When I Went to Groundhog Day
Everyone has a bucket list. For some people, this list includes visiting every continent or learning to speak French. For me, I wanted be there in person as Punxsutawney Phil emerges from his burrow atop Gobbler's Knob, sniffs the brisk February air and turns gaze upon his shadow - or lack thereof. Luckily for me, I was able to check this coveted box off of my list on February 2, 2016... Also known as Groundhog Day.
I had been thinking about attending the festivities in Punxsutawney for a long time but I'm honestly not sure if my obsession with Groundhog Day began with the classic Bill Murray movie of the same name or rather hearing about the tradition from the local pet store owner in my midwestern hometown. He had a groundhog named Norman that lived in a giant aquarium in the front of his establishment. When I would venture in for dog food, the owner would tell me all about how Norman and Phil were cousins and exchanged letters every once in awhile, but Norman had some deep-seeded animosity towards the Punxsutawney side of the family and February was a rough month for him generally. Whatever the reason, I'd been dreaming of going to Gobbler's Knob for years and 2016 was my year.
My husband and I arrived in Pittsburgh on the morning of January 31st. We rented a car and began the 90 minute drive through Amish country. As it turns out, Bill Murray and company didn't really shoot the movie in Punxsutawney, but rather Woodstock, Illinois. This realization came through loud and clear as we discovered there aren't actually any hotels in town. We got a room in a Hampton Inn about a half hour away and began to get ready for the ball. Oh, did I not mention?
Two days before the actual event, the Inner Circle (the group of men in top hats and tails that look after Phil 365 days of the year) host the Groundhog Day ball. It's a joyous event with dinner, wine, dancing, and most importantly - Phil himself as the guest of honor. The party is held on the top floor of the two-story community center and always has a theme - ours was a masquerade. The ball itself was just as formal as I'd hoped but was made even better by the shoestring budget and plastic folding chairs. Think the "Gilmore Girls" dance marathon episode. We got our photo taken with the groundhog of the evening and retired back to the hotel to get rested for the next day.
Up and out of the hotel early, we ventured into downtown Punxsutawney to see what was happening. We had a hayride tour of the historic sites (15 minutes and included a pizza place), we stopped by the official gift shop (groundhog hat, check), and finally ended up in the square where local artisans were selling their goods. I scored a 30" Phil statue carved out of a solid piece of wood with a chainsaw. Who says dreams don't come true? Around 4 in the afternoon, we headed back to the Hampton Inn to hit the sack. The next morning was going to be a doozy.
We returned to Punxsutawney around 8:00 at night and parked at the local high school. Armed with sleeping bags and four of the Hampton Inn's finest pillows, we paid $8 each and entered Punxy High's auditorium where were showing "Groundhog Day" on a loop for hours. The room was dark and packed with people - all of them wrapped in quilts and blankets, trying to get some sleep. We found a few seats in the back and followed suit. This was ground zero for the Groundhog faithful.
2:30am. The alarm goes off and I can hardly contain my excitement. My husband and I shook off the dust and stretched before wandering the halls in search of the bathrooms. I found the visiting team's locker room, brushed my teeth, and straightened my groundhog hat. It was time. We grabbed our blankets and stolen pillows and hurried them out to the car. Once secure, walked to the town square which was magically illuminated by giant flood lights, transforming this sleepy town into a backwoods Time Square. People were walking with us from every direction, heading towards the line of yellow public school busses that waited to shuttle us up the hill the Gobbler's Knob. The home of Punxsutawney Phil.
We waited our turn and finally boarded our bus. The drive took about 15 minutes. As the doors swished open, the experienced Groundhog Day faithful pushed and showed to the front, then took off running as soon as their feet hit the ground. We followed suit, sprinting through the dark February night, not knowing why. Finally, we reached the thousand or so people who had arrived before us and wedged ourselves into position. Thousands more people filled in the gaps behind us and we have a perfect view of the stage. We were there, we were part of this. I was ready. And then we waited. And waited. And waited.
We stood in the blistering, single digit cold of a Pennsylvania winter for 5 hours. All the while there was "entertainment" on the stage in front of us. Local high school dance teams, the finals of "Punxsutawney Idol", one of the runners up in the Ms. America pageant, it just. wouldn't. end. Finally, cheering from the back of the crowd rippled its way forward. The crowd parted like Moses and the Red Sea. It was them! The Inner Circle!
The dozen or so men in top hats and tuxedos strutted single file through the crowd, eyes on the stage and the small, fiberglass tree stump in the middle of it. A hush went through the crowd as they took their places around the stump. Finally, the president of the club made a great speech about how Phil's responsibility was not taken lightly. Then he knocked on the stump with his cane, opened the door and the handlers pulled out Phil!
(All I could think was, "WHAT?!?! HE WAS IN THERE THE WHOLE TIME?? WHAT ABOUT WHEN THAT LITTLE GIRL WAS SINGING TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE HEART?? THAT MUST HAVE BEEN SO LOUD FOR THAT POOR LITTLE GUY!")
Phil was held up before the crowd of 40,000 adoring fans, all of us hysterical with hunger and frostbite. The president put his ear to the hog, shook his head twice, and proclaimed, "Phil has NOT seen his shadow! Spring will be upon us soon!" We cheered! We booed! We smiled and laughed! We looked at each other awkwardly. The crowd dispersed. The event was over.
Driving back to Pittsburgh, my husband and I sat in silence. I was overwhelmed by the event I had just been a part of. I had finally done something I had dreamed of since I was a small child. All of my hopes and wishes of what that day would be like were satisfied, and I was sad it was over. I turned to my husband, glad to share this experience with him and wondering what he thought. "So?" I said. "Well," he gazed out the front windshield and squinted into the morning sun. "I'm never doing that again."