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Mazed & Confused

Stalking the Perfect Fall Puzzle at One of The Area's Most Elaborate Corn Mazes

By Ellen Ryan
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 8, 2003; Page C02

I'm up to my ears in corn. But where, exactly? Couldn't tell you.

No, really, I have only a vague idea. I know we've been this way, and that way -- or was it over there? Anyway, the point is to get out of this confounded cornfield maze, not deeper into it. The point is not to wander in crop circles like complete clods.

This year's five-acre corn maze at Cherry-Crest Farm is in the shape of a biplane (the wings run diagonally from the lower left).

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Or maybe it is. By the second hour here at Cherry-Crest Farm in southern Lancaster County, Pa., Ray and I are doing our best imitation of complete clods. And it's fun.

This is the eighth year Cherry-Crest Farm has carved a five-acre chunk of cornfield into an elaborate maze and charged people to go get lost (and found). This year's design, in honor of the Wright brothers' invention, is a massive biplane, but you'd have to be flying over it to see it clearly. From down here, it's all ears.

With corn mazes cropping up all over, this one has come to feature more than just a labyrinthine challenge. At Cherry-Crest, they make a game out it. We started shortly after lunch by filling a tent with other beginners for a "stalk talk" from staff member Brenda, who handed everyone a paper game board -- tips and instructions on one side, a "flight plan" on the other. Once inside the maze, our task is to collect pieces of the map that will help lead us out again. These pieces, she explained cheerily, are tucked into 15 green mailboxes hidden along the 21/2 miles of paths.

"You'll be out of here right quick if you take 28 consecutive correct turns," Brenda said with a grin.

Of course, no one has to find all or even any of those two-inch-square puzzle pieces made to be taped onto the game board. But without them, you won't see the big picture -- and the way out. You would also miss some of the fun by skipping the puzzles, quizzes and other silliness.

Silliness helps, because right now we're tired, we're sunburned and the New York Jets banner we grabbed at the start is drooping. The farm provides all participants with a banner of some kind to help staffers track them through the dense green. All over the field, we see our fellow wanderers' banners waving and bobbing above the corn.

We're all troupers, though. Especially that scamp with her cap on backward, the one running rings around her parents and yelling, "I found it! I found it!" She's at one of those mailboxes tucked among the stalks holding the next piece of the map.

Thanks, kiddo. Because it's everyone for herself in here, I amble over and grab one, too.

New information in hand, we're just reorienting ourselves when -- chug-chug-chug -- a vintage steam locomotive rumbles by just yards beyond the stalks, its passengers waving merrily from the huge open windows. It's the Cagney train of the Strasburg Rail Road, one of the many old-timey and agrarian attractions in the immediate world outside this maze. The 175-acre farm itself is designed for family fun: We can pet the goats and llamas, jump in the hay, slide on a giant chute, see a live beehive under glass, buy Pennsylvania Dutch goods, munch roasted sweet corn. Competing with the train whistle are the happy shrieks of children in a tractor-pulled train of their own.

The Strasburg Rail Road offers a 45-minute Amish country tour viewed through much bigger windows than a car's, and that's not all the train-related goodies within the sound of its whistle. At the west end of its tracks you'll find the Choo Choo Barn -- 21 model trains running through 1,700 square feet of Lancaster County in miniature, the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, the National Toy Train Museum and at least three rail-related shops. Perfectly themed lodging nearby is the Red Caboose Motel -- 25 real, nicely refurbished cabooses, which include hot showers and TV.

Just down Ronks Road are some of the more traditional charms of Lancaster County, including a covered bridge, made of wood and painted red. Fall colors are in the leaves, and the harvest is beginning to show up at the many roadside produce stands. Furniture and crafts shopping abounds, and to tour the scene at a civilized clip-clop pace, the locals recommend AAA Buggy Rides in Paradise or Ed's Buggy Rides in nearby Ronks. Friends have recommended spending a day exploring Dutchland Quilt Patch and the Quilt Shop at Miller's Smorgasbord, both just a few miles north on Route 30, and dining at Historic Revere Tavern or Hershey Farm Restaurant & Inn.

The area makes for a fine weekend agri-getaway in autumn. If we can ever find our way out of this corn maze.

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