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When I told my mother about a young woman with toddlers enjoying a sunny afternoon at Lake Johnson in the Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park, she asked me if there were alligators in the lake.

Of course there are, I said.  This is Florida.

Despite the usual warning sign, gators aren’t the first thing that come to mind when you stand on the slope above Lake Johnson.  The first thing that comes to mind is, What a great lakefront beach!

Properly, there are two lakes in Gold Head Branch:  Big Johnson and Little Johnson.  Jack Riepe, take note: Little Johnson has dried up. 

I’d driven by Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park many times on my way to Jacksonville.  The park doesn’t look like much from the road and since I rarely swim, never camp and barely hike, I’d put it on a back burner.  I was also aware that Gold Head Branch was a place Mr. B. would want to hike, which meant I would have the inner struggle with the hiking demon.  The demon slumbers until that moment when I reluctantly lace up my hiking boots and pick my way down a trail behind Mr. B., who is standing somewhere down the trail in awe of nature and, to my mind, oblivious to nature’s hazards.

Somewhere between the car and the trailhead, the demon speaks up:  Are you kidding me? Think about this, girlfriend:  Would you rather be kicking down this trail or would you rather be getting a manicure? And this:  You are going to look like a total idiot in snake chaps.

Shut up, I think. Move it!  Mr. B. has gone ahead and the last thing I want to do is to spoil Mr. B.’s afternoon.  After all, I am still repaying a debt from Christmas–Christmas!–when I interrupted a visit to the holiday light display at Silver Springs in order to buy a candle at Dillard’s. 

Gold Head Branch interested me as a CCC-constructed park, one of eight in Florida.  The footprint of the CCC is in evidence in the original primitive cabins and in the sturdy construction of the bathhouse.  These structures were built to last and they have.  Architecturally, they are rustic-style, made from native wood.  The white-sand beach forms a bowl and the bathhouse sits above it, a monument to the New Deal and to hand-hewn construction. At the bathhouse, newspaper clippings from the 1930s are displayed on the breezeway that separates the men’s facilities from the women’s.  One of these clippings is a full-page advertisement for American Telephone and Telegraph that extols the comforts, reassurances, and advantages of the telephone.  Reading it is an exercise in the suspension of disbelief:  Were we really that innocent? We learn that a telephone can be used “in many different ways,” including my favorite, for “the gay to share their gaiety.”

I wish I’d had someone to call with whom I could share my frustration, but then I realized I’d just frustrate the other person, who wouldn’t deserve it.  They might be in the middle of their own frustration, like trying to learn Chinese brushwork painting and having it turn out like kindergarten fingerpainting.

The ad appealed to gut emotion (presaging AT & T’s later “Reach Out and Touch Someone” slogan), whereas marketing for today’s iPhone appeals to whizbang functionality.  We have lost something along the way.  Is anyone really listening?

We walked from the bathhouse up to the parking lot and, since we hadn’t been given a map, drove around until we found the rental cabins, several of which are original CCC structures.  What caught our eye, though, were two far more modern cabins with long screened porches.  They perfectly exemplified my idea of “camping,” which is pretty elastic to begin with. 

Later, we had an encounter with the Moss Man and then took the short trail down to the remnant piece of concrete and iron that is the ruin of an old mill.  Mr. B. walked ahead and I balked when I saw that the trail was covered with fallen leaves of a brown-and-tan hue that exactly mimicked the colors of the copperhead.  This was interesting from the standpoint of animal camouflage and I had a silent argument with the hiking demon before tiptoeing down the path to meet Mr. B. at the creek.  We also walked nearly 100 steps down into a ravine, where the demon won out and refused to permit me to take more than four steps on a thin ribbon of trail.  If you ask Mr. B., he will tell you that I lunged the four steps to the safety of a wooden platform and then stood there saying, Uh, uh.  Days later, I confessed that I braved the trails not for the purpose of pushing myself to new levels of accomplishment but so I could write about the experience.  It made for a much more interesting narrative than did describing the purchase of a bar of jasmine-scented soap.  We tried to parse the nature of reward while I stuck the hiking demon back where he belongs, in that curious part of the mind that contains both daredevil and spoil-sport instincts.

Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park:  *** 1/2 (I am tempted to add another half star for unintentional innuendo.)

If you visit:  There is ample parking at the lake and the bathhouse has both toilets and “cabinet” changing rooms.  The park looks like a campers’ paradise, although a very low-key one.  I was very impressed by the larger rental cabins.  These two units are offset from the smaller rentals and have a greater sense of privacy.  Perhaps in keeping with its origin as a CCC project, the park has a Boy Scout feel to it, meaning that while it has the essentials, it is pretty basic.

View at the bottom of the ravine.  This was quite lovely, although I wasn’t keen to tramp across it.

A flyer in the ranger station contained an ode to the Moss Man, whose location within the park is never stationary.  I am glad we encountered him during daylight. The eyes shine red at night. 


View of Lake Johnson from the bathhouse.  Local residents mob the lake in the summer and it isn’t hard to see why, this far from either coast.


Another body of water, another alligator warning.
The mill ruins.


Primitive camping.



CCC-constructed “rustic” cabin.

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