OK. Do not panic. So the groundhog saw his shadow here atop Gobblers Knob in Punxsutawney, PA. The rodent, if you check the history books, has been right just 39% of the time since this little community in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains began the Feb. 2 festivities back in 1860.
But that didn’t stop tens of thousands of people from all across the U.S. from traveling here this year, many in RVs, like us. While the area campgrounds are closed for the winter, the local Walmart welcomed them. For us in our Roadtrek eTrek Class B, wherever we stopped was home and we used it on the streets of Punxsutawney all weekend.
And on the night before Groundhog Day, using our media parking pass, we drove it atop Gobbler’s Knob, turned on the heater and caught a few hours of sleep. That is until about 3 AM when the public started making their way here, bussed up from Walmart and other parking areas in town. A band kept playing “Ring of Fire” in front of a huge bonfire as a cold rain turned the entire nob into a muddy mess. No one seemed to mind.
Jennifer was able to sleep through the noise. Me, sensing there was a party going on, couldn’t resist getting up and venturing out.
Before you get the wrong idea, this party is pretty tame. There is no alcohol allowed. Folks can’t bring in backpacks or chairs. But this has become such a huge spectacle of an event that it just seems to have a bizarre energy of its own. That’s the only way I can describe a gathering outdoors at 3 AM in the middle of a cold February rainstorm. Very bizarre. But strangely fun.
The star, of course, is the groundhog, officially known as “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary,” according to the Inner Circle, the board of directors of the Groundhog Club, the local group that manages all things related to Feb. 2 and the care and handling of the 20-pound groundhog. Bill Cooper, a former president of the club, said Phil is normally good natured and glad to see his handlers, though he “has bad hair days from time to time.”
The Inner Circle guys, in their dark coats and top hats, are the town’s ambassadors and walked up and down downtown streets all weekend, greeting the tourists.
And tourists there were,
We were surprised how many people came here because it was on their bucket list.
A young married couple from Fort Myers, FL came the farthest of those we met. There was a guy from Atlanta wearing a muskrat coat and a top hat who came because Feb. 2 is his birthday and he always wanted to spend it in the place where Feb. 2 is the most important day of the year. A school teacher from New Jersey left her husband home to watch the Super Bowl. She came with some girlfriends because, like apparently so many, coming here for the events of Groundhog Day was always on her bucket list, too.
Those events include craft shows, chain saw carving demonstrations and live broadcasts all weekend from the Weather Channel, which endorses the town’s official motto as “the weather capital of the nation.”
There were hayrides downtown. Hat decorating contests. And at midnight, in front of the community center, a countdown in which people cheered in Groundhog Day at midnight. At 6:30 AM, there was a pre-sunrise fireworks display on Gobbler’s Nob. In the rain.
Oh yeah. At the community center in town, there were repeated showings of the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day. Indeed, that 1993 movie, more than anything else, went to transform Feb. 2 of each year from a quaint event to a mega happening. Before the movie, maybe 3,000 people came here for the annual prognostication. Since the movie, the number of tourists who come here for the big day swell the normal 6,000 population to as many as 30,000. Because of the rain, the 2014 event drew an estimated 25,000 to the nob.
I find that very ironic because the movie wasn’t even shot here. It was shot in Illinois, which the producers somehow felt was more photogenic.
No problem. Punxsutawney loved the movie, even though it was Woodstock, IL that is shown on the screen. Go figure.
Punxsutawney is a town built around a rodent. Souvenirs like Groundhog day hats, mugs, T-shirts, mittens, trinkets and chain saw carvings seem to be the leading industry. The Chamber of Commerce here says $1 million is pumped into the local economy from Groundhog Day alone.
The actual prognostication event happens at sunrise every Feb. 2. There’s a little wooden podium built in the shape of a stump on a stage and Phil is brought from his downtown burrow to a box built into the podium. One of the members of the Inner Circle brings him out, “consults” with Phil and determines whether or not he saw his shadow.
This whole tradition stared around 1860 as a result of a superstition from the German immigrants who settled this area that says if a hibernating animal casts a shadow on Feb. 2, the holiday of Candlemas, winter will last six more weeks.
Well, this year, Phil saw his shadow. It’s been a long winter. Phil says it’s going to get even longer.
I think I’ll trudge back to the Roadtrek in the parking lot and make some coffee and breakfast and dry out. Then we’ll head back into town for some more of the festivities.
Punxsutawney really is a charming place. Locals tell me that people come year around. Phil, when not on the Nob for Groundhog Day, is in a see-through burrow in a downtown square and can be seen anytime. During the summer, RVers come to two nearby commercial parks and several state parks in the area.
But, as we found during our visit, folks are delighted to see visitors and we were welcome to park our RV anywhere.