“Phil! Phil! Phil!” roared the mass of thousands blanketing the frozen hillside of Gobbler’s Knob as the leader of the Inner Circle, clothed in top hat and tails, reached down to open the door on a fake tree stump inside which was a pudgy groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil preparing to live out his destiny and make a rough prediction of the upcoming weather. For those unfamiliar, or more accurately, not indoctrinated, this is not some strange Latvian children’s story from the 1800s. It is the culmination of the annual Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. This year, on February 2nd, the celebration reached its 132nd year, a feat that seems as unlikely as a soothsaying marmot. And while the prognosticating from the “prognosticator of prognosticators” only occurs at sunrise on the 2nd, the excitement starts a great many hours before.
I have always loved the movie, Groundhog Day, a 1993 film starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell and directed by the late, great Harold Ramis. In brief, Bill Murray plays an egocentric weatherman from Pittsburgh who is sent to Punxsutawney to cover Groundhog Day and ends up reliving the day over and over until he completely changes into a good person. Full disclosure, as a kid I had a huge crush on Andie MacDowell’s character in the movie, which on my most recent viewing still holds up. But while I may have always enjoyed the film, I never once thought of the festival as something to attend. Groundhog Day was always just fine print on my calendar like Boxing Day or one of the Equinoxes. Whatever Phil’s prediction, I heard about it through the grapevine or I didn’t hear about it at all.
My interest in the holiday took off in December of last year when I boldly viewed a map, an activity that is surprisingly enlightening. Nestled just northeast of Pittsburgh was a town whose name I recognized immediately for its Dr. Seussian lyricism: Punxsutawney. The town was remarkably close to my new home, Cleveland, Ohio, and when I looked at another antiquated document (a calendar) I realized Groundhog Day was just over a month away. No matter the means, I decided I was going to attend.
Luckily for me, I mentioned it off the cuff to Akash, a friend of mine here in Cleveland and classmate from my UNC days.
“Wait, are you serious?!” he exclaimed.
“A group of us are going! We’ve been talking about it for like a year. You’ve got to go with us.”
“That’s wild. I’m in!” And just like that I signed on to join the entourage for what was already feeling like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
A few weeks later our group of eight brave, young souls split into two cars and headed to western PA under the darkness of the first night of February. Somewhere outside of Pittsburgh, on the winding wooded roads, the snow began to fall. In the light cast from the headlights into the night, the snowflakes glowed and looked like stars whizzing by. It was as if we were flying through space, the first of many clues we’d left Earth. We made it to Punxsutawney, or Punxy as the locals lovingly refer to it, behind a salt truck, which served as our slow, blinking escort.
The clock was approaching 11:00PM, 8.5 hours until Phil was scheduled to look for his shadow. The parking lot at the Wal-Mart Supercenter, our designated rendezvous point, was nearly empty, with a few RVs pulling in to set up camp on the periphery. To one side of our car was the giant Wal-Mart, open 24hrs every day, and to our left was a Taco Bell, open 24hrs for Groundhog Day only. As soon as we stepped out of the vehicle, one thing became abundantly clear: it was cold. Even with the residual heat from the car, the wind briskly whipped up the thin sheet of snow and ice on the ground and drove the real feel of the temperature down from its mercury reading of 15 degrees.
“It’s supposed to get colder,” Matt said.
I winced at the thought.
“Where should we go tonight?” Leo asked the young girl manning the Taco Bell counter.
“Take the hill down to the Rite Aid, then take a right at the red light…” Through the landmark directions we gleaned that The Borrow was the place to be, and as midnight was nigh, we finished our Miller Highlife cans and called an Uber. Actually it was not an Uber but the Uber.
“I’m the only Uber in Punxsutawney,” the driver told us. It didn’t seem like he was bragging or complaining. His commentary was what I would come to expect from the generally pleasant locals, a statement of fact. When we walked through the doors and paid the mandatory donation to the bar, we were blown away.
“Now this is Punxsutawney!”
There was live music playing in the back corner, an eardrum banging combination of guitars, pianos, and twangy vocals. The crowd was a blend of characters ranging from tattooed motorcycle gangs to Penn State students to people wearing homemade Phil themed costumes. None of the oddities seemed out of place in the crowded bar, where all were gathered for one purpose: to drink to a groundhog. In talking to the people we learned the depth of the insanity surrounding the event, with claims of, “this is our 15th year coming,” and “we drove from [city way too far away to be considered close enough].”
When The Borrow closed we made it across the street to a place called “ISDA Bar” which I guessed was not an acronym but something to be pronounced, a mumbling of “it’s the bar.” The Punxy locals were easy to spot. They were the ones that seemed unfazed by the strobe lights, dancing, and Jell-O shots, content to stand on the sidelines and observe the humanity the festival imported. We were starting to recognize people, an astonishing trend considering we’d only been there just over four hours.
It was too early to go to Gobbler’s Knob, Phil’s hillside retreat, so we needed to get back to Wal-Mart. “You’re not going to get the Uber,” one of the local women told us. “But school buses are coming for Wal-Mart.”
“Why would school buses be coming?” I asked.
“I’m from here! Don’t make fun of my town!”
“No, I’m not. I’m just wondering why a school bus would come by this bar at three in the morning to take us to Wal-Mart.”
“Because, it’s Groundhog Day!”
Finding no holes in her logic, I accepted the answer. With no buses in sight, we were able to nab an Uber, though it was not Punxsutawney’s own but instead an out-of-towner. After the requisite Taco Bell and Wal-Mart stops, we split into two groups. Three of us, Matt, Anshu, and myself, took off for Gobbler’s Knob determined to get a good spot. The other five retreated to the car to get some rest. It was 4:00AM, three hours to Phil.
“You can’t drive past here without a permit,” the officer told us at a roadblock. “You’ll have to walk from here.” It was evident moments after we started our ascent up the steep, icy mountain with only feint moonlight and the occasional streetlamp to guide us, that we had been dropped off at the wrong place. Just under a half an hour later, the lights and sounds emanating from the Knob signaled we’d arrived. As we crossed the threshold I was unaware that I was, at that moment, the warmest I was going to be. The frigid temperature had fallen as Matt predicted, and the ground was solid ice. This permitted me the chance to skate on my boots and fall hard on my elbow, a severe point deduction in nearly every one of the upcoming Winter Olympic events. It was 4:30AM, three full hours until Phil.
Two members of the Inner Circle in their top hats and tails, lead the stage in song and dance. There was call and response, generally “groundhog” themed, and a variety of fanfare. It was the Inner Circle’s time to shine, and for a group of people with nicknames like Iceman, Thunder Conductor, and Sky Painter, they earned the right. We made a few treks to the bonfire, which was dozens of stumps piled high and fully ablaze. The fire provided momentary, skin-searing relief from the bone-chilling weather.
“Hey, you’re on fire.”
“I think your jacket is melting.”
“Excuse me, your backpack is burning.”
These and other phrases people called out nonchalantly with the same urgency one might employ when pointing out spinach in someone’s teeth. Each time I heard it I knew it was time to rotate out of the fire and back into the cold. But the warmth from the fire was ultimately a tease, and a return to the crowd was necessary. A couple standing in front of us held up a sign: “We’re getting married at 11:00AM!”
“Hey,” a man called next to us, “I’m an ordained minister. Why don’t I just do the ceremony now?”
“No, we aren’t ready. The mayor is going to perform the ceremony.”
I wondered if their nuptials depended on Phil’s prediction, an unsettling thought. Suddenly, through the darkness, some of the most incredible fireworks I’ve ever seen began firing off. They were a spectacular and remarkably close sight. There was an element of dangerous proximity, like a forest fire might ignite, that made the experience somehow more Punxsutawney. In a nice, epic touch, the rockets exploded to blaring John Williams scores.
“Ok!” yelled one of the Fred Astaire’s on stage. “Fifteen minutes until Phil!”
“Phil! Phil! Phil!” the chants rang out.
Then the stage broke out into a few songs, which can only be described as painful. The first song was the insufferable tune, “This train is bound for Punxy, this train,” to bluegrass accompaniment. The second song repeated the line, “don’t matter what day it is, put on your Sunday finest and party like it’s Saturday night,” despite the fact that it exclusively mattered what day it was as the event only occurs on a specific day once a year, and it was a Friday.
With the real feel hovering at 5 degrees, the ringleader called out, “Send in the top hats!” As fanfare music started to play, a bobbing mass of black headwear made their way
through the crowd. According to the Inner Circle, Punxsutawney Phil is the same groundhog that made the first prediction 132 years ago, which is amazing considering the lifespan of animals in his species is only about six years. It was no wonder he was reticent to come out of the stump in the conditions, even taking a bite of the new handler in protest. As tradition dictates, when the sunrises, which was around 7:20 that morning, Phil looks for his shadow and then conveys, to the President of the Circle, his prognostication in “Groundhogese.”
From a scroll which began, “Here ye, here ye, here ye,” the President read. “Punxsutawney Phil, the seer of seers, the prognosticator of prognosticators,” it continued. The anticipation, which had been building for more than eight long and bizarre hours, was finally coming to a head. “I see my royal shadow, six more weeks of winter to go!” Earlier cheers for Phil turned to jeers, as his prediction was pretty much universally ill received. But then how long can you really stay mad at a shivering groundhog well into his second century of life? Despite factual evidence to the contrary, the Inner Circle claim that Phil’s predictions are correct, “100% of the time, of course!” Perhaps the study was done by the same people who declared The Human Centipede, “100% medically accurate.”
It was difficult, however, to dispute Phil on the nearly two-mile hike up and over the hills back to Wal-Mart, as the wind blew and shivered the ice from the trees and my fingers from my hands. Punxsutawney is a small town that turned itself into the “weather capital of the world,” and in a stroke of genius manages to draw a crowd of untold thousands, one day a year, to stand in the cold on a hill called Gobbler’s Knob and listen to a groundhog do Al Roker’s job. I’d lived through Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, one of the most unusual and fascinating slices of Americana I’ve ever come across, but unlike Bill Murray, I only had to live through it once.