego, “The Wizard,” during the campfire singalong. He said the singalong represents one of their six core values – community.
Valley of the Moon is tucked into the congested Prince Tucson neighborhood. When I drove to the valley, I almost drove past the metal gates. As I pulled into a parking spot, gravel crunched beneath my wheels. I stepped through the chain-link gate and into the park. A large tree stood at the entrance, a warm face emblazoned on its trunk, like Grandmother Willow from Disney’s Pocahontas. I walked along the concrete path as the wizard guided me through the evening. At 6:30 p.m. there would be a guided tour through the caves of terror, down the rabbit hole and into the enchanted garden. We ducked under an archway of trees, a string of lights weaved through the branches.
At the end of the path, was an amphitheater that Legler had dug out himself. Sparse patches of dehydrated grass covered the ground. The Wizard’s Tower loomed over the amphitheater like the way a giant watches over its mountain.
People of every age gathered around the amphitheater. Families sprawled across picnic blankets and lawn chairs. Parents poked their heads out of blankets or thick jackets, scarves and beanies, trying to hide from the cool February night.
Volunteers stood underneath a white tent, selling hot chocolate and popcorn. Bob Murphy has been volunteering at the park for two years. He went to a show at the Valley of the Moon, and Jenni Sunshine, who works there, sent her daughter to retrieve him. Sunshine pulled Murphy aside and said he was going to be the tour guide for Saturday because he knew the tour and always carried a flashlight.
He has trickled through the gates of the park for about 25 years. He said you must believe in magic to enter. “I believe I have a fairy guardian,” Murphy said. “She looks out for me and finds me parking places. When I lose something, I ask her where I lost it, and she tells me.”
Before he started volunteering, he lived in a two-bedroom condo and always stayed home. He had one friend from work, but now he has many.
Valley of the Moon might not be standing if not for the work of volunteers. For years, Legler constructed sets and produced skits and entertainment for children until 1960, when his health began to deteriorate. Unfortunately, vandals destroyed many of the rock structures while Legler was sick.
Before the magic could disappear, Catalina High School students visited Legler and revived the valley with his blessing. On Legler’s 97th birthday, he received the Tucson Outstanding Citizen Award. Legler passed away two months later and left the property to volunteers.
Jarrett stood at the bottom of the amphitheater in a long blue cloak and a pointed wizard’s hat. He had a long brown beard with patches of grey, a puerile smile and a love-for-life appreciation shining in his eyes. A rainbow-colored strap held the guitar slung over his shoulder. Three other musicians crowded behind the crackling campfire, coughing black smoke.
Children huddled around the campfire, roasting marshmallows for s’mores. The fire licked the marshmallows, setting some of them ablaze. The children giggled as they blew out the flames.
Some children frolicked around like elves playing tag in the back of the amphitheater.
“Everybody follow me to safety,” a child shouted as his friends ran after him.
Yendi Castillo, a first-time visitor and mother of two, said she thought the event was sweet, and she was likely to return. Her favorite part was the singing.
The wizard strummed his guitar and sang a rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” I tapped my foot to the smooth strum of the acoustic guitar. At the end of the song, the wizard and children began to howl like coyotes.
“Owwwww,” I heard to my left and snapped my head around to see my father howling along with the children.
Stifling a laugh, I took a sip of my hot chocolate.
As I sat on the winter grass with my camera in one hand and a Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate in the other, I wished I had found this place as a child. I remember wanting to be a wizard as a child, waiting for my Hogwarts acceptance letter as an 11-year-old and feeling that spark when I held my wand for the first time inside of Ollivanders this summer. Magic never truly leaves your spirit, and at Valley of the Moon I was moonstruck.