Hike Into the Mystic, or Just a Walk in the Woods?

A Hike Into the Mystic, or Just a Walk in the Woods?


I’M no outdoorsman, but I’ve hiked to a few places in my life: a tea house in the Rockies above Lake Louise, the basilica at Montmartre, the top of the water slide at Typhoon Lagoon. But last month, on a warm morning fittingly hung with fog, I took my most mystical hike to date, a trek through the woods here to find a portal to another dimension.

My destination was Hawk Rock, a majestic 25-foot boulder that resembles a huge, perching bird and overlooks land now maintained as a watershed by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. My guide was Philip Imbrogno, a science educator, author and investigator of the paranormal.

Mr. Imbrogno has been hiking to Hawk Rock for many years, and in several of his books (“Files From the Edge” and “Interdimensional Universe” are two recent ones), he lays out the reasons he believes that the past, the present and the future may collide on this piece of Putnam County: multiple U.F.O. sightings, magnetic-field anomalies, Indian lore.

“In Native American legend, it was a place that marked an entrance from another world into ours,” Mr. Imbrogno said as he prepped me for our journey. “There’s just a change in the feeling. You walk in there, and even the trees change. The vegetation changes. The foliage changes.”

Mr. Imbrogno had arranged to meet at a shopping center a few miles from the woods, some 60 miles north of Manhattan. If any readers are anticipating that he showed up in a gas mask with tin foil on his head, I’m sorry to disappoint you; he was dressed in a reddish M.I.T. T-shirt and a baseball cap. A middle-school science teacher, completely reasonable in his manner, he has been investigating U.F.O.’s for the better part of three decades. He has been on the History Channel and “Dateline,” and he told me he had interviewed hundreds of people who claim to have been abducted by aliens. Only a few were credible, he said.

“There are these dreamers out there that really want to believe in everything,” he said, “and they add a great deal of noise to the signal that I believe is really out there.”

Indeed, Mr. Imbrogno, 59, is enthusiastic about all matters of high strangeness: genies, aliens, sea serpents and strange swamp creatures. They most likely exist, he said, not as oddities of the supernatural world, but as elements in a natural order that our science has yet to fathom, or tame.

“The scientific method breaks down considerably when you study the paranormal,” he said.

Our trip began with a ride in his car to the woods off Whangtown Road. Along the way we crossed the West Branch Reservoir on Route 301, a two-lane stretch of road with water on either side. Mr. Imbrogno recalled the excitement and confusion that erupted in 1983 when people began spotting U.F.O.’s in this area. On just one night, hundreds said they saw them. Company executives. Police officers.

Mr. Imbrogno came to investigate, and it was then, he said, that he found these woods. They are home not only to Hawk Rock but also to three stone chambers that he and others believe may have been built by Celtic explorers long before Columbus. (A lot of the neighbors say they are just colonial root cellars.) These odd structures have drawn Wiccans and others, and there is a trail now with markers on trees to show the way.

But these are still little-traveled woods, so if you go, it’s wise to print out a map from the Kent Conservation Advisory Committee. You’ll also need an access permit from the Department of Environmental Protection.

On this morning hunters were in the woods with us. But they were not shooting, and the forest was quiet as we picked our way along. The 1.6-mile route is hilly in spots, and we stopped occasionally, first at a stone chamber that Mr. Imbrogno said was positioned so that its entire back wall was lighted by the sun on the winter solstice.

As we chatted, another hiker approached, a middle-aged man with a ponytail and a beard, wearing a cowboy hat and carrying a tripod. He recognized Mr. Imbrogno from his books.

“You did a large part to give me an interest in the chambers,” the man told him.

“Thank you for recognizing me,” said Mr. Imbrogno, who directed him on how to find another chamber, deeper off the trail.

“A nice day for adventure,” Mr. Imbrogno said as we set out again.

Though I’m a curious person by nature, I do not believe in ghosts or miracles, and I gave up on Santa at an early age. I did not broadcast this skepticism to Mr. Imbrogno, but it was clear he’d been in these woods with my type before. He mentioned “a radiologist and his wife” who started the hike as nonbelievers, until they got to the rock and the husband started having visions that he was the hawk and that he was flying.

“Here’s a guy that’s reading your M.R.I.’s the next day,” Mr. Imbrogno said.

We crossed a stream bed on mossy stones. The woods were thick around us.

“In the summertime when you’re walking through here, you are barraged by bugs,” Mr. Imbrogno said. “I don’t say anything, but everybody makes the observation that when they get to Hawk Rock, and they get through the sacred barrier, the bugs practically disappear.”

One last stand of trees and, suddenly, the rock was upon us, a huge piece of granite, swept there by a glacier and set in a grove of towering hemlocks. The underbrush had disappeared. The temperature seemed to drop by 10 degrees.

We climbed atop a huge flat stone that lay before the hawk, perhaps a ceremonial spot for the local Wappinger tribe, for whom this was once sacred ground. Mr. Imbrogno pointed to the sharp edges of the hawk’s beak. Many believe the rock was shaped by Mother Nature. Mr. Imbrogno believes it is a Wappinger carving.

“Nature does not carve things at right angles,” he said.

No one disputes that there are carvings on the bird’s wing. “The petroglyphs on the side are of a turtle, a long-tailed bird and a sun, which represent the earth, the sky and the heavens,” Mr. Imbrogno said. They too are ancient Wappinger work, he said.

George Baum, chairman of the Kent Conservation Advisory Committee, takes issue with a lot of Mr. Imbrogno’s conclusions.

But he offers, diplomatically, “It’s a big country with a lot of people with a lot of different ideas and beliefs.”

Mr. Baum dates the carvings from the turn of the 20th century. Local lore has it that they were made by young men from the Hunt family, who then lived in the area. But their descendants are long gone, he said.

The debate seemed immaterial here at the hawk, where the mood was peaceful, the air still and crisp, and somehow charged.

I had no vision of the Elysian Fields, no sudden gift for telepathy, no sense that I could fly like a bird.

But I’d had a close encounter with something, maybe nature, and it still had its vestigial power to surprise.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 19, 2010

A map on Friday with an article about a hike to Hawk Rock in Putnam County, N.Y., a site some people associate with mysterious phenomena, misstated the name of a nearby reservoir. As the article noted, it is the West Branch Reservoir, not West Bank.