Who’s afraid of the polar vortex? Not the 18,000 woodchuck lovers who pilgrimaged to Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day at 4 o’clock in the morning in 4 degree weather to see Phil emerge from his burrow — and certainly not my wife, Diane.
An animal lover who once climbed a cherry tree to free a robin stuck to a branch by twine and stopped traffic to help a turtle cross the road, my wife is a Phil fan who gets up at 4 a.m. every Feb. 2 to watch the Gobbler’s Knob celebration on PCN saying, “I don’t care what you say, we’re going one of these years.”
Well, with Feb. 2, 2019 falling on a Saturday, this was “one of these years.”
As we made our plans, we checked the long range forecast and found Feb. 1 and 2 falling into the depths of the polar vortex.
We left Friday morning and on the drive out, the temperature never got above 5 degrees. Even so, after we checked in at the Country Villa on Friday afternoon, we went straight to Gobbler’s Knob to get the lay of the land. Phil wasn’t there.
Next, we walked around Punxsutawney, ducking in souvenir shops for T-shirts, a Phil doll and thermometer; browsing the craft vendors, food trucks, the Celebration Tent in Barkley Square and stopping in the Burrow, a bar and restaurant where we sipped a Punxsutawney Pilsner brewed for the occasion by Penn Brewery in Pittsburgh. We got our first glimpse of Phil and his wife, Phyllis, through the thick glass wall of their home, a straw-lined burrow in the town library.
Our motel room was, by chance, across the street from Walmart, one of the pick-up spots for the school bus shuttles to Gobbler’s Knob for the celebration. The state police closed the road to the Knob at 3 a.m. After that, the only way to the Knob — 2½ miles from downtown Punxsutawney — was on foot or in one of the string of school bus shuttles.
After four hours sleep, getting dressed was work. Two pairs of Coldproof underwear bottoms under jeans, two pairs of Coldproof underwear tops under a long sleeved T-shirt, sweatshirt and hooded fleece lined Penn State hoodie; ski mask, skull cap and hoodie pulled tight; hunting boots over triple layers of wool socks with adhesive toe warmers and hands in wool gloves gripping hand warmers.
We were ready for being outside on frozen ground for two-and-a-half hours to wait for a woodchuck.
There were lines to get on the shuttle, but it moved fast. We got to the Knob at 4:45 a.m. Phil was coming out at 7:30. There were thousands ahead of us, but my wife wasn’t standing back. She snaked her way through the crowd with me in tow and found a spot with a straight line view of the stage.
The entertainment was by turns, corny, cool and moving. Two men from Phil’s Inner Circle — the top hat and tails crew who take care of the star — led the dancing to recorded music backed by a line of young dancing girls. They also did some karaoke singing with lyrics like “I just want to use your gloves tonight” and “Punxy’s got a groundhog and we ain’t gonna sleep tonight.” There were no wallflowers. A bluegrass band from Pittsburgh and the United States Naval Academy Barbershop Quartet performed by turns. After we threw our hands up and kicked our heels up and threw our heads back to the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” the Naval barbershop quartet sang the national anthem. As the anthem ended, confetti cannons filled the air with red, white and blue. As we looked up, fireworks erupted, lasting 10 to 12 minutes. The display was worthy of the Fourth of July. That must be where they spent the money from the $5 shuttle tickets.
Finally the Inner Circle strode to the stage. Phil’s handlers got him out and well you know the rest — he didn’t see his shadow and predicted an early spring. God bless him.
Back in Punxy — veterans now, so we can call the town by its nickname — we went to the Moose Lodge where we met and enjoyed breakfast with 40 Moose Brothers from the West Pittston Lodge who were on a bus trip.
Punxsutawney is for 51 weeks a year a quiet, rural borough of 6,000 surrounded by Amish countryside. But for Groundhog week, it is transformed into a hotbed of Philmania, where people who would call an exterminator if they saw one of Phil’s relatives in their yard, regard him as a god — a weather god.