More Messing with Corn

September 29 - October 13, 2001

Two last weekend: the traditional Cherry Crest Farm site in Paradise, PA, and Belvedere Plantation in Fredericksburg, VA. (Both are mazes that I visited last year.) One the next weekend: Triple B Farms in Monongahela, PA (near Pittsburgh). One the following: Pilgram Farms in Mercer, PA (northeast, vaguely near Erie).

(I will spare you the full tale of the first weekend, and fifteen hours of road time between Saturday morning and Sunday night. You've done it yourself, or you haven't; either way you don't need to hear about it.)

Day One

Cherry Crest remains Cherry Crest. The corn was tall and well-irrigated; the maze field was five acres, as it always is. Rectangular layout. Three bridges and a slide. Fifteen map-clue squares to collect. A rooster planted in the flowerbed above the maze.

On the side, a straight-ahead haybale maze (this is the ruleset where you can't turn unless you have no choice) and a crawl-through tunnel maze made out of haybales. The latter was extremely simple, of course -- even with chinks for air and light, you don't want a six-year-old kid getting lost in a dark tunnel where parents can't fit in. I fit in, and found the experience interesting, but mildly unnerving. I exerted great control to keep it from becoming very unnerving. (You know that passage in _The Weirdstone of Brisingamen_? Don't think about it in a haybale tunnel barely wide enough for a skinny adult.)

The maze designers kept most of the gimmicks from last year. A phone booth to call out for help (the instructions give a URL and password for your hapless savior to check, to give you directions). A telescope-thingie (what do you call the viewing machines they put at scenic lookouts? I refuse to call anything a telescope that isn't shaped like one) with which you can read clues off the rooster's head. A 25-cent candy machine. (Fortunately, it was cool the day we went. Last year it was hot, and the fly-fest buzzing over the crushed Skittles on the ground was a disgusting sight to behold.)

There was also an "easy mode", which consisted of an optional door that opened directly to the ending, from a point somewhere in the middle of the maze. ("Middle" both in terms of geography and solution-path. And difficulty, too, come to think of it.) We, of course, were strong and passed the door by.

A few thematic amusements were scattered hither and there: an ancient John Deere tractor to climb on. Sawhorses to ride. A peculiarly disturbing fiberglass cow, endowed with latex teats which dribbled water into a bucket. (Someone thought that was a good idea. Ask not.) A pig thing.

The most interesting gimmicks were two clue machines. The sort of vending machine from which 25 cents buys, not bountiful bubble gum, but a cheap prize in a plastic egg. Only in this case each prize was a randomly-selected map square. Can't find one of the fifteen mailbox stations? Pay up and take your chances. A much better idea than the candy machines.

The design was quite good. A bit of exploration in the outer zones easily brought us to the windmill, which had a dozen spokes radiating from a central circle. One spoke, prominently labelled, led to the portapotties -- rather a better arrangement than the usual "find it or hold it" system -- and also an in-maze refreshment stand. As for the rest... exploration from the hub was the order of the afternoon. Interestingly, the windmill did not seem to make the maze either much easier or much harder; it was easy to find our way back there, and the branches did lead to nearly every sector of the maze, but there were enough of them that we couldn't easily memorize where they all went.

We spent over two and a half hours entangled, not looking at any clues at all. We had a good sense of about half the maze, and could find our way around most of the rest, but the critical branch eluded us -- it was well-obscured -- and eventually we put together the map squares and hunted for it from above. If you choose, you may forgive us because the maze was going to close in twenty minutes. Or, you may choose not.

I will now describe the pig thing.

A small wooden hutch, perhaps three feet by three, with a smaller wire cage stuck on the front. Between the hutch and the cage, hinged doors. A sign: we were instructed to call for the pig. Call the pig! Soooiiieee!

We looked at each other soberly. We made no pig-calling noises.

I looked under the hutch. Cables were visible. An electrical pig? Sound-triggered, perhaps? I clapped my hands. No pig appeared.

Perhaps the pig was triggered by the benevolent overseers on their lifeguard tower. We did not discuss that possibility. Which would be worse: to be observed calling the pig? Or to be observed standing around the pig hutch, adultly not calling the pig?

As we walked away, a group of parents and children came by. Enthusiastically they made pig-calling noises. We stood an adult distance away, watching in our shame for something to happen to someone else.

Day Two

The Belvedere site remains the largest corn-maze site I've experienced. The layout was an irregular U-shape surrounding a central courtyard, as it was last year -- with, of course, a bridge over the mouth of the U, so that the overall maze actually formed a complete ring.

Three bridges and a slide, in total; and one path went under the slide, so it should count as a bridge too. Some fourteen acres. (Minus a bit for the courtyard -- but not that much.) The route began in the courtyard, and ended running over a bridge back to the courtyard. Like last year, again, the maze-clues were done by crayon rubbings rather than pieces of paper -- nine overlapping strips formed the complete map.

I keep trotting out details like number of bridges, and overall shape of the maze. Should you care? I think so, and the comparison between Belvedere and Cherry Crest is enlightening. Let me explain.

The Belvedere site was not particularly well-grown. Most of the corn was brown and dry, and it was short -- in some places, only chest-high. You could usually see quite a bit of the adjacent path layout; from the bridges, you could see whole swatches of the maze. This was in stark contrast to the Cherry Crest maze, where even from the bridges you could see nothing around you but homogenous corn-tassels.

At Cherry Crest, we walked in, turned left, turned left again, kept turning left, and mapped out a rough rectangle around the site.

At Belvedere, we walked in, turned left, turned left again, and were completely lost. Immediately.

Some of this can be ascribed to Belvedere's larger area. The maze seemed to have, on average, more path and more bendiness between intersections; standing at any intersection, you were less likely to see another intersection in direct line. This added to the confusion.

But a lot of the lostness simply came from the layout. When you enter from the center of a ring-shaped layout, there is maze on both sides of you, if you see what I mean. You'd think this was also true of entering the edge of a rectangular maze, but it's not. You can't follow the edge of a ring, not even the inner edge. Maze can swing around from the far side and insinuate itself between you and the courtyard. You are pushed into interior regions immediately.

We stuck to our dogs and followed the left wall anyway. The experience was... remarkable; I can only imagine that Fisher had a special fate in mind for wall-followers. We wound up circumnavigating the ring three times, following that wall. (Once clockwise, twice counterclockwise -- going over the ring-bridge once. And under it once.) We went under the slide-bridge twice, in opposite directions, on the same path -- and I don't mean it was a trivial dead-end. It was, well, more complicated than that.

No, I must say more about the slide. It is standard in these mazes for the slide to be completely optional. After all, the kids will always want to go down the slide, but the parents may not; so there is always a short path from the end of the slide back to its beginning. When one is wall-following, then, one has a choice. One can slide down the slide, or ignore it entirely -- pretend it doesn't exist.

But in this case, the slide shortcut runs under the slide bridge. And that messes up the parity. So trying to circumnavigate the maze has different results depending on whether you take the slide or not. You see more of the maze, or less. (I won't spoil the fun by saying which.) And if you do take the slide, it matters whether you're following the left or right wall!

(To completely nitpick this subject into abeyance, I must add that there is a fourth choice: follow the slide but ignore the shortcut path beneath it. Oy.)

Now, anybody who's ever done a corn maze knows that wall-following will not lead to the exit. There's always at least one bridge. So this sort of monkey-business with the wall-following path must be -- I am guessing -- a corn-maze in-joke.

If so, I applaud.

We were inside for at least two and a half hours (nearly an hour on that first circumnavigation alone). We managed to figure out several large segments of the maze. (The maze had a few "sausage" areas, knots with just two exits each; once you know the bounds of a sausage-area, you can just consider it a single path and simplify the map-in-your-head considerably.)

By stringing together sausages, and looking out across the short corn at landmarks and bridges, we were able to draw some conclusions about the overall layout. It wasn't easy, but it was possible. And also slow. The strategy was to explore an area thoroughly, and either dismiss it as a sausage or figure out how it fit together with other sections. When that didn't clear things up, explore another section.

Slow but methodical, and yet still slow. (Sometimes we would guess that the exit must branch from a particular area, and we'd run around the maze to that area to check, which itself took time. Then we would discover we were wrong. Heh.)

Possibly, given another hour (and some scribbling on blank paper) we could have deduced which section of the maze must contain the inconspicuous-but-critical exit branch. But we were getting tired and the maze was close to closing time, so we finally did just look at a complete map and hike out.

And even that was a bit tricky.

And, to be honest, if we hadn't peeked... the exit would have been in the last section we searched. Oy.

The side mazes included another straight-ahead maze (yes, different from the one at Cherry Crest) and a small mirror-maze which was (dammit) closed. I want to try a serious mirror maze someday. (Hm. I wonder if any 3D game engine is flexible enough to handle an unbounded number of mirrors...?)

Day Three

The Triple B Farms site is about the size of the one at Cherry Crest, but much more irregular. It has one bridge -- an interior bridge, not an exit bridge. Nice tall corn.

Unlike other corn mazes I've visited, this maze did not have maze-clues to collect inside the maze. Instead, you got a map printed in light blue, with red noise printed on top. You could either buy a pair of red-filter glasses (for a dollar), or make use of the red filter stations hidden here and there in the maze. So possession of the map was an all-or-nothing affair, although (if you didn't have the glasses) you might have to go to a particular spot to read the map.

We found the layout simpler than the other mazes this summer. We solved it in perhaps an hour and a quarter, without ever looking at the map. Once again, the overall layout made a big difference here.

When a maze has an exit bridge, the "goal point" is effectively in the interior. There are many possible approaches to that point. You may think you're near the goal, but you may be wrong; wall-following, or simply turning towards the goal, will be a completely useless strategy if you're really in the wrong sector of the maze.

But if the goal is at the edge, you will usually have a good idea how much stuff is between you and it. If you're just one wall away from the goal, you just have to swing around that wall. There's a limit to how much maze can sneak in between you and the goal, and that limit is -- basically -- the number of bridges. In this maze, there was just the one bridge.

We focussed on that. A simple wall-following path went around about half the maze, and over the bridge, before returning to the entrance. So we knew that the solution path must go under the bridge. That pretty much divided the maze into two large zones -- before going under the bridge, and after it -- and each of those zones was flat. Bridgeless, I mean. Getting under the bridge wasn't easy, but once we did, we knew we were heading for an exit at the edge of the maze, and would never hit the bridge again. Wall-following was pretty much guaranteed to work from there. We resisted the simple algorithm for a while, trying to understand the trans-bridge zone, and this was fun; but eventually I said "Look, that wall" and it got us out.

The only side maze at this site was a mini-corn maze for kids -- that is, a simpler corn maze, not a maze made of mini-corn. We didn't check it out.

Day Four

We took the plunge and went at night.

Pilgram Farms is a large field -- ten acres -- but there were no bridges at all. This presents a dilemma. The wall-following rule is going to work. It's just gonna. And I don't know about you, but I always have this problem in games (computer or real-life): if there's a long, tedious, and certain path to victory, I'll take it. And then I'm not having fun. I really will try a hundred combinations in a combination lock (though not, probably, a thousand). And then, when I win, I write a nasty game review explaining how the author should have done things differently to prevent me.

Well, this is sort of that. We wandered randomly into the inside of the maze. We got good and lost. We went around the interior zone. We got some sense of how it was shaped (though not a lot). Eventually we tried following a wall, which took us back to the beginning. Well, okay, we said, let's just keep going on this wall. So we got out.

Understand: it was a great experience. But it wasn't puzzling, at least not for me, at least not once I gave up and clamped onto that wall. Maybe you have the oomph to cut loose, once you enter a new section, and explore a bit instead of following the rule that's guaranteed to work. I didn't; I lacked the motivation to do anything else. And the result was that I took a nice walk in a dark cornfield, under terrific stars, but it wasn't much of a maze.

No, you still don't understand: it was a great environment. The corn was quite tall, except in a few spots. Nighttime is ideal for getting lost in a maze. In the dark, you can't see the next path over. You can't tell if you're on the edge of the field. You can see a few landmarks, notably the lifeguard tower near the entrance, but it didn't help -- my internal compass (which is usually very reliable in a corn maze) went totally spindizzy. I absolutely couldn't keep track which way was north; I could barely keep track which way the tower was.

We walked a while with the flashlights off. Made exploring almost impossible; you couldn't see from one intersection to the next, not even back to the one you just left. (Wall-following was still easy, though.) Everything got bigger and we got smaller. It was dark and quiet and, although the hosts said there were about a hundred people on the inside that night, we might have guessed two dozen.

The stars were amazing. ("City boy".)

Oh, for a bridge or two.


I'm not going to get into full review mode here. I greatly enjoyed all three trips (and expect next week's to be just as good). The Triple B maze was the easiest, the Belvedere one the hardest. Pilgram, lacking bridges, was solvable by rote. All had interesting features, and mostly I'm writing this essay to spin some ideas about them, not to rank them on a scale of one to ten.

So I won't. All recommended. The corn-maze season ends at Halloween or a few days thereafter, so if you want to try it, go soon.

(Thanks to the people who went with me to these mazes, who were not, despite my use of the peasant "we", the same people all three weekends. Also thanks to Krispy Kreme for being on the way back from Mercer. Doughnuts. Gurgle.)


(Most of these links are also at the bottom of my original corn-maze essay, but I should probably repeat them here.)

Updated October 14, 2001.

Essay on Corn Mazes - Maze thoughts 2000 2001 2002 2003

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