The dreary months of January and February are notoriously depressing, especially in the northern states where the bareness of the trees, the grayness of the sky, and the sharpness of the wind serve as natural antidotes to rays of sunshine and breaths of fresh air. By mid-January, we’re back to the daily grind. Friends and family who gathered near us for the holidays have departed, and there is a long, desolate road ahead before the flowers bloom and the ducklings take their first dip in local ponds.
On a personal level, this time of year is marred with memories of a distant tragedy that now rests fairly peacefully on a pillow of passing time, until the arrival of the 2-week period between the end of January and beginning of February, when it wakes and knocks on the door - luggage in hand - to take me, its reluctant travel companion, back again for a visit.
It’s not a fun trip at all, I have to say. I have never cared for the journey, so I’ve spent a lot of time grasping at any viable distraction. Alas, these grim months offer very little in the way of festivity. There’s Valentine’s Day, perhaps, but the heart-shaped decorations are all markers along the annual journey to misery, and the fabricated holiday, itself, seemingly created in desperation, tends to accentuate the sorrowful loneliness of many friends and family members. Valentine’s Day is a failure.
Ah, but wait. What is this I hear? There is noise coming from the forest near Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a town far removed from progress and innovation. I cup my ear and move closer to discover that it’s ringing with joyful enthusiasm. And what is everyone so excited about on this second day of February? … A fuzzy, buck-toothed whistle-pig, whom they’ve named Phil and charged with the responsibility of predicting the arrival of spring and the upheaval of the season of sadness.
My prayers for a beam of light on the gloomy, annual journey were answered with a newfound appreciation for this miraculously meaningless celebration of absurdity. Naturally, the only thing better than watching the hoopla on television would be, of course, witnessing it in person.
Therefore, a few years ago, much to my family’s dismay, I dragged them on a pilgrimage to the hallowed hollow of Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, to witness the event firsthand.
I don’t want to give away too much, other than to say that it was a muddy morning that involved a 4:00 a.m. school bus ride through and beyond the town to a wooded hillside, where we were greeted by thousands of others, who were divided into two groups by a long rope that stretched the length of the forest, separating the drunk from the sober. We had with us a confused toddler in a stroller, twin tweens, crying about their muddy shoes, and a 10-year-old boy who had forgotten his suitcase.
The misty morning broke in a sunless sunrise, and the crowd chanted, “Phil! Phil! Phil!” Men in tophats raised the woodchuck in the air, Simba-style, after reading his prediction for a long winter. Immediately, the crowd of thousands roared, “Boo!” as they turned in our direction and stormed back to the three shuttle buses waiting at the top of the hill. A walk back to town through a cornfield proved to be the safer, if not quicker, alternative, until the buses were gone and our stroller got stuck in the mud, forcing us to release the toddler. An hour or so later, back on concrete, we journeyed on foot to the outer town limits, where we had to park our car, and passing a curious number of tall, metal groundhog statues planted in various locations.
Strange? Very. Effective? Indeed. We have been laughing about it at this miserable time of year ever since. Distraction is not a healthy answer to sadness, and really, it can only work for so long; but finding light and laughter in strange places as we wander through the darkness is a big part of what life is about. When the winter is long and the days are dark, remember… every year on February 2, a forest full of muddy drunk people gather to boo a befuddled rodent and cheer for the coming of spring. If that is not something to chuckle about, what is?