Fourteen years ago I did something that only a crazy group of college journalists would do — get in a car with no money, call just a few hours ahead for press credentials for an editor, reporter and photographer, and drive to Punxsutawney, Pa., for Groundhog’s Day on the 116th staging of the event, which also happened to be the curious date 02/02/02! Thanks to the magic of the internet the news editor on that trip, Matt Dabrowski, posted this story written by the reporter, Mike Trask, for our college newspaper The BonaVenture back in 2002. I don’t have access to the images I took that night/morning, but was able to find some photos someone else took that night that happened to capture me up in the press section near the stage (I’m the one wearing a red coat with a blue winter hat (look along the baseline of the stage and you’ll intersect my head to the right of center — click the image for a bigger view). For your enjoyment, here’s the story as it still appears on the BV web archive. As you’ll tell from the feature story, it was an adventure and nothing like Bill Murray’s famous movie of the same name. My favorite line of the whole piece is the retelling of our 3:00 am visit to McDonalds and WalMart for supplies. Enjoy and Happy Groundhog’s Day!
By Mike Trask
PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. – Saturday morning Punxsutawney Phil, the world-famous weather forecasting groundhog, emerged from his oak-tree stump in front of about 40,000 rapid chanting fans.
It’s the end of a long night in this town of around 7,000 people, which expands to nearly six times its size every Feb. 2. The locals seem to not care, unless they are members of The Inner Circle, the planners and organizers of the event. Three gas-station attendants told us they never went to Gobbler’s Knob, site of the event.
“I watched it on TV once, seems kind of silly,” quipped one woman. She gave us (Dan Horan, assistant photography director; Matt Dabrowski, news editor; and myself) a coupon for a free sub, probably out of pity.
A member of the Punx-sutawney Lions Clubs stated, “I never go up to The Knob. I just sit around and wait for you guys to come around with your (note) pads.”
Nevertheless, people come in droves. Phil’s day is something of a combination between a rock concert, an Independence Day celebration and a religious revival.
The drive to Punxy takes a little less than three hours if you don’t obey speed laws. It is 109 miles from Allegany, according to Mapquest.com. Along the way we had our first bit of excitement.
In a town called Ridgway, Pa., we ran across someone in a white Dodge Acclaim with New York license plates and a Geneseo sticker in the back window. In the parking lot of Sheet’s, the Pennsylvania version of Uni-Mart, three young gentlemen started shouting gibberish at us. It was one of those moments that made you think, “Oh boy. What could happen tonight?”
Then, only 16 miles from Punxy, we had problems. On Route 119 a car had wrecked. People had been thrown from the vehicle. Immediately we felt a sense of dread. It gave me that sinking feeling in my stomach. Thoughts raced through my head. I had been driving about 80 mph and that guilty, that-could-be-me feeling raced around in my head. A report in The Courier-Express, a central Pennsylvania daily newspaper, said a man from Kansas died and three others were injured.
Police officers, fire fighters and other rescue workers rushed to the side of the road. Traffic backed up. We were the first car that had been stopped and, after about 15 minutes, police directed us on a detour. A cop shouted something like, “Go left. Go left again. Go to Sykesville and you can get back on the 119.”
The craziness began. If you’ve never been to Sykesville, Pa., you aren’t missing anything. If you ever travel through it, don’t blink. The road we took could’ve been confused with something from “The Blair Witch Project.” The one-lane road had no name that we could find, no lights and made me wonder if it was the end of the Earth. It weaved in and out of woods through a dense fog. Somehow, maybe by luck, maybe by an act of God, we emerged onto the 119 and continued our journey. We chalked it up to one of those experiences you inevitably encounter on a spur-of-the- moment road trip.
We arrived in Punxy at 11 p.m. Friday night, over seven hours before Phil’s scheduled forecast. People littered the streets of the quaint town. Lines formed outside most of the bars. More than once we saw vomit on the sidewalk. The town simply cannot hold the number of people here.
There are only two places in town to eat in addition to the people peddling sausages in tents, looking to make money off the tourists’ excitement.
Hundreds of people jockey to order food and use the bathroom at McDonald’s, the international symbol of corporate America. People scream drunken babble throughout the streets. Frat boys from Pennsylvania State University chant “PSU.” Hippies carry blankets and sleeping bags to The Knob. They don’t know what awaits them at the top of the mountain.
The Knob rests about 2.5 miles away from the village. The walk is completely uphill. You can tell the locals from the tourists with one glance. Punxy residents have the “here-we-go-again, these-people-are-morons” look. Outsiders have the giddy “This-is-so-crazy, I-can’t-believe-I’m-here” look.
Groundhogs are everywhere. A 6-foot wooden sculpture of Phil sits in the McDonald’s parking lot. People pose for pictures next to him, climb on him, stick cigarettes in his mouth and make sexual gestures with him. Nearly every storefront has some hint of Phil in its windows. A tuxedo shop has groundhogs dressed in tuxedos.
You cannot turn around without seeing something about “02-02-02: The 116th Annual Groundhog Day.”
Kids roam the street with video cameras shouting “What’s your prediction?” You can smell the whiskey and marijuana coming off the kids’ bodies. You get that feeling this whole situation could explode at any second. Surprisingly few cops walk the streets. You wonder what it will look like at sunrise when everyone has arrived.
At 12:30 a.m. we make the trek to The Knob to see what the area looks like before the crowd arrives. As we walk, you can hear the screams from below get quieter and quieter with each step. We walk through a neighborhood in which the line between Christmas and Groundhog Day fades. Almost every house still has Christmas lights up 38 days after Dec. 25. Some people have made the extra effort to spell out “Happy Groundhog Day” with the lights. One house goes with the predictable groundhog-being-pulled-by-Santa’s-sleigh bit.
Dozens of people sprint down the hill. They tell us, “We’re running for beer.” It’s an odd sight. In freezing cold weather and chilling gusts of wind, men and women are dressed in running clothing, including more than one in spandex, all claiming they’re in pursuit of beer.
Cars tear up and down the road, which has groundhog footprints painted on it. The line between reality and the world of the groundhog becomes unclear. We cut through a cornfield to reach The Knob.
When we arrive it’s like entering Copville. Police are everywhere. A K-9 cop holds a bomb-sniffing dog on a leash and instructs us to “stay away from the dog.”
The dog has a maniacal look on his face. It’s a scary scene, more so for the memory of Sept. 11 than for the sight of police. They allow us to enter after some hassle, because as Hunter S. Thompson would say, “We are the accredited press.”
The gates to The Knob do not open for another two hours but you can already feel the excitement building. Television satellite trucks sit parked in the back. Inner Circle members work to ensure all is well. They have been up since 5:30 a.m. the day before and don’t expect to sleep tonight. The grounds smell like manure.
Somehow we are enlisted to help set up the wooden stage on which the event will happen. We actually carry Phil’s box, minus Phil up on stage. I don’t know how they will fit 40,000 people into this area. It seems small before everyone arrives.
We get out of town and head 17 miles to DuBois, Pa., the biggest town around with a population of about 20,000, for coffee and cheeseburgers at 3 a.m. We stop at Wal-Mart for last minute supplies. Horan gets hand warmers and electric socks. The cashier tells us “This is the city that doesn’t sleep.” She seems serious. We are the only customers in the store.
We return to Punxy at 4:30 a.m. The lines to take a bus, for $2, from one of six stops up to The Knob are stretched around blocks. School buses run continuously up and down the hill for five hours. Cops frisk everyone boarding. Families and elderly folks have blended with the frat boys and hippies. An entire culture has formed.
We board a bus and the buzz among the spectators blends with radio instructions being given to the driver. People constantly ask, “How long?” like school children waiting for recess. The driver talks constantly, telling the riders about how these are new 2001 luxury buses and cracking bad jokes. No one cares enough to listen. At one point she says, “Hang on. I don’t do well on curves.” Everyone looks at each other and raises an eyebrow.
A little boy remarks, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a groundhog.”
Thousands have already arrived at The Knob. The crowd bops beach balls and balloons around and dances. Many hold up signs. One says, “After 15 years I still can’t get my Phil.” Many say, “We love Phil.”
No alcohol is sold or allowed on The Knob. But, you can smell the booze emitting from the crowd – many of whom have been drinking for at least 12 hours. Even those who haven’t drank seem drunk on life itself and the excitement surrounds Phil’s impending arrival.
Police are everywhere. National Guardsmen surround the stage. Many young men decide to do the “no shirts in the cold thing.” A member of the Inner Circle announces it is 19 degrees out.
One group waves a Penn State flag. Another waves a University of Pittsburgh flag. Young ladies sit on their boyfriends’ shoulders. The mix of young and old and drunk and sober blurs into one giant mosh of humanity. From the stage you can see people for what seems like forever.
People are paraded on stage. Amber Brkich, from “Sur-vivor,” comes on stage. She predictably says, “This is awesome.” The Inner Circle makes her dance to Pink’s “I’m Coming Up.” A random teenager runs on stage to dance with her. Her face is beet red. Later she shivers among the masses.
They play Alien Ant Farm’s “Smooth Criminal.” The place feels like it will explode. It seems impossible that they can fit any more people but the busses are still running. It’s nothing short of controlled chaos.
The Inner Circle announces all 38,000 bus tickets have been sold. Pitt students invade the stage with their flag. Penn State kids give them the finger and boo.
Finally the time for Phil’s prediction comes. All the Inner Circle members come on stage in their uniform black tuxedos and top hats. The crowd chants “Phil, Phil, Phil.”
After some spectacle, Bill Deeley, the official groundhog handler, pulls Phil from the tree stump and holds him up for the crowd. Flashbulbs go off and the crowd cheers wildly. The 15-pound, 22-inch animal looks unfazed. Bill Cooper, the Groundhog’s Club president, summons Phil in Ground-hoguese to pick one of two scrolls containing the winter weather forecast.
Simmons picks up a scroll and reads, “Thank God I live in the land of the free and the brave and I live in a burrow and not in a cave. I been sleeping, been nodding, been living better than bin Laden.”
The crowd goes bonkers.
“I only come out to eat and have fun. My Groundhog Day job is to study the sun. The sky is light, the signal is strong, my shadow I see, so winter will be six more weeks long.”