his autumn, farmers across the region want most of their customers to get lost. In fact, they've gone to great lengths to encourage visitors to take a hike, and they've enlisted help from such unlikely sources as a monarch butterfly, a giant octopus and even Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs.
As part of a growing boom in agri-tourism -- uniquely rural activities that both supplement farmers' regular incomes and educate and entertain visitors -- fields of corn used to feed livestock are transformed into elaborate, walkable mazes. When viewed from overhead, precision-cut pathways contrast with the remaining cornrows to create huge green-and-white pictures of recognizable scenes. At ground level, however, the combination of seemingly random six-foot-wide trails and clusters of eight-foot-high or taller cornstalks serves to confuse folks attempting to venture from the entrance to the exit.
"Don't underestimate the challenge of it: It is definitely harder than you think," says Tim Day, manager of his family's Maize Quest at Bridgemont Farm, in its fifth season in Virginia's Shenandoah County. Visitors take, on average, 90 minutes to two hours to navigate the 21/2 miles of paths in the eight-acre maze, designed this year to look like a giant octopus. Age and intelligence don't necessarily prove advantageous, Day says, noting that a 4-year-old girl led her family out in about a half-hour, one of the fastest times ever.
"The people who are trying to be analytical -- those are the people who take a lot longer," says Kate Knott, who, with husband Hub, owns the Corn Maze in The Plains, Va., also in its fifth year. Visitors who follow their instincts get lost less frequently, she says.
Contrary to some folks' mischievous beliefs that corn mazes, like crop circles, magically sprout from alien encounters, the networks of confounding, interconnecting paths actually result from hours of planning, plotting, planting, cutting and ongoing maintenance by humans. Many farmers turn to professional maze designers and builders, such as Pennsylvania-based Maze Quest and Utah-based the Maize to at least map out the design, often devising computer-generated pictures using Global Positioning System satellites to pinpoint exact locations.
Other farmers, like the Knotts, design, plant and cut the mazes themselves.
"This maze -- it has been such a walk of faith for us," says Kate Knott. With their naturalist training and Hub's background in farming, they decided as newlyweds to create a maze as a way to educate the public about nature and agriculture. The first year, they waited too long to cut the corn and had to use a machete to hack out the tall plants. The whole process becomes easier every year.
First, during the winter, the couple decides on a nature-oriented theme. This year's maze resembles a large monarch butterfly, and visitors who correctly answer trivia questions about the insects discover how to negotiate paths. Hub sketches the design, finalizing it on paper with one-inch grids. The Knotts plant a field of organic corn, which they grid out in 25-foot squares. During early summer when the corn is four to five inches high, the couple hoes out plants to leave stretches of ground corresponding proportionally to the lines on paper. Cutting out this year's design required six mostly sunny and hot 12-hour days of measuring and hoeing.
As the remaining corn plants grow, the couple weeds regularly to maintain clear pathways. By the time the maze opens in mid-September, the fully grown stalks typically stand eight to 12 feet tall. Most mazes share some similar characteristics, such as variations of trivia games and brightly colored signal flags carried by mazegoers to wave for assistance if they feel hopelessly lost. Farms often strive to offer unique aspects as well, from the type of design to unusual features. Some locations choose designs to appeal to popular interests. In Loudoun County, for example, Temple Hall Farm Regional Park's Washington Redskins theme features a portrait of Coach Joe Gibbs. Belvedere Plantation in Fredericksburg builds its 14-acre maze's annual theme around the adventures of a character named Lostalot. This year, Lostalot travels through space, searching for his missing dog.
"Each year, we're trying to include more hands-on activities in the maze," says marketing manager Colleen Hairston. This year's offerings include a tic-tac-toe game, crayon rubbing stations and a chance to dig for simulated space rocks.
Kristen Lawyer in 2000 got the idea for her family's Lawyer's Moonlight Maze in Thurmont, Md., after brainstorming for a way to make their farm stand out.
"I thought maybe I could get my husband to light the field up with some gigantic light. Then it hit me: Flashlights!" she says. Even with several hundred people exploring the 17-acre maze's seven miles of paths, the cornfield boasts an eerie ambiance for nighttime visitors, especially when clouds mask the moon and stars.
"When it gets to be October, the corn is rustling in the wind and it's creepy -- it's so creepy!" Lawyer says, emphasizing that it's good creepy fun. Still, "there is this sense of relief when you come out."
For maze owners, natural disasters often seem to lurk right around the corner. Last year, rain from Hurricane Isabel made the ground so wet that the Knotts had to cover pathways with boardwalks, and many corn plants suffered wind damage. This year's hurricanes didn't affect their maze.
"We always have to deal with the threat of rain, and it can really hurt you" when large groups have to cancel at the last minute, Day says.
Maze owners take immense pleasure in watching urban customers have fun on a country outing.
"It brings people so much joy, being here with their families," Kate Knott says. "We see a lot of grown-ups become kids with their children."
"I want people to come here for three or four hours and not feel rushed," Hub Knott says.
Follow these guidelines for a first-rate maze experience:
* Wear comfortable shoes that you don't mind getting dirty: You may walk for miles, and pathways may be muddy. (A related suggestion: Place old towels on your car floors for protection afterward.)
* Dress in layers, as the temperature inside the maze may feel warmer.
* Allow plenty of time. Most large mazes require anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes, but individuals' times vary widely. Giant mazes of 10 acres or more may take two to three hours to navigate successfully.
* Carry bottled water in case you get thirsty.
* Stay on the pathways. Cutting through the corn creates new paths and ruins the design.
* Don't panic. All large, challenging corn mazes include trained staff who know how to reach lost visitors quickly and guide them out safely. Don't hesitate to wave a signal flag or holler for help.
The following farms, most within an hour to 90 minutes of the District, feature corn mazes and other fall activities. Always call ahead if weather conditions look dubious, as rain or high winds often cause closings. All sites have bathroom facilities, typically portable toilets. Most locations offer discounts for groups visiting during off-hours on weekdays, and most accommodate birthday parties. For information on finding mazes outside the Washington area, see Page 35.
Freelance writer Mary Jane Solomon, co-author of "The Insiders' Guide to Washington, D.C.," is a frequent contributor to Weekend.