Groundhog Day Trip

01-02 February, 2020

Amongst all of the various American traditions celebrated each year, there's nothing more simultaneously silly and deeply beloved than Groundhog Day. For those who might not be familiar with this holiday, on February 2nd of each year the people of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania gather in the early pre-dawn hours to await the emergence of a groundhog from its burrow. "Punxsutawney Phil" checks to see whether or not his shadow is visible, and depending on what he sees, makes a prediction as to whether there will be an early spring or six more weeks of winter. This tradition is not intended to be taken seriously and Groundhog Day is celebrated as a tongue-in-cheek winter festival that helps attract attention to another otherwise obscure small town.

My wife Liz happens to have her birthday on Groundhog Day and she always wanted to visit Punxsutawney to experience the festivities in person. We decided to make the trip in the calendar year 2020, with the palindrome nature of the year (02/02/2020) attracting more attention than normal. It also helped that Groundhog Day fell on a Sunday in 2020 to make visiting a bit easier over the weekend, and furthermore it also happened to be taking place on the same day as the Super Bowl as well. We made the drive north into Pennsylvania after work on Friday afternoon (January 31st), staying about 45 minutes to the south of Punxsutawney in the nearby town of Indiana. Yes, there's a town named Indiana of Pennsylvania which is somewhat well known in the area for having a local college named Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). The town of Indiana was pretty small and it was by far the largest settlement in the area with a population of around 15,000 people. Everything else in this part of west-central Pennsylvania was farming country interspersed between the rolling hills of the Appalachians. It was pretty country to drive through even if there wasn't much to see aside from the natural landscape.

We arrived late enough on Friday night that there wasn't time to do much more than eat dinner and check into our hotel. The next day was Saturday, February 1st and we took a morning drive north into Punxsutawney proper to have a look around before the formal ceremony took place on Sunday. Punxsutawney is a small town with about 5000 residents and would be entirely unremarkable if it weren't for the famous Groundhog Day events. The town was using the whole weekend to celebrate, with various different events running from Friday through Sunday afternoon. Thousands of additional people were descending on Punxsutawney and the streets in the downtown were crowded, although still passable for cars. We spotted lots of American flags and decorative bunting hanging from some of the stately Victorian-era houses along the main road. There were also a bunch of statues of Punxsutawney Phil, 30 of them in total, scattered across the town and with the famous groundhog dressed up in different outfits. This is the kind of good-hearted kitsch that visitors to Punxsutawney can expect to see all over town.

The shops in town were all open to accomodate the visitors in Punxsutawney and most of them were selling different types of groundhog-related merchandise. These pictures demonstrate some of the things for sale that we came across. We purchased a pair of hats to wear at the official ceremonies the next day along with a Groundhog Day type of coffee beans ("dark shadow" roast) and a Groundhog Day T-shirt. The official Punxsutawney Phil souvenir shop was located in the middle of town near the central square, and it was so packed with visitors that we could barely move inside. The line for the cash register snaked completely around the store and had something like three dozen people waiting patiently to make their purchase. Needless to say, Punxsutawney Phil was pretty popular here.

Punxsutawney advertises itself as the "weather capital of the world" thanks to the predictions made each year by Phil. There is some truth to this marketing slogan though, as Punxsutawney does host a small museum dedicated to the study of meteorology named the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center. There's an induction here each year into the Meteorologist Hall of Fame, created in 2001 to recognize individuals who have made significant contributions to the study of weather. We happened to be passing the Weather Discovery Center about 20 minutes before the induction ceremony for 2020 was set to begin, and paid the nominal fee of $7 to sit in on the proceedings. We were too late to get one of the seats but realized that we could stake out a spot in the front by crouching down underneath the central table. This ended up being a fantastic place to watch the events taking place, as good as a reserved front row seat.

As nice as it was to see good work in meteorology recognized, the real reason to sit in on this event was the presence of Punxsutawney's biggest star: Phil himself! The groundhog was brought in a plastic carrying case by his handler, one of the members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club's "Inner Circle" in elaborate Victorian-era formal dress. They were easy to spot around town this weekend due to their fancy top hats. Phil didn't seem to like his carrying case very much, pacing around in circles and standing up on his hind legs in an attempt to escape its confines. On several occasions, he was actually jumping up in the air to try and reach the top of the container. Eventually his handler removed the lid from the top and that seemed to settle down Phil a bit, as he laid down in the straw at the bottom and burrowed underneath its top layer. It was all very cute when Phil wasn't trying to make an escape bid.

Erik Salna was the 2020 inductee into the Meteorologist Hall of Fame. He was recognized for working on the modeling of extreme weather events (especially hurricanes) at Florida International University in Miami. Salna gave a fine short speech where he discussed how he had acquired a passion for studying weather while growing up in Chicago before concluding by encouraging everyone in the audience to chase after their dreams and follow their personal interests. It was very well done and clear that he had a lot of practice with speaking engagements. The conclusion of the speech brought an opporunity for Phil to come out of his container and come up to the podium for his own photo opportunities. Phil's earlier restlessness disappeared the moment that he was picked up by his handler, and the groundhog calmly nestled in the arms of his keeper throughout the photo opportunity. Apparently Phil just wanted to be out of his carrying case and enjoyed being held.

After the ceremony was finished, the visitors had the chance to come up to the front and have their picture taken with Phil. I was able to snap this picture of Liz standing right next to Phil and his handler, with the groundhog again acting completely chill and not at all bothered by the dozens of people crowding around him. We were extremely lucky to be able to see Punxsutawney Phil this close up; there would be thousands and thousands of people at the formal ceremony the next morning, and there was no chance that we'd be able to get this close again. Liz essentially was able to get a personal photo op with Phil as a special birthday present. I wish that I could say that I planned that for her!

We left the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center after the induction ceremony wrapped up and crossed the short distance to the square in the center of town. This was named Barclay Square and it was hosting several dozen tents with local vendors, selling food and drinks and various different forms of artisanal craftworks. The chainsaw scultures made out of wood were probably the most impressive here. We ended up getting lunch here from a barbeque vendor, where the food was appropriately hot but not terribly tasty. If Barclay Square doesn't look like the town square from the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, that's because the movie wasn't filmed in Punxsutawney at all. (It was actually filmed in Woodstock Illinois, a northwestern exurb of Chicago.) Similarly, the Groundhog Day ceremonies don't take place in the town square either, instead happening in a wooded area about a mile outside of Punxsutawney named Gobbler's Knob. As is often the case, the dictates of what makes a good film take priority over complete accuracy.

When not making predictions about the weather and serving as the guest of honor at ceremonies, Phil lives here in this burrow near the town square. It's attached to the local Punxsutawney library and there's a glass viewing window both on the inside and outside of the building. The surrounding signs contained some more fun facts about the lore associated with Punxsutawney Phil. For example, Phil is supposedly more than 130 years old and has presided over every Groundhog Day ceremony. Phil is given a special "elixir of life" at a separate event each year that grants him an additional seven years of good health. Groundhogs typically live about 5-6 years in the wild and the veracity of this claim is left up to the reader. Similarly, Phil is officially never wrong in his predictions, although the humans that interpret his predictions sometimes make mistakes and incorrectly record what the groundhog said. The predictions have historically been correct about 40% of the time, worse than random chance, so Phil's human interpreters haven't done a great job of conveying his infallible messages.

These are a couple of pictures from the community center in Punxsutawney, which had been converted into another place for local vendors to sell various groundhog-related items to the visitors. The Punxsutawney community center was located in the old high school, and it had the unusual distinction of being the spot where Chuck Daly began his basketball coaching career. Coach Daly was famously the coach of the Bad Boys Detroit Pistons teams of the late 1980s/early 1990s as well as the coach of the 1992 gold medal winning Dream Team. He apparently started out by coaching at Punxsutawney High School in this gym in the 1950s - what an odd quirk of history. The auditorium in this old high school had been converted into a local movie theatre, and it was showing the movie Groundhog Day on a repeated loop. The classic Bill Murray film was the thing that put Groundhog Day on the map, transforming an obscure local tradition brought by German immigrants into a household phrase. Punxsutawney typically attracted about 2000 people prior to the movie's release in 1993 and has routinely hosted 10,000 to 20,000 people in the decades since.

As the afternoon wound on, we finished up exploring downtown Punxsutawney and drove out to Gobbler's Knob. This spot was a little over a mile away from the center of the town and would be the location of the next morning's ceremonies. Visitors entered through a formal stone archway topped by the silhouette of a groundhog and then walked down a gradual hillside towards a small stage. There was a line of people waiting to get their picture taken with the stump where Phil would emerge the next morning. We weren't too interested in getting a photo with an empty stage, especially since we had already seen Phil himself a few hours earlier. This whole area was going to be packed with people the next morning and we were glad that we had a chance to scope things out ahead of time while there was light to see.

Readers have probably noticed by now that basically everything in Punxsutawney is associated with groundhogs in some form. Thus when we stopped to experience the closest winery to Punxsutawney, sure enough, it was named the Groundhog Winery and featured an adorable pair of little rodents on its sign. The Groundhog Winery had a small tasting room and their wines on display weren't terribly diverse, almost all of them having a similar sweet taste. However, the staff here couldn't have been nicer for our visit, charging no tasting fee and allowing us to sample anything that we wanted from their wine list. If anything they were maybe too fast at refilling our glasses, not leaving any time to stop and consider the individual flavors. We ended up purchasing two bottles of wine, chosen in part due to the pictures of the cute groundhogs on their front labels.

We drove back to Indiana afterwards and turned in for the night early since we were going to have to wake up long before dawn. We set our alarm for 5:00 AM on Sunday morning, and in retrospect we probably should have allowed another 30 minutes for safety's sake. The two of us dressed as warmly as possible to deal with the cold temperatures and made the 45 minute drive back north to Punxsutawney again. We knew that we wouldn't be able to drive directly back to Gobbler's Knob, which had far too many people arriving to handle the crowds. Instead we were going to park at one of several different satellite lots and then take a bus directly to the festivities. The closest one for traffic coming from the south was located at a Walmart, but by the time that we arrived around 6:00 AM, the lot was already completely full! We heard this over the radio and managed to find a parking spot outside an auto repair place nearby. We walked the short distance to the Walmart (where cars were parked not just in every spot but also on the grass medians in between the spots) and caught the shuttle bus over to Gobbler's Knob. For anyone trying to repeat this journey, it would be better to arrive earlier to avoid cutting things too close.

The event staff seemed to have commandeered every school bus in the surrounding county, and riding in was a bit like being back in school again. We were deposited right outside the gated archway to Gobbler's Knob and found the area swarming with thousands and thousands of people. We wouldn't have been able to see much of anything taking place on the main stage from this far back, however we had the good fortune to spot a raised platform with a view looking down at the central stump. This raised platform was intended for disabled visitors, and there was indeed space for them at the front of the platform, but there were a bunch of people crowded into the back part and we saw an opportunity to join them. We weren't blocking anyone's view from this spot and no one complained which made it a win as far as I'm concerned.

This was our view from atop the raised platform. We had a pretty good angle to see the events taking place up on the stage, aside from a camera platform that unavoidably intruded the view from the right side. I did my best to keep that platform out of focus in these pictures but couldn't avoid it entirely due to the constrained nature of our viewing spot. The telephoto lens for our camera was fantastic here, bringing the people up on stage zooming into easy view despite how far back we were standing. There's a lot of standing around and waiting during the Groundhog Day event, which the event organizers try to fill with live music and dancing. A bunch of the songs were old classics with the lyrics changed to reflect Punxsutawney Phil in some fashion, like "American Pie" dropping a reference to Groundhog Day that's definitely not in the actual song. There was also a fireworks display overhead set to orchestral music, which had to be done before it became too light outside. Normally you wait for it to get dark at a fireworks display - this was the opposite, needing to set off the fireworks before the sun came too far up!

Punxsutawney Phil traditionally makes his prediction at sunrise since that's when he can "see" his shadow. There's no particular reason to keep holding the Groundhog Day ceremonies this early, especially since Phil's prediction is made in advance and no longer has any relationship to seeing a shadow, but I guess it's all part of the tradition. The "Inner Circle" members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club made their appearance around 7:00 AM, walking right past the raised platform where we were standing. I was slow to get a picture of them because I had to change the lens on the camera back to close-up shooting, argh. In any case, they gathered up on the stage and prepared for the main event of the festivities. The weather was shifting just as the prediction was about to take place, and in fact we began to experience a heavy, wet snowball from overhead. It wasn't particularly cold outside (it was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit / -1 degrees Celsius) but the snow made everything that much more magical.

Finally the big moment had arrived: Phil emerged from his stump and it was time for his prediction. (The crowd was chanting "Phil! Phil! Phil!" leading up to the big reveal.) It's a little bit tough to see Phil in these pictures because of that stupid camera stand in the foreground; he's on the right side of the first picture, being held up to the crowd, and on top of the stump in the second picture. This was the most comical moment of the whole event, a dozen men in Victorian costume standing around a wooden stump watching a groundhog trying to pick one of two scrolls to read to the crowd. Phil must have been feeling sleepy this morning because he took a good 15-20 seconds before he finally sniffed one of the scrolls and made his choice. According to the official lore of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Day ceremony, the President of the Inner Circle holds a magical cane that grants him the ability to speak "Groundhogese" and communicate with Phil. He then directs the Vice President to read the proper scroll announcing whether there will be an early spring or six more weeks of winter. Most of the time Phil predicts six more weeks of winter; he has only forecast an early spring less than 20% of the time. This year, with the heavy snow falling down from the heavens, Phil made a prediction of... early spring! The crowd exploded with celebration and broke out in further chants of Phil's name. If it wasn't so cold outside this could have been the scene at a really trippy club.

After Phil made his prediction, the Groundhog Day festivities came to a surprisingly early end. There wasn't anything else to follow the prediction of an early spring and the crowd began dispersing immediately. Visitors have the option of getting their picture taken with Phil up on the stage, but with this many people that would have required waiting in line for hours. We had already been fortunate enough to see Phil the previous day and didn't need a repeat visit. The focus therefore shifted to leaving Gobbler's Knob, no mean task given the number of people who had come to see the ceremonies. The Inner Circle had announced that there was a record crowd for the 2020 festivities (thanks to Groundhog Day taking place on a weekend and having the unique 02/02/2020 date) but I wasn't sure if that had been an exaggeration to get a line of applause. Apparently it was true though: news agencies reported afterwards that an estimated 40,000 people took part in the Groundhog Day ceremonies, beating the old record of 35,000 people from 1997. It doesn't look like Groundhog Day is falling off in popularity even as the 1993 movie recedes into history.

Therefore the organizers of this event somehow had to transport roughly 40,000 people from a wooded hill with no parking and limited road access back to their vehicles. There's no possible way to do that in speedy fashion but the Groundhog Day staff made an impressive effort nonetheless. School buses kept pulling up in sequences of half a dozen at a time, each loading up with passengers, and then leaving in a group only for the next convoy of buses to pull up behind them. There must have been roughly 50 buses in total to keep cycling them through over and over again. We didn't try to rush for the buses immediately and instead stopped to eat a quick breakfast from the nearby vendors. When we did get in line eventually, it took about half an hour to reach the buses and ride back to where our car was parked. The overall coordination was fantastic and the event did about as good of a job as possible, despite the twin obstacles of a gigantic crowd and heavy snowfall.

We finished up our time in Punxsutawney by heading back into town and walking through the small streets again. Liz received a free birthday cupcake at the community center for presenting her ID and proving that Groundhog Day was indeed her birthday. We actually came across a bunch of other people who were also visiting Punxsutawney for a Groundhog Day birthday, far more than we were expecting to encounter. These pictures were taken at the small Groundhog Day Museum in town, which contained a series of artifacts related to the history of the event. Groundhog Day started out as a hunt for groundhogs in the 1880s, then shifted over time into a festival celebrating the groundhogs as hunting became impractical. There were some souvenirs from the Groundhog Day movie here as well, including an original script signed by the cast (Bill Murray scrawled "Needs a rewrite ASAP" on the cover). We also learned here that the local Punxsutawney High School team has gone by the nickname of the "Chucks" since the 1920s and there were a bunch of old pennants to that effect on display. It was a fun way to close out our time in the town.

We left Punxsutawney on Sunday afternoon and drove back to Indiana, where we stayed to watch the Kansas City Chiefs win the Super Bowl that evening. (We watched most of that game at a local Steelers bar, an interesting experience for a Ravens fan.) We had another long drive back to the Washington DC area the next day, and surprisingly the weather was unseasonably warm and sunny the next day, with temperatures rising into the 60s Fahrenheit / high teens Celsius. Although the prediction had looked completely crazy the previous morning when the snow was falling outside, it turned out that Punxsutawney Phil was right - it was indeed an early spring after all! This was a wonderful short trip and we were both glad that we had gone. It's one of those "bucket list" things that people want to do once in their lives, if not something that would be worth going to see every year. I hope that this was fun to read and a good look at one of America's wackiest traditions.