Groundhog has come a long way, from its humble origins as a bonfire in the woods, to a school-endorsed event with bands and food and now to the on-campus affair it is today. In all likelihood, the elimination of transportation to the park has opened up room in the Groundhog budget. This year, for example, the beer will be Guinness, the food will be Italian and the paramedics will be on site.
Many say that the move to campus has been an improvement — the buses and hayrides were logistical nightmares; the mud stuck and stank intolerably; the wooded clearing of years past was too closed-off, too much like a bonfire in the woods and not enough like the music festival environment we have now.
These people are wrong.
These innovations take away something special, something only a hay ride through the dark on a wet February night can give: the solidarity of a shared experience.
The last Party in the Park was the in spring of ’14, when I was a wide-eyed freshman. I will skip through the events of my first Groundhog Day at the University of Dallas to dwell on what happened that night. I was separated from the group I had wanted to ride over to the park with after stopping off at my dorm. I had assumed I would be able to find them again without much difficulty. I was wrong.
The line to board the buses weaved back and forth in front of the gone-but-not-forgotten Lynch Auditorium like a loaded spring. The people were packed in impossibly tightly, while a tangible energy hung in the air around them.
Every time a new bus pulled round the circle, the spring would release and a stream of gray-clad strangers would fly onboard.
There was nothing to do but join the line.
If I was lonely then, however, I quickly felt an intense misanthropy moments later. More people joined the line and pressed in on me from every side. I, being short, was often mistaken for a precious bit of open space by taller people gazing over the crowd. They would push toward this apparent gap only to find it was occupied.
The crowd had pushed especially hard, and I stumbled into the back of an alumnus who had not previously realized I was there. For a moment, it seemed I was going down, but the alumnus, glancing over his shoulder, grabbed me by the arm just in time. From that moment, he and his friend shielded me from the worst of the crowd, and I was able to board the bus without further incident.
The bus was a calmer atmosphere, but the same excitement pervaded. A diverse group filled in the rows before me — locals who had heard that Groundhog was a good party, alumni down from D.C. for the first time since they were students, suave upperclassmen talking amongst themselves. In our short ride to the park, an unspoken bond formed among us, which was to be cemented in the hayride.
The bus dropped us off unceremoniously on the side of a muddy street. From there I could catch glimpses of the fairy lights strewn from tree to tree illuminating the park. But a dark narrow path with no discernible end lay ahead, and on that path was a truck with a bed full of hay and two parallel benches.
The buses could accommodate more than the trucks, so we had more waiting to do. This time, the line sprawled comfortably along the road. I was growing anxious to get to the park and find my friends. Much as I enjoyed the camaraderie with my new acquaintances, I was too shy to really speak to any of them and stood by myself. Apparently, I made a pitiful figure, because when the driver came back and stated that he could take an extra person in the cab, all eyes turned to me.
The park was magical. Lights swung from every tree, music drifted over the crowd alternating between the live bands and the D.J., bonfires popped up haphazardly and around them circles of laughing faces. I didn’t bother to eat.
I never did find the people I set out to meet. Instead, I bumped into some acquaintances who took me in as one of their own. These people, incidentally, are the ones I consider my best friends today.
Sure, it was muddy. For weeks after, the Jerome showers were clogged with mud from people trying to wash their shoes. When I got back to my dorm, I took off my shoes and tied them in a plastic bag, where they remained until spring break, when I took them home to be soaked in the washing machine.
In the moment, however, no one cared — least of all me.
Though later Groundhogs had fewer mishaps, they also had less magic.