'Hog Wild in Punxsutawney
Punxutawney Phil in Top Hat

Are they crazy about groundhogs in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania? You betcha. The place is lousy with them.

Groundhogs adorn homes and businesses like the Baby Jesus does at Christmastime in most other places. We landed in the “Weather Capital of the World” in mid-December and found the good people of “Punxy” also know how to inflate a holiday decoration -- and park it next to a giant fiberglass woodchuck. Not counting groundhogs (real, wooden, fiberglass, bronze, or welded metal) the town of Punxsutawney has a population of a bit above 6,700.


Legend has it that the town got its name from a defeated Native American sorcerer who was killed in combat. The ashes of his burnt body turned to sand fleas or “Ponksad” and through these lovely fleas he continued his harassment of man. Ponksad-uteney means “The town of the Sand fleas.” We saw neither flea nor sorcerer on this trip, so we’re assuming the town has rid itself of these pests. Or maybe we were just lucky that the vermin weren’t out and about in December.

Punxutawney Phil as Lady Liberty Like a lot of folks, we learned about Punxsutawney from the movie “Groundhog Day” which celebrates the town’s annual tradition of yanking a large rodent out of a stump to predict the weather. This occurs every February 2nd, right smack between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, in a tradition that dates back to the ancient European holiday of Candlemas. Even though both holidays include springtime predictions, the Europeans had yet to discover camping out, tailgating or shadows of furry prognosticators. All they did was look up to see if it was sunny or cloudy and then, as now, sunshine meant six more weeks of winter.

The first whistle pig was held high above the now famous Gobbler's Knob (heh heh, gobblers,
knob) just outside Punxsutawney in 1887. It’s doubtful anyone at the time expected this humble hill to become the epicenter of seasonal forecasting.

The sole keepers of the long-held secret weather rituals are a handful of top hat bedecked “Inner Circle” members of the Groundhog Society. Should a person be so lucky as to be ensconced amongst the elite few of the Inner Circle, an aisle at the local supermarket will bear his name -- a high honor indeed.

Pantall Hotel Punxutawney Our intention was to stay at the Hotel Punxsutawney, but once David started singing “Welcome to the Hotel Punxsutawney--you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave,” we decided not to chance it.

We crossed the street to the Pantall Hotel instead. The Pantall boasted a Victorian Ladies Entrance, two cans of snuff on the landing and pamphlet at the hotel's front desk that was kind enough to inform us that we were “going straight to hell.” Even though they choose to brag about “ironed sheets“ numerous times on their website, ours were not. Why the hell would you iron sheets anyway? The bed was comfy, the people were nice, and the housekeeper was dressed in Amish attire. We don’t believe it was her snuff on the windowsill, but we are ignorant of the ways of the Amish.

Copenhagen Snuff in Punxy The desk clerk seemed genuinely surprised that we might want to eat dinner on a Sunday night. He dubiously suggested the sports bar at the Hotel Punxsutawney as the only open place in town. Oh-Kay.

The bar was occupied by a few down-on-their-luck patrons eating peanuts off of paper plates (a second one was thoughtfully provided for shells). Our bartender, Christine, assured us that business picked up around eleven once “the hunters came in after drinking all day." The menu was basic freezer to deep fryer, but we lucked out with some delicious burgers and chicken wings (sometimes meat avoiding is impossible, but carrots and celery were provided). In Punxy, the wings come as whole large fellas, no “drumettes” here. Hot means hot. And a dozen was WAY too much.

Groundhog Brew With a little schmoozing, Christine allowed us to view (but not sample, as it was part of a collection of the annual releases) some “Groundhog Brew”-- the beer favorite of the Inner Circle. If you really want to feel sick, try the local favorite -- a "Gobblers Knob” -- Groundhog Brew and brown whiskey.

After dinner we shot a few games of pool with the locals and bugged out of there before the drunken hunters came in and shot us because we weren’t wearing day-glow orange.

Punxutawney Groundhog Glockenspiel

On the way back to The Pantall, we went for a romantic walk through the Tree Circle in the town square to see the beautifully lit trees decorated by local schools and community groups. Hand in hand, we wondered in the crisp winter air when suddenly a sharp screech broke the silent night. We spun around just in time to see a jolly family of chucks dashing back into their hole on the top of the tree-clock-glockenspiel in front of the Fraternal Order of Eagles lodge across the street.

Breakfast the next day at the hotel restaurant further impressed us with its décor of either very homey -- or garage sale chic. David’s mug was emblazoned with “Class of 2001." Veronica’s: “Happy

Birthday.” The breakfast was hearty, the coffee excellent, our waitress funny and attentive.

Punxutawney Phil the Groundhog With our bellies full, we ventured out to see the town by the light of a grey winter day. Our first stop was the town library where the famous woodchuck himself resides. Punxsutawney Phil and his “wife” Phyllis spend everyday but The Big One in their climate controlled den which can be viewed from outside or inside the library. They seem to do a lot of sleeping.

The next stop was The Wizard’s Workshop and it turned out to be a must-see. The proprietor, Randy “The Wizard“ Rupert, is an ice sculpting champion and now uses the same chainsaw technique on various sized parts of trees.

Bearing our usual snarky attitude, we entered past the sign that read “What ‘wood’ you like for Christmas” and “Come see what I saw” -- expecting a hoot, but instead walked into a true master’s den.

Oh, the joys we found there. Randy, the only true link we found to the movie in the entire town, was the guy who taught Bill Murray how to pretend ice sculpt. The angelic ice carving in the movie is his, ditto the electric chainsaw Bill used for the movie. The saw is prominently displayed in the store along with a VCR tape and poster of the celebrated flick. The most charming aspect of the workshop is Randy himself, who jawed with us for quite sometime about his art, the movie and the quirks of Punxsutawney.

The Wizard's Workshop Punxutawney

Oh my.

Off the beaten path was a slightly disturbing groundhog and we did quite a bit of blinking as we stood next to it -- trying to chase out the image that was forming in our heads.

"Phil Your Dreams with Butterfly Wings" outside the hospital is meant to represent new life emerging from a cocoon, but from most angles, it sure seems to represent something else entirely. If you bring your grandkids, it might give you a good chance to explain just where new life really comes from.

Gobbler's Knob Punxutawney The perfect ending to our trip came with a visit to Gobbler's Knob. We followed the whistle pig prints up Woodland Avenue to the center of the weather forecasting world. In December it’s a lonely place -- but impressions of the grandeur of the February 2nd celebration are there. The Knob is festooned with signs and art dedicated to the most famous seer of them all, Punxsutawney Phil, including
the greeting “Can you believe it… we’re at Gobblers Knob.” There are sculptures of Phil portraying the various diversions he participates in his off-season, including motorcycling. Unlike Santa, he must not have career obligations outside of his holy day, as Phil apparently has taken on many hobbies.



As we walked back to the car, we discussed coming back for Groundhog Day, but decided that we saw Punxsutawney in its true form -- small, homey, cheerful, and with a great sense of humor about itself.

To a GypsyNester, life doesn’t get better than that.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

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