Imagine that you are trying to work a maze with a pencil. The maze is a challenging one, and you often run into dead ends and find that you have to double back, using plenty of eraser. After much wrangling, you reach the maze's exit point. It wasn't easy, but you finished it.
Now, imagine that the maze has grown up and off the page, to such proportions that you can walk the white paths of its labyrinth. The maze walls have risen around you. This life-size maze makes the child's pencil-and-paper puzzle look simple. When you are in the maze, unable to look down on it, it becomes a much more challenging proposition -- like some cruel prison where the Riddler would deposit Batman.
Brett Herbst makes a living designing and building cornfield mazes. He cuts an extremely intricate maze through a thick field of tall corn, then lets the locals loose to negotiate it. Though folks may not be able to get high enough in the air to look down on and appreciate the detailed buffalo, tractor, stagecoach or Noah's ark he has carved from the vegetation, they can certainly appreciate the difficulty they have in escaping his work.
Herbst recently completed a maze that, from above, resembles the scary Piasa bird, the mythical roc honored by a large cliff painting nearly 300 years ago by Native Americans who lived near what we now call Alton. The 7-acre maze may be found in Glazebrook Park in Godfrey, Ill.
It's only when you're trapped within the maze that you can appreciate how large it really is. There is something like three miles of path here. It may seem as if you have to be an autistic savant to keep all those turns and choices straight in your head, but it is doable. Herbst says it takes the average person 45 minutes to an hour to get out.
And if they just can't seem to find their way out? "We just let 'em stay in there and eat corn," he kids. Actually, he explains, there are several places to turn for help: Mazegoers can walk up onto bridges to look down on at least some of the maze. Sometimes the folks in charge will hand out a diagram you can use like a map. Many will turn to the "corn cops," wandering workers who offer friendly hints. In some mazes, Herbst installs "shortcut doors," which supposedly allow the lost game-player the chance to skip a big hunk of maze and get closer to the exit point. (Some consider the use of the shortcut doors cheating -- that is, until they are so flummoxed that they will happily take advantage of them.) These doors "will make it easier most of the time," says Herbst, "but sometimes people go through a shortcut door and then they'll start going through the maze backward."
Finally, in some mazes there are "passports," or riddles, often about corn or agriculture, on placards at various points. If you answer the multiple-choice question correctly, the passport points you in the right direction to get closer to the exit of the puzzle. If you answer incorrectly, the passport will give you some bad advice.
The maze takes on a wild new dimension when people run through it at night. "It's awesome," says Herbst. "We have flashlights or glowsticks people can buy. It's dark and it can get kind of spooky, especially at Halloween time, and it's a great group activity, and it's more challenging. The teenagers and college kids just eat it up at nighttime."
A reporter visiting a different maze told of couples racing each other through the maze at night by flashlight. Running through one of these things at night can be like getting lost in the dark alleys of the subconscious. When you emerge, you've got to think it was freaky.
Herbst designs his mazes on a computer, and once that is accomplished, he says, the battle is nearly won. "Basically, just from the printout from the computer we go out and we stake the field out," he explains, and then it's time to start cutting down cornstalks. His company, The MAiZE, uses no helicopters or airplanes to guide the corn-cutting. Herbst never sees an aerial view of the field until after its completion, when a plane goes up to take pictures for posterity. His creations last two to three months.
The MAiZE began in 1996, when Herbst read a magazine article about a maze a lot like the ones he creates now. He decided to run with the concept, and now the 29-year-old Utahan and former assistant manager at a corporate farming operation has created more than 100 corn mazes throughout out the U.S. and Canada. If you took a tour of the 60 mazes standing this summer, your itinerary would include little towns like Nampa, Idaho; Temecula, Calif.; Goodhue, Minn.; Piqua, Ohio; Snohomish, Wash.; and, of course, nearby Godfrey, Ill. You might not realize it, but you would be walking through puzzles that from above resemble a sprint car, Columbus crossing the Atlantic, a wolf, a bald eagle, a guitar, the Wright brothers' plane, a skull-and-crossbones, a palm tree, a suspension bridge, a bulldog, a longhorn steer, a man panning for gold or fishing, an apple, a lobster, a buck, an American flag, a bear or Mr. Potato Head. Cows, cowboys, horses and pumpkins are especially popular.
Herbst holds a Guinness world record for constructing the world's largest cornfield maze, a 12.1-acre interpretation of the solar system with all nine planets. This Utah maze has beginner, intermediate and expert sections, and it takes almost two hours to escape from them all, he estimates.
Let us hope the Piasa bird is more forgiving.