Ground Hog Day

Ground Hog Day was somehow established in Punxsutawney, PA approximately 116 years ago. How it became such a well-known national event is still a mystery. Even more mysterious is why four grown men would travel 250 miles for this once-a-year moment that lasts all of 7 seconds and the results of which are easily gleaned from the ample coverage provided by media outlets across the nation. Tim initiated this trip with claims that there would be tens of thousands of people at this event. I tempered this claim indicating it was an undesirable location to spend a weekend and with the cold weather expected, it was even more likely to be miserable. I had even planned not to go but Tim was having so much trouble rounding up a suitable group that I agreed to go along just to see the imminent disaster first hand. So, Todd, Chris, Tim and Joe (me) embarked on the mission with gusto, good humor and ignored the Donner-Party-like premonitions.

Friday, February 1, 2002 was warm and pleasant. We procured the 30-foot motorhome from a rental outfit in Manassas, brought it back to Barton Street and loaded it with 4 sleeping bags, 1 pillow, 1 blanket, 500 plastic forks, six maps, 750ml Captain Morgan Spiced Rum, 5 Guinness Stout, 1 48-quart Coleman cooler, 24 pounds ice, 4-liters Coca Cola, 4-liters ginger-ale, 7 gallons water, 1 package sugar wafers, 3 cell phones, 4 tangelos, 4 16-ounce Solo brand plastic cups (with names written in magic marker), 1 box Kleenex and 16 music compact discs.

Chris Lalime, having spent many hours in his parent’s motorhome began the first leg of the journey and so with all windows open and smiles all around we embarked. We had traversed scarcely three miles across the county and were resting at a stoplight in Rosslyn, a scant two blocks from the Newseum, when Todd poked his head out the window and asked some construction workers (in his best country accent) if they knew a guy named George Bush. They indicated we must be lost because there wasn’t anyone around here by that name. Todd stated, “We ain’t from around here neither. That’s why I’s askin’.” Luckily the light turned green before any further transactions were able to take place.

Once on the highway I was horrified to learn that our home-on-wheels had a tremendous balancing problem with at least one wheel and enough play in the steering linkage to precipitate extremely annoying vibrations and unexpected directional corrections. This inconvenience, coupled with high winds in the mountain regions, provided countless moments of very real fear, nervous laughter and possibly prayer when a gust of wind would kiss the 300 square feet of fiberglass siding and lean us toward an all-too-little guard rail overlooking what would be an endless roll into oblivion. We persevered though and arrived at our destination right about dinner time.

We found the designated spot for RV parking and also found ourselves to be the only RV in the designated spot. There were mumblings that perhaps we were early so we set up camp, had a cocktail and walked the two blocks to the center of town to find a place to eat. The local hotel, which has been around for 110 years, offered what was most likely the most fancy dining in town with actual linens on the table. It was situated on the town square directly across from the town library. The town library is where Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog) lives.

With the low din of fork clatter, dining chatter and buffet platters, we were seated in the front corner amongst 25 other patrons and spared no expense for the opportunity to warm ourselves in comfort. The $8.95 dinner buffet was plentiful and adequately flavored with beef, ham, chicken, fish, sides, salads and desserts.

Once seated, our waitress quickly determined the impossibility that we were locals and it was all we needed – the starting gun was fired, the gates flung open and the animals came out, each one feeding off the other, staking outrageous claims to see at what point our reputations as credible members of society would be reduced to rubble. It never came. Missy bought every line spewed forth. Our ruse about being on the way to Las Vegas and winding up in the hills of PA on the eve of Ground Hog Day was challenged. Todd triumphed with the explanation that we were in Vaudeville (pronouncing it vawd-ey-ville) and had to follow that up with an explanation of the term. The fact that we were entertainers seemed very plausible to her and she indicated we were the most entertaining people she’s waited on in a long time and neglected other tables to be entertained.

In our two hours at the restaurant, we attempted to discover the major economy of the 6,000-person town and after much questioning and further explanation of our high-society vocabulary (“agrarian” apparently unknown in those parts), it seems there isn’t a whole lot going on there. To further this point, the restaurant was unable to get music on its receiver due to the inclement weather (it was snowing).

After dinner we set about inspecting the nightlife scene. Our first local pub was an interesting establishment that featured semi-shag carpeting across every inch of floor space and the same accoutrement garnished every inch of the bathroom walls. Another special feature is that this establishment and another one directly behind it share a kitchen. However, the really special feature of this kitchen is that it is used by patrons to pass between the two establishments – right next to the spaghetti sauce on the stove and the lady scrubbing pots and pans.

We were later directed down the street to some kind of extension to the YMCA where dancing and billiards took place. Two elderly ladies checked identification at the door and insisted that you sign their membership book in order to gain entry. I happily offered my driver’s license for viewing and then promptly signed “Ritchie Cunningham” - Tim followed suit with “Frederick Douglas” - Todd and Chris both provided valid signatures and we proceeded with our investigation.

In our research, we met three people from outside the state of PA. The rest seemed to be locals or semi-local people and it is our estimation that the locals were relatively unfriendly to us outsiders. Perhaps we can only fault the unruly nightlife crowd as being unfriendly since we were treated rather well by our waitress at dinner and in a future paragraph more local goodness prevails by regular local folk.

We walked back to our motorhome about midnight and there in the parking lot we discovered that a 40-passenger school bus decided to join us. Upon closer inspection of the situation, the school bus turned out to be approximately fourteen 20-somethings from McLean, VA that converted a St. Mary’s yellow school bus into something that resembled the basement of a fraternity house. They hadn’t bothered to remove the St. Mary’s declaration from the side, presumably to reduce attention to the roving party that was carrying on inside. So, with our new neighbors close at hand, we produced a classic tailgate party, similar to what you might find at a football game where everyone mingles between vehicles, attempting to stay warm in the 17-degree weather, anticipating the big event. This lasted until about 4am whereupon we decided we should get a nap before making the push to Gobbler’s Knob. Todd said he would set his wristwatch alarm to wake us up and with that, everyone curled up in sleeping bags.

When I woke, the sun was shining and my feet were numb. Even with a t-shirt, flannel shirt, sweater, jacket, gloves, hat, boots, and wrapped in a sleeping bag fully zipped up to my nose, I was an ice cube. Wrestling my way out of the sleeping bag, I realized Todd had either slept through the alarm or it had not gone off. This was the classic Todd move – always late for everything. Unfortunately, if you miss the ground hog, you have to wait a year and it was with this knowledge that I turned the heat up as far as it would go and climbed back into my sleeping bag. There was no sense in waking the crowd, warmth was my only concern and the wrath of shame we would unleash on Todd could only get better with age.

It was 9:30 am when we had thawed enough to start moving again. As we rummaged about the motorhome to gain a footing on our folly, blame and ridicule sputtered to life and trickled down on Todd. It is of no use to recount the choice bits of humor that resulted from the rapid descent of good-natured people to grousing travelers without extending this story going far beyond the already lengthy procedure. Suffice it say we unloaded on Todd in an appropriate manner.

Tim attempted to start the motorhome but all we heard was the telltale clicking sound of the starter solenoid, indicating the battery was low on muscle. We turned off the heater and there was still a humming sound. I went investigating and found someone had opened the roof vent in the bathroom, turned on the exhaust fan and turned on the water pump. We assumed it had to be one of our guests from the previous evening and so we left the vehicle and crossed the street to Punxsy Phil’s family restaurant to eat some breakfast. There was a line out the door and with the group in sour spirits, we simply could not wait to be seated. Back to the motorhome we went and the guys stopped at the drive-through beer store at the edge of the parking lot and asked for a jump.

Two gentlemen brought the delivery van down and after a brief charging and some congenial conversation, the motorhome came to life. With determination, I had the vehicle in drive and was on the way out of the parking lot before anyone had sat down. My mission was to get as far away as possible from Punxsutawney in the least amount of time and neither breakfast nor idle curiosity about the day’s events were going to keep me. There was little resistance to this tack and after we had been on the road a bit, Chris admitted to having turned on the fan in the bathroom sometime during the evening and leaving it on. By the time we made it to Ebensburg (about 40 minutes away) the mood had turned civil again and we stopped for lunch.

We ate in an old fashioned diner that was an extension of a local dairy plant – very clean establishment with cheap prices and good food. The waiter took our order on a custom-formatted check that had all the meals already printed on it and small box that stated “Waitress _____” – obviously an old menu and an outdated printing company. They made their own ice cream, served us well and we reminisced about the missed opportunities of our ill-fated mission. I again took the wheel after lunch and commanded the vehicle straight through to our home base in Arlington. It was a 30-hour road trip to sleep in a bitter cold camper. Oh, the glory.

In summation, don’t succumb to the websites that claim great fun and seas of diverse people from all over the nation converging on this presumably quaint town with hopes of grand weather predictions. Ground Hog Day is a hoax that inexplicably gets perpetuated by the media each year and undoubtedly fools a great many people each year into thinking there is something special about Punxsutawney, PA and its greatest export, Phil. There is nothing remarkable about this town other than its ability to attract camera crews in the dead of winter to watch a furry rodent get passed around as if he’d just kicked winning field-goal in the Superbowl.