Some years ago, I wrote a trade blog in which I portrayed myself with a large dollop of tongue-in-cheek humor. No one got it. I had a lot of readers, but I deleted the blog. The intent was to entertain, not to mystify. I’m bringing this up now because if you look below you will see that I have labeled myself as the Azalea Queen. Now, we all know that by virtue of chronology I cannot possibly be the Azalea Queen, nor do I have delusions that I am the Azalea Queen. I just stuck the title on the picture for fun, because I am about 30 years older than the high limit for the teenage queen and therefore am having a joke at my own expense and because I think that if you can’t figuratively crown yourself queen for a day, then who will?
Ravine Gardens State Park is recognized for the profusion of azaleas that blooms annually from January through April. The park is in Palatka, wedged between a tired-looking neighborhood and a power plant. It’s a terrible setting for a formal gardens, which looked like nothing from the small parking lot.
It turned out that they were holding Azalea Days at the park, milking everything they could out of the past week’s Azalea Festival in downtown Palatka and the skimpy blooms that had appeared after this year’s drastic freeze. So meager were the flowers that I was tempted to count them, but I enjoyed the park just the same. How can you not feel immensely pleasured by a park that holds an annual Air Potato Rodeo?
Ravine Gardens was built in 1933 as a WPA project for the Civilian Conservation Corps. The WPA had a thing for rustic-style suspension bridges and there are two in the park, although neither is the original. For an original WPA bridge you need to go to O’Leno State Park.
There were nine CCC parks in Florida and many more throughout America.
Ravine Gardens covers 59 acres and has a 1.8 paved loop for vehicles. Personally, I don’t care for driving through a park, although the loop made for easy walking. Although the trails in Ravine Gardens are easy to see, they are narrow and are partially covered with leaves, which made me refer back to a snake-identification poster I’d seen in the park’s multi-purpose building. The poster had a casual, friendly tone and it called a dusky pygmy rattler a “little guy.” Little as in hard to see. And not possible to hear. Still, I braved parts of the trails and didn’t see any snakes. I did nearly trip on the old CCC stone staircases that help you up or down the sides of the ravine. These historic staircases are badly cracked, uneven, and off-kilter, alarmingly so in one instance.
We strolled around the amphitheater where the Florida Azalea Queen pageant was once held. The pageant has been revived but now takes place in an auditorium that is not on the park grounds. The pageant began in the 1940s, when the age limit for contestants was 25. Now it’s 18. The pageant also now includes an array of titles from just-birthed babies right up through tiny tots, pre-teens, junior misses, and all the way up to the queen herself. There is an entrance fee that I feel undermines the original spirit of the pageant, but then again, any pageant that would have a day-old baby compete is not to be taken seriously. Commercialism knows no age category.
The day we visited was windy. For the most part, the ravine and the trees provided a full break, but only until we started walking on the paved loop. Then, just as we had finished admiring an orange tree that was being heavily buffeted by the wind, I was hit on the head by an oak branch. I hadn’t considered the danger of falling branches, not here or anywhere else, but it’s something to think about. I did wonder how it was that I particularly happened to be standing right underneath a tree with a weakened branch, but it was preferable to it beaning a kid.
We only made it over two of the suspension bridges. One was being held hostage by a group of teens whose female members probably weren’t the type to enter the Azalea Queen pageant. Their bouncing and jostling made me suspect that this was the reason for the replacement bridges. The bridge squeaked and heaved under the combined downward thrust of eight bodies. O’Leno State Park with its original bridge isn’t crowded into a residential neighborhood and Ravines is; no doubt the Ravines bridges have seen quite a lot of fun-house behavior over the past 65 years. I’d have done it myself, back in 1974, and I probably would’ve carved my name into it as well. Since I am sure the statute of limitations has now elapsed, I feel free to confess that it was I (with a cohort) who painted that big blue ’76 on the high school hill back in those-were-simpler-times Massachusetts.
Ravine Gardens State Park: *** 1/2
Good: Easy access and use for seniors, good restroom facilities, great snake identification information (although not in prominent place), clean picnic area.
Bad: Those CCC-era stairs are a lawsuit waiting to happen, especially on the southern side of the ravine.