Check Groundhog Day off the bucket list


PUNXSUTAWNEY, PA— More than 45,000 people welcomed and roared in satisfaction as Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring on Gobbler’s Knob on Friday.

The pint-sized, four-legged legend and Pennsylvania celebrity emerged from his comfy burrow around 7:21 a.m. and did not see his shadow.

As the legend goes, his prognostication means the nation can expect above-average temperatures over the next six weeks.

The quaint borough of Punxsutawney (about 75 miles northeast of Pittsburgh) has a population of about 5,500 people and was incorporated in 1850.

But on every Feb. 2, people come from all over the world to see the famed marmot and flood the town with monetary salvation.

As advised by local experts, I arrived at the Aldi grocery store parking lot in Punxy Plaza at 2:38 a.m. on Friday to discover an already growing line of Phil fans to board the dozens of school buses for a ride to historic Gobbler’s Knob.

There is no school on Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney as the busses are a must for group transportation for those going to Gobbler’s Knob.

At the time, I was glad I purchased a bus pass a few weeks in advance, and I made my way to board the first yellow chariot.

I met people from California, Wisconsin and Illinois who were all first timers, as I was, to visit the weather capitol of the world.

Many of the onlookers were dressed in groundhog apparel complete with Phil hats, gloves, and full groundhog body suits. I guess it’s okay to be a rodent for a day.

Gobbler’s Knob, the home of Punxsutawney Phil, sits atop a small hill carved out in the middle of the woods about a mile from the main part of town, and the locals do their best to make everyone feel welcome. At 3 a.m., the place was abuzz with organizers and singers entertaining on the main stage, also the location of Phil’s tree trunk residence. Hot chocolate, coffee, and Amish donuts were ready for the

onslaught of about 45,000 people and dozens of media, including The Weather Channel and Fox News.

At 4 a.m., a large bonfire was built to provide warmth, and the army of portable potties were prepared. By then, the crowd had grown to about 15,000.

A continuous talent show kept the growing crowd of fans entertained along with Evil Knievel and a giant chicken. I saw Elvis wandering through the crowd wearing a cape that said “You Ain’t Nothing but a Groundhog.” Dress codes were out the window as some were adorned in pjs, tuxedoes or medieval knight costumes.

There were no rules at Gobbler’s Knob except to have fun and respect Phil’s modest arced and wooded empire.

Giant fireworks were set off at 6:30 a.m., after which the organizers informed the crowd that the furry celebrity was awake and played sounds of a toilet flushing and the rodent brushing his teeth and gargling along with the sound of coffee brewing.

“Phil’s awake,” one organizer shouted over the microphone. “He’s getting ready to come out. He wants to see everyone.”

The crowd went into a frenzy and started shouting “Phil, Phil, Phil” non-stop for about three to five minutes.

When he came out of his burrow and predicted an early spring, as reflected in the reading of the official scroll, the woods erupted with cheers.

How accurate are Phil’s predictions?

Over the past 10 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Phil has been on target only 30 percent of the time.

But that’s good if he plays baseball because he’s batting at or above .300. For many MLB players, that average is good enough to be selected into the Hall of Fame.

Phil has been spot-on in 2020, 2016 and 2014.

Overall, the adorable groundhog has predicted an extended winter 106 times and an early spring only 21 times.

Groundhog Day marks the midpoint between the shortest day of the year and the beginning of spring.

According to legend, the editor of the local newspaper in Punxsutawney convinced a group of groundhog hunters to begin a tradition to predict the weather. The legend grew and its popularity took off like gangbusters after the movie Groundhog Day was released in February 1993 with actor Bill Murray.

Murray plays a meteorologist named Phil who gets stuck in an endless loop of reliving Groundhog Day repeatedly day after day. It is a classic comedy and features his romantic relationship with his producer played by Andie McDowell. Each day gives him another chance to right his wrongs from the “previous” day.

The little town has made a good living off Punxsutawney Phil, and Groundhog Day brings over $1 million or more into the local economy each year.

Phil got his name after King Phillip, and he has not fathered any baby groundhogs. His wife is named Phyllis and did not receive the Elixir of Life, so she will not live forever (according to the website) like her famous hubby. Weighing in at 11 pounds, he is real, and visitors can see him through a window in his burrow which is connected to a manmade zoo at Barclay Square at the Punxsutawney Memorial Library.

Unlike the thousands of pounds of pancakes served on Groundhog Day, bananas and apples are his favorite meal. The vet gives him an annual check-up, and he enjoys a good book and the local newspaper. He stays close with his inner circle of friends and receives visitors by appointment only.

I’m glad I now can say that I have checked Groundhog Day and Punxsutawney Phill off my bucket list. It’s a 24-hour party filled with fun, festivities, and of course, Phil.

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