Are they crazy about groundhogs in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania? You betcha. The place is lousy with them. Groundhogs adorn homes and businesses like the Baby Jesus does at Christmastime most other places. It happens we were visiting the “Weather Capital of the World” in December and the good people of “Punxsy” really know how to inflate a holiday decoration and park it next to a giant fiberglass woodchuck.
Not counting groundhogs (real, wooden, fiberglass, bronze, or welded metal) the town of Punxsutawney has a population of a bit above 6,700. Legend has it that the name came from a defeated Native American sorcerer who was killed in combat. The ashes of his burnt body turned to sand fleas or “Ponksad” and through these lovely fleas he continued his harassment of man. Ponksad-uteney means “The town of the Sand fleas.” We saw neither flea nor sorcerer on this trip, so we’re assuming the town has rid itself of these pests. Or maybe we were just lucky that the vermin weren’t out and about in December.
Like a lot of folks, we learned about Punxsutawney from the movie “Groundhog Day” which celebrates the town’s annual tradition of yanking a large rodent out of a stump so he can predict the weather. This occurs every February 2nd, right smack between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, in a tradition that dates back to the ancient European holiday of Candlemas. Even though both holidays include springtime predictions, the Europeans had yet to discover camping out, tailgating or shadows of furry prognosticators. All they did was look up to see if it was sunny or cloudy and then, as now, sunshine meant six more weeks of winter.
The first whistle pig was held high above the now famous Gobbler's Knob (heh heh, gobblers, knob) just outside Punxutawney in 1887. It’s doubtful anyone at the time expected this humble knob would become the epicenter of seasonal forecasting. A handful of the top hat bedecked “Inner Circle” of the Groundhog Society are the sole keepers of the long-held secret rituals. Once ensconced amongst the elite few of the circle, an aisle at the local supermarket will bear your name -- a high honor indeed.
Our intention was to stay at the Hotel Punxsutawney, but once David started singing “Welcome to the Hotel Punxsutawney--you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave,” we decided not to chance it. We crossed the street to the Pantall Hotel instead. Here they had a Victorian Ladies Entrance, two cans of snuff on the landing and tract on the hotel desk that was kind enough to inform us that we were “going straight to hell” before we even had a chance to check in. Even though they choose to brag about “ironed sheets“ numerous times on their website, ours were not. Why the hell would you iron sheets anyway? The bed was comfy, the people were nice, and the housekeeper was dressed in Amish attire. We don’t believe it was her snuff on the windowsill, but it may just be that we are ignorant of the ways of the Amish.
The desk clerk seemed genuinely surprised that we might want to eat dinner on a Sunday night. He dubiously suggested the sports bar at the Hotel Punxsutawney as the only open place in town. Oh-Kay. The place was occupied by a few down-on-their-luck patrons eating peanuts off of paper plates (a second one was provided for shells). Our bartender, Christine, assured us that business picked up around eleven once “the hunters came in after drinking all day.“ The menu was basic freezer to deep fryer, but we lucked out with some delicious burgers and chicken wings (sometimes meat avoiding is impossible, but carrots and celery were provided). In Punxy, the wings come as whole large fellas, no “drumettes” here. Hot means hot. And a dozen was WAY too much.
With a little schmoozing, Christine allowed us to view (but not sample, as it was part of a collection of the annual releases) some “Groundhog Brew”-- the beer favorite of most of the Inner Circle. Another local favorite is a “Gobblers Knob” -- Groundhog Brew with brown whiskey. After dinner we shot a few games of pool with the locals and bugged out of there before the drunken hunters came in and shot us because we weren’t wearing day-glow orange.
On the way back to The Pantall, we went for a romantic walk through the Tree Circle in the town square to see the beautifully lit trees decorated by local schools and community groups. Hand in hand, we wondered in the crisp winter air when suddenly a sharp screech broke the silent night. We spun around just in time to see a jolly family of chucks dashing back into their hole on the top of the tree-clock-glockenspiel in front of the Fraternal Order of Eagles lodge across the street. It was ten o’clock.
Breakfast the next day at the hotel restaurant further impressed us with its décor of either very homey or garage sale chic. David’s mug said “Class of 2001." Veronica’s: “Happy Birthday.” The breakfast was hearty, the coffee excellent and the waitress funny and attentive.
With our bellies full, we ventured out to see the town by the light of a grey winter day. Our first stop was the town library where the famous woodchuck himself resides. Punxsutawney Phil and his “wife” Phyllis spend everyday but the big one in their climate controlled den which can be viewed from outside or inside the library.
The next stop was The Wizard’s Workshop and it turned out to be a must-see. The proprietor, Randy “The Wizard“ Rupert, is an ice sculpting champion and now uses the same chainsaw technique on various sized parts of trees. With our usual snarky attitude, we entered past the sign that read “What ‘wood’ you like for Christmas” and “Come see what I saw” expecting a hoot but instead walked into a true master’s den. Oh, the joys we found there. Randy, the only true link we found to the movie, was the guy who taught Bill Murray how to pretend ice sculpt. The angelic ice carving in the movie is his, ditto the electric chainsaw Bill used for the movie. The saw is prominently displayed in the store along with a VCR tape and poster of the celebrated flick. The most charming aspect of the workshop is Randy himself, who jawed with us for quite sometime about his art, the movie and the town itself.
The perfect ending to our trip came with a visit to Gobbler's Knob. Just follow the whistle pig prints up Woodland Avenue to the weather forecasting center of the world. In December, it’s a lonely place--but the impression of the grandeur of the February 2nd celebration is there. The Knob is festooned with signs and art dedicated to the most famous seer of them all, Punxsutawney Phil, including the greeting “Can you believe it… we’re at Gobblers Knob.” There are sculptures of Phil portraying the various diversions he participates in his off season, including motorcycling. Unlike Santa, he does not have career obligations outside of his holy day, so Phil apparently has many hobbies.
As we walked back to the car, we discussed coming back for Groundhog Day, but decided that we saw Punxsutawney in its true form -- small, homey, cheerful, and with a great sense of humor about itself. To a GypsyNester, life doesn’t get better than that.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com