The first half of Day One was spent rocketing across the wide expansive of big fat Ohio as quickly as possible so we could spend the evening in Pennsylvania. Before we settled in at our hotel, we detoured for one exploratory stop in the famous li’l town of Punxsutawney, annual Party Central for the American celebration known as Groundhog Day.
If your only knowledge of Punxsutawney geography comes from the classic Bill Murray movie, keep in mind it was filmed in Illinois. The real Punxsutawney (pop. 6000+) is nestled deep in the hilly forest, over fifteen miles away from the nearest interstate. Its main street is dense, but the small-town vibe was unmistakable. Our arrival was unexpectedly delayed by complications arising from my misinterpretation of the directions, and set back even further by road construction that closed the easier highway access from our hotel, requiring a workaround that one of my resources failed to tell me would be necessary. Thankfully we arrived before sundown and my wife let me live.
The town’s most famous resident is Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog who supposedly determines America’s winter destiny by crawling out of a hole and letting the sight of his shadow, or lack thereof, foretell whether or not winter would end on schedule. It’s my understanding that Phil’s accuracy rate is only about 30%, but let’s not let his middling job performance interfere with good-natured holiday fun. If Phil is fired, he won’t be able to afford suits like this anymore, and no one wants to see him reduced to a lesser standard of living.
The town is littered with artistic tributes to Mr. Phil himself. Walk twenty feet with your eyes closed and you’re liable to trip over one of Phil’s many simulacra. This one was among the smallest we encountered. Call him Li’l Phil, I suppose.
If you can’t find your way to Gobbler’s Knob, the secluded area where the town holds its February 2nd ceremonies, you can pretend this tree symbolizes it and bask accordingly in its presence. I’m not sure what the eagle means, unless Phil’s handlers use the threat of a live eagle to coax him out from hiding. I know the specter of sharp talons looming over my head would improve my job performance.
By visiting Punxsutawney off-season, we figured we would miss the mad throngs that surely stampede into town every February. In our experience, most small towns with a famous one-day celebration tend to lie dormant the other 364 days of the year.
But try telling that to the townspeople gathered outside this fair Saturday night, celebrating Punxsutawney’s annual Groundhog Festival.
We had no idea everyone would be throwing a party upon our arrival. We weren’t prepared to compete for parking, to share the sidewalks with hundreds of other pedestrians, or to hear a live band on an outdoor stage covering Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” note for note. Near as I could tell, the Festival is basically a small-town carnival and arts/crafts fair held every July because groundhogs. I think. I forgot to look it up and the signs didn’t provide much exposition.
As you’d expect, Punxsutawney Phil handicraft abounded at competitive prices.
As we wandered around the tents and bypassed the amusement park rides, our due diligence paid off when we finally located Phil’s primary residence, an enclosed burrow attached to the public library. When Phil’s not working the one-day-per-year hard-knock shift that pays all his bills, he hangs out here with his family, cleverly disguised as a zoo animal.
Please stand a safe distance away from your monitor or internetting device as you prepare to lay eyes upon the scintillating legend himself — the latest iteration of the one and only Punxsutawney Phil!
…this was our best shot through the glass wall (probably bulletproof? We didn’t test it) that separates the superstar from his fans and stalkers so he can try to live some semblance of a normal life away from the paparazzi. A little Windex might’ve helped. No autographs were offered that evening, either — not even in observance of his very own Groundhog Festival. What a diva.
To be continued!
[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for previous and future chapters, and for our complete road trip history to date. Thanks for reading!]