On this Groundhog Day, I’ll do my traditional watching of the classic Bill Murray comedy based on the holiday. I’m also taking a look back to 2003, when I traveled with a group of friends to Punxatawney, PA to see Phil the Groundhog.
Originally written for my old website Ryan’s Rant in 2003, the story is a bit long, but I’ve cleaned it up and removed most lameness. It’s a fun travel entry and a nice look back to my college days.
Sitting on a shuttle bus in the rural gateway to hell that is Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, we came up with four words to describe our journey as Jon Secada’s “Just Another Day” echoed from the speakers:
Never again, and why?
A mere 24 hours prior, and several beers deep, it seemed like a good idea to bask in the revelry of simple country folk as they worshipped the world’s oldest weather prognosticating animal, but looking back, but a sober mind tends to be a changed one. We had not even seen Phil yet, and we were ready to go home.
Myself, along with three friends, left the Slippery Rock University campus at 8:00 PM with our sights set on Punxsutawney Phil. Ben, one of the other travelers, created four WSRU-TV press passes with naive hopes that we could land a front row seat for the Groundhog Day action. The journey began with a trip to a local Staples to print out our passes. That’s where the problems began.
The only office supply store on our route was the size of a large walk-in closet. Upon arrival, a slack-jawed employee informed us that they lacked the resources to make our press passes. With no time to go to another store, our dreams to be full-fledged members of the media were crushed. Disappointed, we carried on, unknowing that this was the beginning of the longest twenty-four hours of our lives.
Our travel group reacted to this by drowning our sorrows the only way a group of poorly nourished college students knew how; in a greasy cocktail of all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet and liquor. Although it was 10 p.m. and the restaurant was closing, the hostess allowed us entry, most likely because whatever we ate was one less thing for them to throw out. Most of the staff gave us dirty looks, but there was one man who was kind enough to bring out fresh general tzo’s chicken and pork fried rice.
We feasted. I dug into crab legs on my third trip while a disgruntled Asian woman watched us from a cadi-corner table, giving us the evil eye and twiddling her thumbs in dismay. I continued, knowing I had an abnormally large stomach to feed.
Satisfied, the next stop was to Ben’s house. With his hometown was 45 minutes from Punxsutawney, it was a natural place for a layover. Instead of sleeping before our early morning trip, we watched Terminator 2, drank beer, and traded insults. I slept for fifteen minutes before we Phil the Groundhog and the open road began calling to us.
By 3:00 a.m. we were back on the road and, even with a detour for coffee, in a good position to get a prime spot at Gobbler’s Knob. Things were looking up. Unfortunately, with the untimely dimming of the car headlights came the diminishing chances of us reaching our destination.
The car battery died outside of Home, PA, a town most remembered for its fictional depiction in season 4 of The X Files. Repeated attempts to turn the engine failed. We were stuck on the side of the road next to an aging farmhouse and silo that could have been mistaken as set pieces from Children of the Corn. After several minutes, an impromptu group rendition of Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer,” and coming up with the zinger “If you lived in Home, you’d be home right now,” a squad car from the local police pulled up. Good news, except that we had been drinking and some members of the party were using other substances.
They checked out Ben’s license and registration. In the process, two other squad cars, which was likely the entire police force of Home, PA, came to our aid. Luckily, the police department didn’t notice our minor impairment, or in the spirit of the groundhog, they didn’t seem to care.
After everything cleared, Ben’s dad called Triple-A, came to pick us up, and Home’s finest went their separate ways. Thinking the journey was finished, we sluggishly walked to Ben’s dad’s car. Before we got in, however, he gave us the option to continue on in his car. After a brief discussion, it was decided that we had gone too far to give up now. Drained of energy and patience, we carried on to Punxatawney.
The open roads turned into congested suburbian streets as we got closer to town and our patience grew thin. We attempted in vain to find parking. While we circled streets looking for a spot, I noticed that everything in the town was named after the groundhog. Phil’s Grocery. Punxsutawney Phil’s Bar and Grille. The Groundhog Gas Station. And not a single groundhog sized parking lot was to be had at any of them.
We searched for 40 minutes, and open spot finally became available. We followed the nearest group of people, which lead us to a line for a shuttle bus. Our remaining semblance of excitement was soon quashed.
You can’t walk to the real Gobbler’s Knob from all directions, lest you want to die of frostbite. Getting to the real Gobblers Knob required a shuttle bus with a bunch of cold, tired, and irritable strangers.
To make matters worse, the shuttle had atrocious music. The adult contemporary channel was dialed in and after a Hall and Oates ballad, Jon Secada’s “Just Another Day” began playing. It was hell on earth. The lame people sitting in front of us had on groundhog attire consisting of a Phil hood and a shirt commerating the festivities. Our day, at that moment, got a little bit longer.
It was a short ride to the Gobbler’s Knob and, at 6:15 a.m., we were soon at the top of an icy hill overlooking the stage. At the bottom sat 25,000 people who were even more insane than I was, since they were actually embracing this nonsense. To one side, there were 50 port-a-johns. Heavy forest surrounded us in all other directions.
We settled into our spot and came in time to see the super fireworks display. I like fireworks. I kind of like the Star Wars theme song. Put the two of them together at 6:25 in the morning after getting no sleep, and it’s a disaster. I stared in awe not at the fireworks, but at the people who seemed to be enjoying this and considered it a valid form of entertainment. Following the fireworks, they played Gary Glitters “Hey” song. Only instead of “hey,” the members of the Groundhog Society invited the crowd to shout “Phil.” Again, we were not amused.
Speaking of The Groundhog Society; the fact that there is a society whose basis is a groundhog is a perfect example as to why other countries hate America. Also, knowing that grown men sit around and plan town events and gatherings around said groundhog keeps me up at night with a cold sweat.
Festivities continued with an appearance by Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell. Of all the more important things a governor could be doing, he decides to come to Punxsutawney and promote this horrendous excuse for a holiday. Though we traveled to Punxatawney for the same reason, we could at least claim ignorance. The governor, on the other hand, had to know what he was getting himself into.
After the governor’s address, the groundhog society made one last appearance for the finale. Yes, it was groundhog time. Phil was about to come out of his tree knob and tell everyone whether or not there would be six more weeks of winter. With much anticipation from the idiotic masses, Phil came out and was greeted with applause.
The four of us did not clap. In fact we did not even wait to see what happened with Phil. With our poor view of the stage and lack of caring about the outcome, we got an early jump on the exit and ran up the icy hill faster than R. Kelly after a thirteen-year-old girl. Many other smart people had the same idea.
By the time we got in line for the shuttle bus, three others were already filled with people exiting the grounds. After a couple minutes, our shuttle arrived. The ride back was much more pleasant. Knowing that we would never have to set foot on Gobbler’s Knob again set our souls at ease. I had never experienced a better feeling of relief than at that moment.
It was a long, silent drive home. After a stop at Ben’s parent’s place to sleep, we got back to Slippery Rock University at 5 p.m. Sunday afternoon, 22 hours after our journey started.
The innocence that I lost that day will never be recovered. People say Phil Connors had it bad in Groundhog Day, but at least he got to sleep with Andie Macdowell in the end. The only thing I slept with was knowing that I had wasted precious hours in the prime of my life to see an animal who predicts weather.