Groundhog Day, the one time of the year when we place our faintest superstitions in the paws of a weather-prescient rodent. Punxsutawney Phil has a lot of pressure riding on his furry shoulders as he gets yanked out of his hole by a bunch of bearded guys in top hats and nudged to decide if he spies his shadow or not. The outcome of this high-pressure moment, as a crowd of onlookers in a Pennsylvania field called Gobbler’s Knob and throughout the entire world wait with captured breath, will supposedly determine if winter will release its icy grip several weeks early or not. It’s hard to know what goes through Phil’s little brain as he is thrust into the spotlight, but I think I personally have an idea. You see, to understand the groundhog, you have to become the groundhog. And I have become the groundhog, my friends. Wait, don’t call the white coats on me yet. Let me explain…
For my very good friend Dawn, Groundhog Day is like a religious holiday. She reveres it as a religious experience and a time of renewal for reason I don’t fully comprehend but nonetheless respect. I can’t deny whimsy. She had a dream to one day travel to Punxsutawney and be there in person for Phil’s grand revelation. A few years back, she asked if I would accompany her as she finally embarked on this trip to the holy land. You have to understand that this was a great honor to be asked. She also needed someone to drive her, but I’m perfectly fine with that. So, the plans were in motion and I arrived at her house on February 1st ready to become immersed in all that is groundhog. And immersion would truly be the correct word for the situation. Because as I arrived she excitedly told me that the costumes were ready. “Um, what costumes?” I enquired, sudden dread gnawing its way through my belly. It turned out she had forgotten to tell me one minor detail about our trip, the one that involved a friend of hers making full-size groundhog costumes. Full-size groundhog costumes that the two of us would wear as we appeared in public in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. My initial instinct was to flee, like the groundhog that lives under your porch when you break out the lawnmower, but so much effort had gone into making the costumes and Dawn was so exuberant that I couldn’t say no.
Dawn and I ventured out on the several-hour ride to Pennsylvania, the groundhog costumes waiting patiently in the trunk of my car to embarrass me. To this day I thank the good Lord for the $1 Long Island Iced Teas available throughout the night in our motel bar. I’m not sure how else I would have gotten to the point where I actually stood outside my parked car a short distance from Gobbler’s Knob before sunrise, stepping into a giant, furry rodent costume. I looked at Dawn in her costume; she looked like a giant teddy bear and was all smiles. The costumes had hats with ears that tied around your head, but your face was exposed so you could actually see and breathe. We wore rubber muzzles around our noses so we could pass as actual giant groundhogs to the untrained observer. I pulled my costume on tight and glanced in my car’s side window. I somehow looked even sillier than Dawn, a taller, slightly chubbier groundhog with lighter-tinted brown fur. I took my first tentative steps away from the car, knowing there was no way the eyes of everyone we passed would not be compelled to stare. I was suddenly a costumed character at Disney World, only instead of amusement park rides and Florida sunshine, there was just an army of bleary-eyed groundhog watchers and a frosty February morning. My first consolation was that the groundhog costume was incredible insulation. As everyone else was bundled up in heavy jackets, hats and mittens, I was strolling around in my own one-man heating booth. The second consolation was that we quickly walked into groundhog mania. The entirety of Punxsutawney, an otherwise average rural town square, becomes a surreal landscape dedicated to worship of the woodchuck for one week a year. There are effigies of Phil all over the place and regular celebrations held in his honor. People travel from all over to this land-beaver Mecca. I didn’t see many other visitors in full costume, so we were enthusiastically greeted by many of the people we passed and posed for photo after photo. We were stars! Well, until the real star was ready to emerge.
Housed in his little wooden house on Gobbler’s Knob, Phil might just have snoozed right through all of the festivities going on around him. When the time came, he was yanked out and presented to an adoring crowd that probably confused the crap out of him. As Phil was lightly manhandled yet seemingly content, I felt for him. I knew what it was like to look so furry and adorable and have the world take notice. I knew what it was like to have so much pressure put on you unexpectedly, and to just sit back and enjoy a few confused moments in public until you get to go lie down somewhere and fall back asleep. I believe the great, top-hatted groundhog interpreters on stage said that Phil saw his shadow that year and therefore predicted six more weeks of winter. But that didn’t matter. I could see the warmth of the expression on Dawn’s face, her long-time dream finally realized in perhaps the most enjoyably ridiculous way possible. And clad tightly and bravely in my groundhog costume, I felt pretty warm, too.