When Crow first mentioned the idea of attending the Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, PA, I immediately answered that I was on board. It was one of those things I’d never really put any thought into attending, but, once mentioned, seemed like an exciting adventure. Falling on a Thursday this year, I requested Wednesday through Friday off from work to make for a nice long weekend. We figured that since it would still be winter (ha) we might also have the opportunity to do some cross-country skiing in the area. (Of course, this was our idea back in October when we also thought we were actually going to have snow for New Year’s.)
So we arrived in Punxsutawney in the afternoon on Wednesday to check out the scene. The town was pretty quiet. There were some tents set up in the town circle where vendors were selling food and crafts–a woodworker carved animals from logs and stumps. By the library (where we later learned Punxsutawney Phil lives throughout the year in a windowed cage), a group of people were gathered roasting marshmallows for s’mores over a little fire in a metal drum. It seemed rather relaxed.
According to the program of events (which had actually started on Saturday), there was a hayride tour of the town departing from the house that served as a historical museum. I love hayrides, so we decided to do that first after a quick lunch at a local cafe/coffee shop. It was orated by a local historian who was also a high school art teacher in Punxsutawney (or “Punxsy” as the locals call it). He was bursting with more information than frankly the hayride had time for, so it was really educational because you got the sense that he wanted to tell you everything. We learned that Punxsutawney means “town of the flies” (or something similar to this) in the tongue of the Native Americans who used to inhabit the area. Apparently the river flowing beside the town was a wet home for mosquitoes.
Punxsutawny attributes its name to the Native Americans.
The guide explained that the Groundhog Days festivities are rooted in the tradition of many of the town’s German settlers. In Germany, the legend took the form of some other hibernating creature, but because groundhogs were so plentiful in the area–and even hunted for sport and food–it became the groundhog for the town. Lots of other towns celebrated this tradition, but it was the founders of Punxsy who came up with a marketing plan that made the celebration in their town one of the biggest in the US. With the celebration, of course, comes tourism. And as we toured the town, seeing the various groundhog statues and paintings, it was very clear that Punxsutawny comes alive for one week out of every year for one purpose.
Crow on the Punsxy hay ride.
After the tour, we continued to investigate the town, taking a look at the house converted to a historical museum and, across the street in another house-turned-museum, we enjoyed some hot chocolate and cookies while checking out an art show that was currently taking place as part of the festivities. We stopped in at the Chamber of Commerce to look at the bountiful groundhog souvenirs. I ended up selecting one of the tacky–yet adorable, in my humble opinion–headbands with groundhog ears and a top hat (seen below). Crow elected to avoid indulgence for the time being; however, at a really cool craft fair we discovered at the Pantall Hotel, he found himself clad in an equally adorable groundhog hat (also seen below). I ended up buying groundhog earrings at said craft fair. Hey, next year I’ll be the most festive person at work on Groundhog Day.
Mars Girl and Crow dressed in our geeky groundhog glory posing before the wizard groundhog found in front of the Weather Discovery Center.
Another event we decided to check out was a chili and wings cook-off taking place at one of the buildings of the Indiana University Culinary Art School. This was a lot of fun. We shared a tray of all twelve samples (although two were already out by the time we got there so we never got to try it) and got to take part in the People’s Choice portion of the competition by voting for our favorites. They also had a jalapeno-eating competition in which one of the girls at our table decided to take part. She actually made it to the final round, but was beaten by another male competitor. She ate those jalapenos like a trooper, though, winning my admiration. I love jalapenos; however, I don’t think I could just eat them plain, one after the other, especially after having sampled ten different chilis.
Hmmm... Chili! We liked 2, 7, and 8 best.
A group of people from Oregon sitting near us happened to win tickets to a comedy show later in the evening, to which they already had tickets, so they asked us if we wanted the tickets they’d won. Despite realizing that we were going to need to hit the sack early to be at Gobbler’s Knob at 5am the next morning, we decided to take the tickets. We went for a couple drinks at the pub attached to the Pantall Hotel.
I must stop here to gripe about the abysmal beer selection at any given bar in Pennsylvania. I think the “case law”–which dictates that people cannot buy beer in quantities less than a case and only at state run liquor stores–severely thwarts the maturity of would-be beer enthusiasts in the state. As a result, every single bar you go to has only dull American lagers (read: Bud, Bud Light, Miller, Miller Lite, and–god forbid–Yuengling). This bar was no exception. The best choice was Blue Moon. I have to admit since I’ve become a bona fide beer snob, I’ve left Blue Moon (a previous favorite) far, far behind. So this was the first time in literally months that I’d had a Blue Moon. Sad to say, it’s not quite as good as I remember it. But still better than yellow beer.
They did have a special beer for the occasion–Groundhog Brew by a Pennsylvania brewery called Straub. Representatives from Straub were at the bar, in fact, and handing out all sorts of chotskys–lip balm (smelling and tasting like a cheap beer), beer cozies, polo shirts, bottle openers–all of which ended up in our hands in duplicate. Sadly, Straub is not going to become a favorite brewery of mine (not even close). We did each drink at least one of the Groundhog Brews just for the spirit of the occasion. Crow kept one of the bottles as a souvenir.
The comedy show was fun and campy with a really small audience. However our Oregon friends got offended and left towards of the headliner’s act. I guess they couldn’t take the heckling since the comedian chose them to pick on at one point. We ran into them the next day and they went on about how offensive they found the comedian’s jokes and some of his heckling of them early on. I guess I could see that but when one listens to shock jocks like Howard Stern (which I do), it was pretty tame in my books. I guess I’ve become desensitized. We got back to the hotel at midnight. Ack. Not a good start to an early morning wake-up call!
The gates to Gobbler’s Knob opened at 3am. We decided we didn’t need to be there that early so we woke up at 3am. As we were staying in a hotel in DuBois (pronounced, not surprisingly, “Do-boyz”), it was about a twenty minute drive to Punxsy. We parked in town and took one of the shuttle buses to the Knob (it’s closed to cars on Groundhog Day).
Gobbler’s Knob is a few miles out of town on the top of a hill in what looks like a little park. I was actually surprised by its remoteness from town. I guess my expectations were shaped by the movie Groundhog Day in which Gobbler’s Knob appeared to be located right in town. We probably arrived on the hill around 5-530am. The crowd was already pretty heavy and there was an air of excitement about (whether alcohol-induced, tired slap-happiness, I cannot say). Still, we seemed to get a good spot and we could see the stage pretty well. Music was blaring loudly from the loudspeakers at the stage and a team of young girls dressed in like–but different colored–shirts danced to the music. An MC occasionally incite the crowd to cheer and brought people on stage to play some games.
Dancing girls and MC at Gobbler's Knob.
We weren’t there long when a helicopter passed slowly overhead, its search light breaking through the darkness. It landed somewhere on the field behind us, causing a kid next to us to excitedly vacate his spot to go check it out. Turns out, it was the governor of Pennsylvania making a historic appearance at Gobbler’s Knob, which apparently had not been done but one other time by a sitting governor of Pennsylvania. He was introduced on stage with his wife and he said a few words. Even though I’m not a resident of Pennsylvania (and have no idea of his political affiliation), I thought that was pretty cool.
Governor of Pennsylvania and his wife at Gobbler's Knob.
At about 6:30am, there was a fireworks display. It was still completely dark out. I forget how long it stays dark winter, even this late in the winter, and the darkness, mixed with the little sleep I got the night before, left me in kind of a haze that made the whole scene feel kind of surrealistic. It mine as well have been midnight. I was cold, but thankful our mild winter made standing at the Knob for two hours bearable (I hear that 2011 was bitterly cold).
Mars Girl at Gobbler's Knob. 5am. Newly acquired Groundhog Day t-shirt across her shoulder.
The fireworks were pretty nice and made up for the fact that I actually missed Fourth of July fireworks last year because I was busy trying to find U2 in Chicago. However, during the display, a group of drunken young people (early 20s?) threaded their way into our area and proceeded to make sarcastic comments throughout the rest of the show. They must have been townies, for most of the remarks consisted of the comment, “Just like every year!” So I have to wonder. Why bother showing up to an event you find so dull and ordinary? Oh, yeah, you like to get drunk. And smoke cigarettes in large crowds. Right.
Crow at Gobbler's Knob. 5am.
So the fireworks ended about 6:45am. The wait was nearing its end. The sun was starting to come up, indicated only by the lightening of the clouds, the appearance of light, for it was a typical cloudy northeast day. I was sure that Phil would not see his shadow.
Our perspective of events (without zoom lens view).
Amidst MC-led cheers of “We love Phil!,” the Inner Circle–men in top hats, suits, and black trench coats–appeared on stage, all smiles. We’d seen a few of the guys around town the day before, but hadn’t realized their celebrity status. It’s a little strange, really. But I think the Inner Circle are to Phil as the elves are to Santa Claus. That is, in the grand scheme of this imaginary play that Phil is indeed the ultimate weatherman, as his acclaim around town suggests. While watching the ceremony, part of me was engaged in the illusion, while the other part of me chuckled inwardly at how silly the whole thing was. A third part of me was wishing the drunken idiots would shut up and let the other two parts of me enjoy the festivities.
A guy had this sign... I think this is a good initiative. I'm sure Phil could beat Santorum, Romney, or Newt no matter what his platform!
One of the guys started the ceremony by introducing each member of the Inner Circle. Like fraternity boys, they had funny nicknames for each other of which only they knew the source. Dawn was fully upon us but it was still not very bright, the only significant light coming from the flood light pointed at the stage. Then, somewhere around 7:20, the president of the Inner Circle rapped on the manufactured stump, summoning Punxsy Phil from his “slumber” (it’s doubtful he was really sleeping with all that racket going on for four hours). Phil was pulled from his little home and presented to his handlers. There was some conferring among the Inner Circle and Phil, and then the president proceeded to read the proclamation…
Punxsy Phil's Inner Circle.
…Phil saw his shadow (I beg to differ that it was caused by the artificial lights flooding the stage). Six more weeks of winter. What? We hadn’t had a winter yet as far as I am concerned. Oh well, I guess it would be six more weeks of what we were currently getting…?
Anyway, the show was over as quickly as it had begun. Most of the record 18,000 observers began to exit the hill. Crow and I decided to stick around to wait in line for a picture with Phil, which the master of ceremonies announced we could do. Punxsy Phil was put into a transparent plastic tube; Crow and I amused ourselves while waiting in line by watching Phil’s frantic scurrying to get out of said tube.
Punxsutawney Phil in his little plastic tube. He's so cute!
We didn’t have to wait too incredibly long… maybe 45 minutes or so. Fortunately, my summer going to U2 concerts and waiting in line fortified me with a steel-like patience. Unlike my U2 experience, I actually got my picture with the celebrity of the hour. And it didn’t even require a stay in an upscale hotel!
Mars Girl & Crow with Punxsy Phil.
With the festivities concluded, we boarded another shuttle back to Punxsutawney. But not before we got another obligatory picture at the entrance to the park.
Mars Girl & Crow at Gobbler's Knob.
By this time, believe it or not, I was actually starving. I’d only eaten a granola bar and an apple at 3am because, well, nothing was really open that early, certainly not the continental breakfast offered by the hotel. So we scanned the street for one of the many pancake breakfasts and such going on and ultimately ended up going to the Pantell Hotel’s buffet instead. I thought it would be neat since the restaurant was at the top of the building, offering a nice view of the town below.
Eh. The food was totally mediocre and the buffet was constantly understocked (scrambled eggs disappeared as soon as they were dropped). I would have thought a food service would be better prepared for the masses that descend upon the town on Groundhog Day but apparently not. If I had to do it over again (or I go to Groundhog Day in the future), I would definitely invest more time in finding one of the breakfasts offered by the churches and organizations around town… I’ve found, at least as far as cycling events go, these are usually above par for meals.
I was starting to feel a little bit tired, but at the same time, I didn’t want to miss out on the excitement around town. It was definitely more busy than it had been the day before and there seemed to be a lot more going on, if you could find it. We decided to go visit the Weather Discovery Center, made especially attractive by the wizard groundhog statue that stood out front.
I wasn’t expecting much at all–probably something on the order of complete and utter cheesiness. I was surprised to learn that the museum was legitimately educational and fun. As you walked into the part, you end up going through a fake home in a tree that is meant, obviously, to be a “replica” of Phil’s imaginary burrow. It was cute and completely what I expected. However, as we walked beyond, the displays provided information about all sorts of weather predicting wives’ tales. My favorite–the size of the stripes on the wooly bear caterpillar–turns out to be false (boo!). The one about tree leaves turning upward as a sign of a coming storm apparently has some scientific validity. There were a bunch of others I’d never even heard of (ie, something about leeches floating in water).
We got to play with a green screen that they had set up to be like a weather room on the news. You could then see yourself with a weather map in the background as if you were announcing the weather.
Mars Girl gives the weather prediction... and it's probably a thunderstorm given her expression!
We watched a little bit of a movie about weather. And there were various hands-on displays that explained all aspects of weather such as how lightning and thunder are related and how tornadoes are formed. I think we must have stayed there about an hour and it’s a pretty small museum. Fortunately, while we were there, a ceremony took place in the front room to crown the new Mr. and Mrs. Groundhog Day, or some such title as that, which was given to these two darling little kids. Punsxy Phil was brought in by his handlers to oversee the ceremony… and Crow managed to wheedle me in for a picture.
Mars Girl with Punxsy Phil and his handler. Phil is even cuter close up!
We went back to the town circle to see if anything was going on over there. We caught the end of a metal works competition that had been going on since the day before and saw some members of the Inner Circle–who all seemed at once omnipresent throughout the town–decide on the winner.
The winning metal sculpture.
I think they were both sculptures were pretty cool. I wish I’d seen them putting them together. We did get a glimpse of the team working on the runner-up one the night before. Both teams seemed to be young teenagers.
The runner-up sculpture in the metal arts competition.
Since it was colder than the day before (finally around 30 degrees whereas the day before was springlike), an ice carver was now set up. He was really animated and interesting, explaining that he’d coached and competed for the US Olympic ice sculpting team; I didn’t even know this was such an event! As he talked, he would make these candy canes and lollypops out of ice and pass them out the kids in the crowd. We also watched him make a mug….
A mug of ice--refreshing! And perfect for beer! I was foaming at the mouth watching.
…fill it with Gatorade…
Filling the ice mug with refreshment!
..and proceed to drink from it!
A refreshing drink from the ice mug!
He explained that he enjoyed making functional ice sculptures the most. Some of the pictures on his display showed interesting contraptions he was commissioned (I think) to make for some upscale events. For example, I saw a twisted carafe used for pouring wine. Other pictures showed some of his more extravagant ventures working with fire and ice. It was completely interesting. We stuck around to watch him begin creating a sculpture of a groundhog on skis. I kept dreaming of having a beer in one of his ice mugs.
Ultimately, though, the lack of sleep caught up with us. We decided to head back to our hotel to catch a nap. I think I slid back into bed around 3pm… and woke up around 6 feeling a bit like I’d been in a coma but rested. We chilled the rest of the day at the hotel and made plans for how we would spend the rest of our weekend considering the lack, once again, of hoped for snow for outdoor activities.
What did we do? Well, that’s for another entry, my friends. Mwuuhahahahaa!
Overall, the experience was really fun and I’m glad we did it. I’d definitely go again sometime; however, Crow and I both agree that a trip out to Punxsy will not be in our itinerary every year. (I personally would only like to pick only warm winters like this one since standing outside for three hours in the early morning in dead cold is never fun.)