Travel spotlight: Punxsutawney knows the source of its fame

The name of this borough, in a lovely valley dotted in summer with cornfields and clotheslines, is adapted from the tribal word meaning “town of the sandflies.”

Fortunately for its modern history, Punxsutawney found a way to put itself on the map that did not involve sandflies.

This is indeed the home of Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog and the world’s best-known weather prognosticator — at least on Feb. 2.

The town’s elaborate ritual and celebration of the groundhog seeing (or not seeing) his shadow — which then projects, respectively, six more weeks of winter or an early spring — was immortalized in the 1993 romantic comedy that starred Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell.

The town naturally is packed — hitting a peak of 30,000 in 1997 — for the holiday each year. But what about the other 364 days? What does a town of about 6,000 people, an hour and half northeast of Pittsburgh, have to offer when winter’s just a memory and the thermometer is registering in the upper 80s?

Punxsutawney is a pleasant spot to spend a few hours or the day. A good place to start is the Chamber of Commerce, in a storefront on West Mahoning Street, in the heart of the business district. Just know that you’ll be reminded of why the world knows of this place wherever you look.

The “Weather Capital of the World,” as the town calls itself, “is very busy from December on,” according to Debbie (“just Debbie, please”), working the counter on a steamy afternoon. And we learn we’ve missed big summer celebrations, Groundhog Festival Week, held around the Fourth of July and the second Phil Phest earlier in August. We’ll not be around for the Groundhog Picnic in September.

The chamber office doubles as Phil’s Official Souvenir Shop, the best place in town to snap up groundhog T-shirts, notepads, cookie cutters, Christmas ornaments and even an official line of Groundhog Day hot sauces ($5 per bottle). The biggest sellers, Debbie said, are the plush Phil and Phyllis groundhog toys ($15.95).

But the brochures and maps are free, and Barclay Square, site of the civic center, is just a few blocks away. There, we’re told, we can peek in on Punxsy Phil himself — his “burrow” is tucked into the library. We also are given a guide to the “Phantastic Phils” — 32 fiberglass groundhog statues, standing 6 feet tall in spots all over town, each with a different theme.

Even a short walk reveals how lovingly Punxsutawney has embraced its little mascot — there are groundhogs on the street signs, on the fire station and on the police patrol cars. Like Mickeys at Disneyland, they’re tucked in everywhere — kids could have a lot of fun tracking them down.

Soon we’re at the historic Pantall Hotel — hey, isn’t that in the movie? (It was called the Pennsylvanian Hotel.) But the hotel went out of business a few years before, so we have no chance to poke around inside the beautiful building.

Here’s the biggest surprise about Punxsutawney for folks who’ve seen only the movie: Gobbler’s Knob, the famous site where the Groundhog Day ritual plays out, is not in the center of town. Nope, it’s in woods about 2 miles away.

We’ll get there eventually, but now we can check in on Phil on the other side of the square. He and Phyllis are sound asleep, tucked around each other in a burrow in a glassed-in corner of the building. Through the tinted glass we can see their furry coats. (Hey, Phil, buddy, could you do something about this sticky heat?)

A short drive out of town past churches and cornfields brings us to an impressive stone archway that proclaims Gobbler’s Knob in metalwork. From the unpaved parking area, a grassy hill slopes down to a wooden stage. (Wow, 30,000 people stuffed into this site?) A large stump, front and center, has a small doorway, with “Phil” above it. At the back of the stage is a big sign: “Gobbler’s Knob, Home of Punxsy Phil.”

We’re not the only visitors. A grandmother from Martinsburg, W.Va., and her two granddaughters, driving to Niagara Falls, have stopped to view Phil’s stump — but it’s so hot now they don’t even get out of the SUV. (The thermometer on a nearby maintenance building registers 92 degrees, but humidity is making conditions worse.)

However, Eric Raybuck, a UPS driver from Virginia, is showing his father-in-law around Gobbler’s Knob. Raybuck grew up in this area — “just over the hill” — but said he was 40 years old before he ever attended the Groundhog Day festivities.

Nowadays, he said, the town on Feb. 2 shuts down the roads at 4 a.m. and people ride shuttle buses to Gobbler’s Knob. Fireworks start at 6 a.m., then the ceremonies begin at dawn.

“It’s a big party,” Raybuck said — albeit at below-freezing temperatures.

Gobbler’s Knob includes a detailed display about the 135-year history of Punxsutawney’s groundhog celebration — it actually started as a summer event before someone got the bright idea to tie it to the ancient holiday of Candlemas, halfway between the winter solstice and first day of spring.

There’s also plenty of information on other activities around Punxsutawney. The Weather Discovery Center, designed for children, has hands-on displays about natural phenomena. The Mahoning Shadow Trail runs 15.5 miles through woods, perfect for hikes and bicycle rides.

But this quiet place among the trees is the must-see spot in the region.

Doug Myers has arrived alone. He recently moved to town from Athens, Pa., to attend culinary school at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He said he likes to come up here to think.

“It’s awesome up here,” he said, gesturing around the site. “It’s a piece of history.”

And with that, he wandered down to the stage and sat, staring off into the shadowy woods.