• Jo Landreth, left, of Asheville, and Michelle Lord, right, of Bakersville, await the arrival of the groundhog at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on Groundhog Day, Saturday, Feb. 2. (Photo submitted)
    Jo Landreth, left, of Asheville, and Michelle Lord, right, of Bakersville, await the arrival of the groundhog at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on Groundhog Day, Saturday, Feb. 2. (Photo submitted)

Operation Groundhog 2019

Friends take trip to watch 133-year-old tradition

BAKERSVILLE – A little more than a year ago, Gouge Elementary School third-grade teacher Michelle Lord and her college friend and sorority sister, Jo Landreth, started planning for a road trip. 

Landreth, a middle school teacher in Asheville, met Lord at their starting point in Unicoi, Tennessee, Thursday, Jan. 30, and they were off. What followed was an 18-hour round-trip journey to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to experience everything they could for Groundhog Day.

“We always said we would go when we retire,” Lord said. “But, then we decided we could just as easily do it now. So, we did.” 

Lord and Landreth documented the 1,012-mile round trip with a dedicated Facebook page called “Operation Groundhog 2019.” The pair outlined three main purposes of the journey: To go on their grandest adventure yet; to maximize the Groundhog Day experience; and to share their joy with the world.

Day No. 1 of the trip ended with an overnight stay at the historic Blennerhassett Hotel in Parkersburg, West Virginia, before re-embarking the morning of Friday, Feb. 1, for the final four hours of the drive to Punxsutawney.

After arriving, the pair was determined to do all things Groundhog. They toured the local Chamber of Commerce and visited Punxsutawney Phil’s burrow at the local library, which he shares with his wife, Phyllis. On Groundhog Day each year, Punxsutawney’s population swells from a little more than 5,700 to nearly 40,000.

“It was really easy to get around and see everything,” Lord said. “We thought it would be very chaotic because of all the people in this small town, but it was easy, and all the people were so nice. At one point at the Groundhog Banquet, we were discussing whether we were going to sleep or drive straight through. A local couple heard us talking and offered us their house to rest before we left. It was amazing.”

At 3 a.m. on Groundhog Day, Saturday, Feb. 2, Lord and Landreth arrived at Gobbler’s Knob, the site where Punxsutawney Phil either does or does not see his shadow. The women, who Lord said “got tickets for everything,” had Inner Circle passes, placing them as close to the action as the general public is allowed. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle is an exclusive 15-member group that administers Phil’s required medications and takes care of him the entire year. The Inner Circle also plans each year’s banquet and are recognizable by the top hats and tuxedos they wear at each ceremony.

“We literally could not get any closer,” Lord said. “There was nothing between Phil and us except members of the press. It was zero degrees when we got there and eventually got up to 4 degrees. But, we didn’t care because it was such a good time.”

The Sunday before the pair had the last Operation Groundhog planning meeting they realized they did not have tickets to the Groundhog Awards Banquet the Friday before Groundhog Day as they initially thought. 

“The event has been sold out for some time,” Landreth said. “This was a huge disappointment, but as Michelle said, maybe it was a good thing because we needed a little break somewhere in the festivities.”

Without telling Lord, Landreth emailed the executive director of the Groundhog Club to see if there might be anyone who had extra tickets. It appeared there was not going to be a response. Landreth later in the week received a call from the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club Inner Circle Stump Warden, who is one of Phil’s co-handlers. He had purchased an entire table of tickets, had two he wasn’t using and offered them to Lord and Landreth. Purposefully unbeknownst to Lord, Landreth had nominated her to be a “Groundhog Ambassador,” which she won. Lord was one of 10 people who received the recognition and one of only two in attendance at the banquet.  

As for Saturday morning, the women were still front-and-center when Phil emerged from his burrow around 7:30 a.m. and did not see his shadow, predicting an early spring. As the legend goes, if Phil sees his shadow, he considers it an “omen” of six more weeks of bad weather and heads back into his burrow. If it’s cloudy and he doesn’t, warmer weather is expected earlier in the year.

“I was surprised at how much Phil was involved,” Lord said. “He was almost everywhere we were, and we were a lot of places. We did everything we planned to do, and we slept about 90 minutes that Friday night. It was a lot of fun.”

In the past decade, Phil has predicted an extender winter seven times and an early spring three times. He was correct about 40 percent of the time, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Lord is in her 23rd year as a teacher and said she has always incorporated Groundhog Day into her classroom curriculum.

“I have always had students make predictions about whether Phil would see his shadow and other things like that,” Lord said. “The only bad thing about Groundhog Day being on a Saturday this year was I would have loved to have FaceTimed my students and let them experience it with me. This year I’ll probably ask for them to predict whether Phil’s prediction will come true. I brought back maps of Punxsutawney I’ll share with them as well and, of course, show them all my pictures.”

The MItchell News

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