If you are like me, you may have spent the years waking up on February second and turning on your television and watching as a favorite morning program veered off to see if a groundhog in some crazy named place called Punxsutawney was going to see its shadow.
You may have thought, “Gee that would be a neat place to go sometime!” You watch and wonder if all those people standing there are crazy or what. It must be freezing out on that hill. But anyway you watch wondering what the results of this fascinating weather prognosticators prediction will be, knowing that at this point we have had enough of this winter weather business anyway.
Usually, the little fellow sees his shadow and that means six more weeks of winter and for most that isn’t the best thing to hear. Ten minutes later you forget about it for another year.
One thing I have learned over the years is that small town America is a wonderful place to visit. There are so many beautiful and wonderful things going on within our boundaries that I just don’t even desire to go outside the country. Even then we just can’t get it all done in the shortness of our lives.
However, that is not what I came to share with you today. This is a story about this little place called Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. It all started in 1886, which of course made this year’s event the 130th anniversary edition.
The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club was formed, not because locals went out and found a rabbit or squirrel but it was that an unfortunate sleeping groundhog was pulled out of its warm sleeping quarters to become America’s foremost weather prognosticator. Did I mention that weather forecasting involving animals and their activities goes back even to ancient times?
Each year, I watch to see how high the hornets build their nests, or if the caterpillars are black or brown this year. Of course, when the shades of black vary from back to front that has significance to forecasting stages of winter as well. Black in the front represents winter starting out bad; black at the end telling us that winter may go out hard. Of course we know these as wise tails. Isn’t it just so much easier to wake up on February the second and turn our attention to a groundhog in Pennsylvania who magically speaks to his handler through the magic of a wand which allows him to understand a language they proclaim to be groundhogeze!
It went down a little different this year, during our last snow fall of this winter I said to my wife Beverly, “let’s go to Punxsutawney Pennsylvania and watch Phil make his weather forecast for the year, we ca hear it from the so called “horse’s mouth” or well, you know…a groundhog!” After much family discussion about whether the whole family would go or would this be just a Randy and Beverly adventure, due to many commitments the latter prevailed.
I had learned several things, one that weekend crowds on the little groundhog hill (which is now known as Gobbler’s Knob) can range up to forty thousand people coming from across the globe to be there. I had also learned that this year, due to the fact that it would occur on a Tuesday morning there would probably be a drop in attendance down to the neighborhood of thirteen to fourteen thousand people.
However, if you don’t get there early you location to view this grand event would be back row far away from the action. But you see what happens here is that as I now know is that many people came for the party, though I drink see any drinking or heck raising as one might think. We just saw people having fun and chanting “Phil!” all night long. Also noticed was that many folks never left the blazing bonfire up the way a piece. There was no way I was leaving our hard earned position for the warmth of a fire! We also saw members of the inner circle donned in their old fashioned black tailed coats and their top hats, each one having a symbolic groundhog name along with their own.
The weather man walked about all evening donning a large thermometer to his front side as the temperatures were reported at varying times through the evening to morning. It was said to be the warmest night for the event in many years which may have upped the attendance to what they said may have been the largest weekday attendance in years. The weather only dipped down to a balmy 21 degrees. We were informed that last year’s low had reached a very cold 1 degree.
On February first we enjoyed the day around town, getting out pictures taken at one Phil statue after another, visiting shops and events. To avoid the high cost of a short night in a local motel room after a wonderful dinner at a restaurant called Punxsutawney Phil’s we had determined to lodge in our car at the local Walmart. Here there were two more Phil bus pick-up booths where tickets would go on sale in the morning.
May I say, very early in the morning? I figured that being the first to park in the lot we would be the first in line to buy our tickets. After a good dinner in town, we claimed out Walmart parking position at 5 p.m. February first. We spent the evening running our car off and on trying to stay warm listening to the Iowa election returns on our satellite radio, trying to sleep but mostly resting. We figured out some clothing adaptations to keep from freezing the next day, remember we were parked outside of Wally World. I thought well, all we have to do is jump out of the car and get into the line to buy the first tickets of the morning to on the first bus of the day for transport to the world famous Gobbler’s Knob!
It was my understanding that tickets would go on sale at 2:30 a.m. and buses would begin pickup at 3 a.m. through the night. Well, at about 1 a.m. people started lingering around the parking lot and then a long line started forming and I said, “Beverly I have to get out there and get in line, I haven’t set in this parking lot all night to not be the first on the bus!” So I jumped out of the car and threw on my last coat coverings, hat, gloves, and scarf and headed for the line. I wasn’t happy to jump in the back of the line so I walked up to the front of the line where some of the toughest looking people you ever saw were standing.
Well it’s just me but I have long ago learned that being shy doesn’t get one anywhere. So I walked up to the front of the line, pointed at my car and said, “I have sat in that car since 5 o’clock yesterday evening to buy the first tickets sold for this bus.” I tried to crack a smile in an effort to keep from getting myself killed and you know what, it worked. Not one person said contrary to my remarks and I began to have a vivid conversation with fellow Appalachians.
Then I realized Beverly had not followed me and I had to leave the line, go get her, convince her it was time and then lead her back up to the front of the line passing by now several hundred people. Still no confrontation.
Local schools close for this event allowing for the use of forty-something school busses which run, as I previously said, through the night Beverly and I bought first tickets, climbed into the front seat of the front bus and when we exited the first bus I was happy that the crowd was mostly behind us and we found ourselves exactly where I planned to be.
I expected we would stand there for five hours just like fighting to stay warm and feeling pretty stupid. To our surprise, it immediately went to fun, local country bands and a group of high school girls who were the groundhog dancers or something like that. All through the night we were entertained, the temperature ever dropping. But then just before dawn, a beautifully sung Star Spangled Banner was sung by a lady and then something like Beverly and I had never seen before happened. From behind Gobbler’s Knob, fireworks began firing up in the air right overtop our heads. We both agreed that these were perhaps the most beautiful fireworks we had ever seen, and for them to occur pre-dawn, there just aren’t any words for that.
Following the fireworks, light was beginning to form in the sky and the chants, “Phil, Phil, Phil,” heightened. Finally at 7:30 a.m. it was announced that it was time for Phil and that the inner circle had arrived. That’s when the parade of black suited tall hatters came up the middle, escorted by an entourage of police protection. Up to the front and onto the stage they went. After a few introductions it went down to the business at hand, the bringing forth of groundhog Phil.
They first tapped on the log housing and tapped on the lock with the magic wand. The Phil handler reached in and pulled him out to an awaiting crowd. And with my closing remarks, I will reshare as it was said by the groundhog overseer who shared a few minutes of discussion with his weather prognosticator, with a final question to Phil, “Are you sure?”
Then it was “Hear Ye, Hear Ye, Hear Ye! Now, this Second Day of February, Two Thousand and Sixteen, the Hundred and Thirteenth Annual Trek of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club…Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of the Seers, Prognosticator of All Prognosticators was awakened from his burrow to the cheers of his thousands of faithful followers…In Groundhogese, he directed the President and the Inner Circle to the precise prediction Scroll, which translated reads, “The Inner Circle goes to great lengths to keep me abreast of latest trends. Down in my burrow I never get bored riding on my hover board. And I sure have fun flying my drone but weather forecasting is my comfort zone.
Is this current warm weather more than a trend? Per chance this winter has come to an end? There is no shadow to be cast, an earl spring is my forecast!”
Raymond Rucker is a former outdoors columnist with the Daily Times. He can be reached by calling