Monterey Mitch: Expect six more weeks of winter

We live about a mile down the road from where U.S. Route 50 passes through the little village of Monterey.

For the past five or six years I’ve been keeping company with a groundhog that I’ve named Monterey Mitch. I guess you could say that Mitch and I have grown old together, because in groundhog years he is about as old as I am. Mitch lives in a den under an old shed at the back of our property. We see each other from time to time through the summer, but I don’t bother Mitch, and old Mitch doesn’t bother me.

For the past couple of years I’ve tried to catch Mitch emerging from his den on Groundhog Day to see whether he would cast a shadow, but I always seem to arrive too late or leave too early to see him. I can’t say for sure, but I think Mitch has been making a game of it, like, “catch me if you can.”My suspicion is that he stays just below the surface of his hole while he smells the air to make sure I’m not around before surfacing from his winter nap.

But this year I was determined to outwit old Mitch. I conceived my plan several weeks ago, and even though it meant taking a day off work, I was determined to not let another Groundhog Day slip by without seeing if old Mitch would cast a shadow.

Part of my motivation, I think, is knowing that Mitch is getting older, and I can’t help but wonder how much longer either of us will be around to cast a shadow.

Last week on Groundhog Day I arose before dawn to execute my plan. It was a chilly morning, but a big thermos of hot coffee served as both a hand warmer and a belly warmer. I positioned my lawn chair a few yards downwind of the hole that serves as the entrance to Mitch’s den. I got as comfortable as I could, then took a big swallow of coffee and started my vigil. Two hours quickly slipped by. Despite the cold I almost dozed off a couple of times, but I kept sipping coffee and remained as motionless as I could, watching for Mitch to emerge.

By 9 a.m. my coffee was almost gone, and I was starting to think that I might as well pack it in and go to work. But I decided to hang in there a little longer, and I’m glad I did. At about half past 9, I saw Mitch’s nose surface above the edge of his hole and begin to twitch as he smelled the air. Even though I was downwind, I think he smelled my coffee and knew I was there, but that didn’t stop him from poking his head out. I froze and even tried not to breath for fear of scaring him back into his hole, but as it turned out I needn’t have worried about him seeing me.

Mitch surfaced from his hole and waddled around the entrance smelling the ground. He paused and shook himself like a wet dog that just had a bath. Then he slowly raised himself to a standing position, let out a big yawn and turned toward me. Our eyes met and we held each other’s gaze for a long moment.

Then, as strange as this may sound, old Mitch nodded his head at me and turned his gaze toward the sky. It was as if he was encouraging me to join him, which I did.

After a moment he looked back at me and turned his head to one side as if to say, “Well old friend, it looks like we’re in for six more weeks of winter.” I relaxed and smiled at Mitch as he took another long look around, glanced back at the sky, and then quietly slipped back into his den.

I took my last swallow of coffee and lingered for a few minutes to savor this moment. Mitch was gone, but as I folded my lawn chair and headed back to my own den to hunker down for six more weeks of winter, I did so with contentment, knowing that I would see old Mitch again in the spring.