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They Came From Pine Bush

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Strangers in the Night

May 6, 1995. A sliver of moon presides over a clear, cloudless sky. On the fringes of the Town of Crawford in Orange County — a sparsely populated expanse of farmland and woods bounded by Wallkill, Walden, Bullville, and, famously, Pine Bush — the sky is particularly dark. It’s a perfect night for gazing up at the stars — and whatever else may be out there.

C. Burns, a 25-year-old resident of central New Jersey, decides to ride out to Pine Bush to see what the fuss is all about. It’s his first visit to the area. After driving aimlessly for awhile, he stumbles upon West Searsville Road, where die-hard skywatchers tend to gather. Cars are parked on both sides of the street. By chance, the first person he encounters is Vincent Polise, 23, also from New Jersey and a regular visitor to Pine Bush.

Almost immediately, they spot some glowing lights in the distance. “Let’s take a closer look,” Polise says. “Follow me.” The two of them drive north, make a right on Hill Road, and a quick left into a cul-de-sac. And there, rising over the woods, they see something neither of them had ever seen before.

“It looked like a Ferris wheel on fire,” Polise recalls, adding that it was multicolored, with sparks coming off it like a firecracker. Burns remembers it differently. “It was a beautiful, even arc,” he says, ”deep red, and totally silent.” Whatever it was, it hung there in the quiet night for a moment, as if revealing itself solely for their benefit, and then descended back into the ground.

Polise has witnessed strange things over these woods since he started coming here in 1992, but nothing that approached this. As for Burns, this is the paranormal equivalent of hitting a hole-in-one on the first trip to the golf course.

When they rejoin the group on West Searsville Road, they learn that there was a sighting there, too: a pair of what seemed to be giant headlights, zooming high above the road from the south — in the opposite direction of where Burns and Polise had driven — and then vanishing without a trace. But no one else had seen what they had witnessed.

This was not an airplane. It wasn’t a helicopter. And it sure wasn’t that well-worn official explanation for such sightings, a weather balloon. What they saw was, strictly speaking, an unidentified flying object — a UFO.

 
ufo

vincent poliseNight watchman: UFO observer Vincent Polise is the author of The Pine Bush Experience, in which he recounts seeing what “looked like a Ferris wheel on fire” in the sky

Photograph by Michael Nelson

Maps & Legends

Pine Bush is a small town on the east bank of the Shawangunk Kill, between Walden and Ellenville. There is a McDonald’s, a Hannaford food store, and a gleaming high school. The only overt nod to its standing as the UFO capital of the East Coast is the Cup and Saucer Diner, but — with a hand-painted sign festooned on an otherwise unassuming exterior — even that feels halfhearted.

But then, it is not Pine Bush proper but its rural environs — a 50-odd-square-mile area roughly bounded by the Wallkill River and the Shawangunk Mountains — that are the hotbed of alleged extraterrestrial activity. Within that larger area, there are three time-honored vantage points: Drexel Drive, which runs parallel to Albany Post Road; the Congregation Beth Hillel Cemetery on Route 52; and what many consider the epicenter of it all, West Searsville Road.

On the surface, there appears to be some logic behind the location. Whereas much of the Hudson Valley is a series of peaks and valleys, topographically, Pine Bush is almost perfectly flat. It’s close enough to the Shawangunks that you can see their rocky profile, but not so close that your view is obstructed in any way.

Debunkers are quick to point out Pine Bush’s proximity to a preponderance of airports and, perhaps significantly, military installations. Stewart Airport is 15 miles away; it was an Air Force base during the height of the UFO sightings, and the army still maintains an ammunition storage annex in Newburgh. There are also a number of smaller airstrips nearby. In Bullville, a U.S. military installation is built around Dwaar Kill, the same creek that runs through the woods off West Searsville Road.

Rumors abound of covert and possibly sinister military activity in the area: secret chambers beneath the ’Gunks; a clandestine subterranean tunnel connecting Stewart and Plattsburgh Air Force bases; a top-secret CIA mind-control program coordinated from an undisclosed location. These stories are touted by some as the scientific explanation for the rampant tales of alien abduction in the mid-’80s.

The pesky rumors, often-madcap speculation, books written by UFO researchers, coverage by cable TV shows devoted to the paranormal, and — above all — persistent eyewitness accounts: All of this has imbued the Pine Bush story with a folkloric aspect. But even folklore evolves from reality.

 

Through the (Light) Years

Burns and Polise are by no means the first in Pine Bush to bear witness to unusual phenomena. Reports of unexplained goings-on date back at least to the 1920s: pulsating lights, squiggly lights, multicolored lights; objects shaped like orbs, like triangles, like saucers, like boomerangs; machinery noises, mechanical noises, loud metallic banging that seems to emanate from far below the ground, or down the Wallkill River, or in the ’Gunks themselves.

ufo sighting ufo sighting

What was that? Polise’s collection of photos of UFOs sighted in Pine Bush includes objects of different shapes, sizes, and colors. More photos can be seen on his Web site, www.pinebushufo.com

Photographs courtesy of Vincent Polise

ufo sighting

In the 1950s, silver discs were seen landing in open fields — notable because the “saucer” shape was the prevailing UFO image during the Eisenhower administration. In the following two decades, the frequency of the mysterious sightings increased. Word began to filter out that Pine Bush was a ufological Lourdes, and lo, the paranormal pilgrims came.

During the Reagan years, there was a nationwide spike in reports of paranormal activity that coincided with a widespread cultural interest in science fiction. Novelist Whitley Strieber was living in upstate New York in 1985, probably in or around Pine Bush, when he had the alleged alien encounter on which he based his best-seller, Communion. And thousands of witnesses in the Hudson Valley and Connecticut observed a football field-sized V-shaped craft, the so-called “Westchester Boomerang,” hovering over the Taconic Parkway. (The sighting is chronicled in the 1987 book Night Siege: The Hudson Valley UFO Sightings, by Dr. Allen Hynek, Philip Imbrogno, and Robert Pratt.)

Ellen Crystall was an early Pine Bush disciple. On one of her first visits to West Searsville Road, Crystall made contact with what she believed was an alien. She contacted Harry Lebelson, the lone writer at Omni magazine’s UFO desk, who by chance was already investigating Pine Bush. Lebelson produced a well-researched article, in which he interviewed a number of local witnesses; it was the first time the Pine Bush phenomenon was mentioned in a national publication.

Crystall’s 1991 book, Silent Invasion — and its promotion on numerous TV programs — subsequently catapulted Pine Bush into pop culture prominence. Visitors, including cable-TV producers and members of the news media, came from far and wide to sit in the dark and watch. A Hawaiian skywatcher described the line of trees beyond West Searsville Road as a “sleeping giant’s belly,” a coinage that was eventually used to indicate where sightings took place. As the millennium approached, however, incidents became fewer and farther between, even as the lure of West Searsville Road became more widely known.

There’s UFOs over New York, and I ain’t too surprised.
— John Lennon

In the summer of 2000, an altercation involving the skywatchers, a developer, and the police signaled the end of the Pine Bush party. Spurred on by the developer, the police began enforcing a no-parking rule on West Searsville Road, effectively shutting it down as a skywatching spot. In 2002, Ellen Crystall died; geologist and UFO researcher Bruce Cornet (who claimed that the Valley was remarkably similar, geologically, to the Cydonia region of Mars) left the area. And the paranormal activity slowed to a trickle.

But more recently, Polise and Burns have picked up the ufological mantle. In 2005, Polise published The Pine Bush Phenomenon, a book about his experiences. Burns is the founder of the Pine Bush Anomaly Archive, which is a comprehensive collection of data that he hopes to organize and share with other researchers. While both acknowledge the general slowdown of sightings, they also report that they have not stopped altogether.

“When they do happen,” Burns says, “they’re very dramatic sightings.”

 

Unsolved Mysteries

So what to make of the Pine Bush weirdness?

One possibility is that Burns and Polise — not to mention Ellen Crystall, Bruce Cornet, police officers, Air Force personnel, academics, journalists and thousands of others — are all mad, or else operating under a collective hysteria.

“These are my experiences,” Polise stresses. “I can’t expect people to believe them if they weren’t there.” Even his parents, he says, expressed skepticism when they read his book. This does not sound like the ravings of a lunatic.

ufo sighting ufo sighting
ufo sighting

What was that? Polise’s collection of photos of UFOs sighted in Pine Bush includes objects of different shapes, sizes, and colors. More photos can be seen on his Web site, www.pinebushufo.com

Photographs courtesy of Vincent Polise

Another possibility: Burns and Polise have spent the last 18 years perpetrating an elaborate hoax, investing countless hours of free time and not insignificant personal expense in order to… what? Promote Polise’s book? Appear on UFO Hunters? Drum up business for Pine Bush motels? Not only does this not make sense, it doesn’t explain the host of other witnesses.

Or it could be that Burns and Polise and the others — including former HV editor Lynn Hazlewood, who wrote about her own strange sighting in this magazine in 1997 — are right. Strange things are afoot in the Pine Bush skies. If that’s so, then what’s going on?

It’s airplanes. This is the stock answer supplied by Stewart Airport when pressed on the subject — that an anonymous group of pilots, none of whom has ever come forward, enjoy doing night maneuvers to mess with the gullible dupes on West Searsville Road. Even the most ardent UFO believer admits that the lion’s share of sightings are airplanes. But what Burns and Polise saw was lights; nothing that resembled a spacecraft. And the sightings in Pine Bush have been low to the ground, just over the tops of the trees — not places airplanes tend to fly. “The UFO phenomenon might not have to do with the sky,” Burns says. “It might have to do with the ground.”

And Pine Bush is not alone. In Yakima, Washington and in Piedmont, Missouri, to name but two other locales, residents have reported witnessing eerily similar sights. The existence of a cabal of prankster aviators operating in three different states seems as unlikely as the existence of men from Mars.

It’s military craft. Yes, there is a strong and somewhat secretive military presence in the area. Yes, the Army has been known to drop soldiers in the apple orchards of Pine Bush for so-called “night games.” Yes, the Stealth bomber was tested at Stewart before it was made public.

cup and saucer dinerE.T. eats here: The rooftop sign at Pine Bush’s Cup & Saucer Diner, the only public acknowledgment of the town’s extraterrestrial reputation

Photograph by Greg Olear

Polise doesn’t hold with this line of thinking. He’s met people who work at Stewart and at the other military bases, he says, and what they do there is not covert ops. Furthermore, why would a military intent on secrecy do test runs in the Hudson Valley, where many people live, instead of, say, the New Mexico desert, where absolutely no one would see? For those seeking a scientific explanation for Pine Bush, however, this is the most attractive theory.

The UFOs are what Ellen Crystall said they are: alien spacecraft. The stigma of believing in — or even considering the possibility of — alien life forms on Earth can destroy reputations, threatening the livelihood of those who advance such theories. (This is the reason Burns does not want to use his full name.) Few serious scientists will publicly embrace this explanation, but that doesn’t mean serious scientists don’t buy it. Sure, the government flatly denies the existence of UFOs, but it’s not like the CIA is a bastion of transparency. There is ample physical evidence out there to support Crystall’s claim, if you choose to entertain it.

Polise speculates that Pine Bush may be what’s known as a “UFO flap” — a gateway through which alien craft travel. They open for 10 years, he says, then close for 10 years. Which, if his theory is right, could make 2010 an interesting summer. “They seem to have an intelligence,” Polise says of whoever — or whatever — is controlling the lights, “where they like to play with the people watching. Like a cat-and-mouse game.”

There is one other possibility: the UFOs are not aliens, but rather what Air Force UFO investigator J. Allen Hynek called “Earth spirits” — or ghosts. The wooded lands of Pine Bush are, in effect, an open-air haunted house.

Pine Bush remains a mystery, one that Burns, Polise, and the other Pine Bush skywatchers hope one day to solve. “I think we can explain what’s going on,” Burns says. “I think we can figure it out. I don’t think it’s beyond us.”

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