Johnathan Blyler is often asked why moonlight hikes aren’t offered more frequently at Usery Mountain Regional Park. To which he replies: "Because I cannot control the moonlight. And if I could, I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be an interpretive ranger."
Blyler is passing time waiting for stragglers to arrive at the horse staging area 1 1 /2 miles from the park entrance. Hikers, from badge-earning Boy Scouts to seasoned veterans, meet here monthly, after the trails have officially closed, for a guided walk through desert by moonlight.
"I did my first moonlight hike Sept. 28 last year," one woman says. "I remember the date because Sept. 27 was my last day at work." She’s now a regular, traveling to county parks for programs that include stargazing and talks about the saguaro. But she says the two-hour moonlight hikes are her favorite.
The hike season begins after summer snake danger wanes. Usually between 75 and 100 people show up, but when groups as large as 500 arrive, extra rangers are recruited and the group divides.
A quarter-mile into the outing, Blyler pulls over and allows the throng to gather around so he can point out desert plants while it’s still light enough to see them. The seeds of the jojoba bush, for example, can be eaten in small quantities, he says, but large quantities can be detrimental to the liver. The saguaro cactus can live to be 450 years old, Blyler says, but "I’m guessing that one is 250 years old." Brittlebush, creosote, paloverde, ironwood and barrel cactus all are addressed before hikers align themselves back on the path single-file.
At the next stop, Blyler outlines a bit of area history: The "Phoenix" stamped onto the side of Usery Mountain. In the 1950s a Boy Scout troop created the landmark at the site of a U.S. postal airplane crash. Using dynamite and pickaxes, the Scouts cleared the land before carefully creating the letters from rock. The rocks were painted with a mixture of milk, latex paint and white cement, creating a marker for incoming planes "and flying saucers." Blyler says the landmark is visible 27 miles above the Earth. The crowd is properly awed.
As the sun drops behind the horizon and the harvest moon emerges above the Superstitions, even the youngest hikers are moved by the sight of the fabled mountains awash in purple. As the darkness advances, hikers grow quiet and concentrate on their footing. Already a few Scouts have fallen victim to cholla burrs.
Blyler breaks the silence by throwing a light on a towering saguaro and explaining that a pair of great horned owls has nested there for the past 10 years. Two of their offspring were spotted here earlier in the day. The local landscape is an ample grocery store for these owls, which prey on small foxes, rabbits and an occasional domestic cat from a nearby housing development.
Back on the Blevins Trail, Blyler addresses the path’s namesake: The ranger notes that William Blevins and comrade King Usery were highwaymen who robbed the Globe-Florence stage of silver bullion in 1891. Blevins and his bullion were recovered, but it would be 20 years before Usery was behind bars —ratted out by his mother. His bullion was never found. The Boy Scouts, particularly, are encouraged by this story.
Back at the horse staging area, Blyler gets the fire going. It’s past 8 p.m., and the questions keep coming: What lives in those desert holes? Can you really get water from a barrel cactus? How many miles of trail are there in Usery Park?
Blyler answers them all as sparks from the fire rise toward the star-studded sky.