I have been to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. I’ve been at Gobbler’s Knob when Phil was taken out of his roomy crate and held up to the sky to prophecy over the believers. It’s the coldest I’ve ever been.
Exactly twenty years ago today, while I was in college, the outdoor adventure club I was co-president over (with my bestie, Angela), the Bonavoyagueurs (“we go where the wild things are”) decided that the wild things were in Punxsutawney on February the second. We were not disappointed.
We decided to drive down the day before, because it’s a two hour and thirty minute drive to Punxsutawney from Bonaventure, and Phil gets an early start. When we arrived, the entire town (which is largely not the town depicted in the movie) was HERE FOR IT. Thousands of people who have nothing better to do flock to the town to sleep in the halls of the school and watch Groundhog’s Day in the auditorium before being bused before dawn to nearby Gobbler’s Knob (which must be a colossal joke by some genius) to be given scalding hot “coffee” in styrofoam cups and herded, festival-style, towards where Phil’s entourage, the Inner Circle (a group of adults in top hats and tuxedos), struts and hypes up the crowd for the prognosticator of prognosticators.
The entire event has a near-hysterical bent throughout. From the paper signs that are hung on the sides of buses that do not look truly mechanically competent, to the equally enthusiastically decorated school. Everything gave the impression of being driven by 100% excitement and 0% sense. It was great, unequivocally. The movie was aired back-to-back-to-back, all night long in the school aud. Borrowing heavily from the Rocky Horror there was a lot of audience participation. A Lot. I think everyone was drunk. And who could blame them? It was good-natured, uncontrolled chaos. After all, it was 02-02-02, an auspicious year, when the only things that mattered were shouting at the movie and getting on the bus.
After a night of exactly none sleep, the Bonavoyageurs huddled together on the side of an exceptionally cold, wind-swept hill in the predawn. We found where the alleged coffee was, and waiting dutifully in line. It ran out right before we got to the font of the line, but another urn was quickly (too quickly, looking back) produced, and we got our molten cups of nearly clear coffee. We burnt our fingers and tongues and gulped it down. When I read about the hydrothermal vents in the ocean – 400F heat being released into icy water – I always think about this cup of hot and the cold of the Knob. I suppose it’s impossible, but you could tell me right now that the hot cup (I can’t continue to pretend it was coffee) was 400F, and I’d say, “yes, it most certainly was.” And you could continue and say that the air temperature was as cold as the midnight zone of the sea floor, and, again, I would be able to agree with a clear conscience. I probably was not dressed for the occasion, as this was deep into my idiot years, but February in rural Pennsylvania is a frigid bitch, I assure you. I don’t think I was able to unclench my entire body until halfway home.
The entire experience was deeply surreal, and defies description. The best I can do is tell anyone who will listen that I once saw a now long-dead groundhog on a massive screen near to the real, living (then) groundhog, separated by only about 20,000 people and submerged in a cold, dark day that felt it would last the rest of my life.