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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Wilkinson: Visiting Phil

On this day in 1999, I was in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania - just one of 25,000 people there to see Phil, the legendary groundhog.I’d just begun my last semester at college, I was up for a good road trip, and I have a very convincing cousin - so convincing, in fact, that he gathered seven of us, from Providence to Florida to Ohio, to join him in a pilgrimage to that “Weather Capital of the World.” And in the spirit of the moment, we wore groundhog costumes made by my cousin from inside-out sweat suits with felted ears and tails.

In this annual ritual, an elite 13 make up the “Inner Circle” of the Groundhog’s Club, the tuxedoed group in top hats that stands on stage at the famed “Gobbler’s Knob”, a field on the outskirts of town. One knocks on the stump from which Phil emerges. Another places Phil atop the stump where he may or may not see his shadow. Another listens to the groundhog then reads from one of the two scripted prophecies - early spring or late spring. I don’t know what the other nine do, but I expect it involves a secret handshake. Other excitable locals include the volunteers at the community center-turned-hostel, where sleeping bags are strewn about the night before and there is a continuous showing of the movie Groundhog Day.

During the weekend-long celebration, we’d become accidental celebrities because no other visitors fashioned themselves as marmots. We met some of the Inner Circle as we danced the night away at the Prognosticator’s Ball. The President of the Groundhog's Club gave us VIP passes to the next morning’s festivities, and later, at the community center, we were given a private room where we were able to get a few hours of sleep – before touching up our brown noses in the shuttle to Gobbler’s Knob at 4am. Our passes got us into the fenced in area below the stage where we could take in the DJ, the fireworks, and the Main Event with lots of elbowroom. We were especially grateful for our celebrity status as throngs of sleepless revelers jostled one another just to catch a glimpse of the prognosticator himself.

I’ve forgotten what Phil actually predicted that year, but every Groundhog Day since, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to news reports featuring a sleepy woodchuck, disturbed from his winter slumbers by gentlemen in formal dress, eager to learn whether or not he sees his shadow.

From farmer to teacher, Brooke Wilkinson now works to bring music to young children throughout the region. She lives with her husband and two children in Strafford, Vermont.
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