Two years ago, for my boyfriend’s 30th birthday, we drove to Punxsutawney, PA to do Groundhog’s Day. That’s how long it’s taken me to finish this.
I missed driving, and I was shocked to experience such a change in elevation between New York and Punxsutawney. Halfway to Dubois is the highest elevation east of the Mississippi, in Clearfield County, PA. Our ears were popping from pressure change in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, a stream system that reaches all the way to the bays of Maryland, touching the illusion that is the state of Delaware.
Going through central PA and on to the small township of Dubois, the slower pace was visible from the highway. Longer stretches of land between buildings were punctuated by cold livestock, and a sky fit for a blue bird. The Holiday Inn Express was a pop off the I-80, and through a mile or two of dark town, up a swift hill on the right, sharing a parking lot with a Pilot Travel Center, an Arby’s, and across from Sheetz store #194, an all-American gas station, convenience store, and something I’d known from an episode of Undercover Boss. Parking, we could see the all-white Arby’s sign that towered above the restaurant and to the right, like a levitating, holy cross.
Our clerk was immediately friendly and excited to welcome us for the Groundhog festivities, though there was a moment of a “doe in headlights” before she said hello. I’m wearing my Christmas sweater version of a Bernie Sanders sweatshirt, and she asks if we’re up to speed on any of the results of today’s caucus in Iowa. She twitters about the excitement surrounding Groundhog Day, pointing us to a table of newspapers and pamphlets covered in groundhogs. She says that Gobblers Knob used to be filled with underage drunken kids, but the state troopers have since cracked down. I’m assuming that before she was studying politics, she used to be one of them.
Pennsylvania has bizarre beer and liquor laws, feeling like a finicky mix of the Puritan blue law and a Prohibition temperance law. There’s no beer for sale in a liquor or grocery store. In a restaurant, you can buy up to two six packs of your cheap, yellow pissy beer to go, like Bud or MGD. We were lucky to have a nearby sandwich & craft beer shop SUBS, with 12 taps of local beer available to take in growlers. We found a liquor store, to pick up a Pennsylvania-made rye called Dad’s Hat, where we conversed with a spotty-minded crane of a saleswoman, who confessed she used to live in Punxsutawney but never visited for Groundhog Day. Then we ate at the Dubois diner, decked in that sanitized 50’s retro. The Iowa caucus coverage was on, and two very whiney young girls swirled in their chairs, moaning at their mother about ice cream. Our half-liter Yuengling steins were impossible to finish, and the burger and fries nothing to write home about. The town was shutting down at 9PM sharp–us New York kids going mad at the sheer inconvenience. Chances were, most of the town was waking at 4 or 5AM to make the drive to Punxsutawney.
My image of the hamlet is still dominated by the 1993 film, now adding the landscape that had accumulated in 5 hours of driving. It was not filmed in Punxsutawney, but in Woodstock, Illinois. A fair substitute in small town authenticity, and something I believe my adolescent self would be very upset about, not aware of the financial and energetic costs that go into shooting a feature film. This was perhaps the first shred of dissolution surrounding my mythologized idea of the day as portrayed in film. What happens in a small-town of 5,000, when for one day a year, it fills to the brim with visitors, with or without Bill Murray in its midst?
I set the alarm for 4:30, giving me enough time to have that single-serve cup of coffee and shower before turning the lights on my boyfriend Tom to haul himself out of bed. The elevator dings over and over, the sound of families leaving. As I get more coffee in the lobby, a trio of young boys in snow jumpsuits run around the quick serve breakfast. I point out the donuts to help.
There’s ice on the car windshield, a first-time obstacle for me, being from Southern California, and I manage to scrape it off with some cardboard. It’s 19 miles from Dubois to Punxsutawney, so we have a solid 30-40 minutes of driving ahead of us, through a pitch black starry night on some country roads. We pull up to the Walmart in Punxsutawney, where we will pick up the school bus shuttle to Gobbler’s Knob. I have a short conniption about finding a parking spot, my mind spiraling to depths of failure, as if we would have come this far and been turned away at the Walmart. We squeeze the rental Prius in next to a shopping cart station, and I dump my flask of whiskey into my coffee cup.
Filing into the line of bundled people, we buy tickets for the shuttle–$5, which is good for a ride to and from downtown Punxsy. The ticket booth opens at 3AM, and was open the night previously, for anyone who wanted to take part in the activities happening two days prior. We get a lime green passport with a lanyard attached, and approach a 10-person line of Pennsylvania State Troopers to get around back of the building. The man to my right asks, “Good Morning. Do you have any bullets, booze, or bombs in your bag?” I hesitate for a moment in front of the smiling men, as I am, in fact, enjoying an Irish Coffee, as well as a backup flask of whisky for around sunrise. “No, I don’t think so.” And Tom says to the left side of the line of troopers, “Not that I know of!” A peal of laughter comes from the troopers. “She had to think about that for a moment, huh?” Tom says it’s his joke and likes to take credit for our hilarious moment of narrowly escaping the Fuzz, but I’m here to tell you we made the same joke at the same time.
The pomp was cute, and the town smiling and alive for the pre-dawn festivities. The Knob, by the way, was a far stretch uphill from town center, and was more like a campground, with a snack bar, and several regional news teams set up with cheap coffee and hot chocolate. Onstage each live act was interspersed with the hits from the movie soundtrack, such as “Weatherman.”
The magic began around 6:30 AM, with the fireworks show. What a shocking, loud clamor to distract the crowd from what was happening onstage: the loading in of our favorite mammalian weatherman. “Phil! Phil! Phil!” we all chanted with the Men in Hats, as they knocked on the door to the stump.
And there he was, a plump old groundhog, a rockstar in his own right, preaching to his secular believers.
“An early spring!” he said, unafraid of the sun. This was definitely rare in the 130 years since the Dutch settlers began the festival.
I don’t think I’ve stood in line to get a picture with a celebrity since I was quite young, but we made an exception, descending the depressed grassy knoll, muddy from the melted snow and thousands of trampling feet. Phil was immediately placed into this plastic tube after the pronouncements were made, and the cameras turned off. By the time we stood next to him, it was clear he was just a tired circus animal, protected from the swarms of humans. One of the Men in the Top Hats, officially a member of The Inner Circle, would later tell us that Punxsutawney Phil was indeed a 130 year-old groundhog. Forget science–this immortal ground squirrel was predicting the weather.
Back in town, we sampled some of the day’s activities: eat the pancake breakfast at the Elk’s Lodge, shop the fair in the high school Gym, and even get Tom a free mini cupcake and fruit punch at the Groundhog Birthday party, where he added his name to a surprisingly long list of varying ages. Like us, coming to Punxsutawney to see the Groundhog was a bucket list item.
In the gift shop, where I purchased a bevy of Groundhog Day items, (including magnets, pencils, sweatshirts for my young nephews, a dictionary of Groundhog-ese, and a vanity license plate) the “Pennsylvania Polka” was playing on loop. The women’s faces looked harried from a day of grueling retail work. It was a fleeting, profitable purgatory, maybe similar to what it would be like to work at a Disneyland gift shop.
At just about 2PM, we hopped a yellow school bus back to the Walmart parking lot, listening to our volunteer driver weave in some local lore about the Men in Top Hats, and how this poor town in western PA is one of the nicest places to live in the world.
The one travesty of the whole expedition was that we were unable to watch the film on TV after we’d woken from our nap. The damn hotel was having none of it–no TNT or Comedy Central, so no existential, dark comedy for us. I made sure to include that complaint in my hotel review after the fact. It was fitting, though. We had demystified one of the more quirky American traditions, and put face to a favorite film. It wasn’t Miami Beach, not hardly, but it was a fine vacation, indeed.