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Summer Journal: Stalking through the Great Vermont Corn Maze

  • Visitors to the Great American Corn Maze in Danville, Vt., take a peek from a bridge on Aug. 9, 2019. (Tom Eaton photograph)

  • An aerial view of the latest Great Vermont Corn Maze in Danville, Vt., which is billed as the largest in New England. (Courtesy Great Vermont Corn Maze)

  • Mike Boudreau, who owns and operates the Great Vermont Corn Maze with his wife, Dayna, speaks with visitors at the Danville, Vt., operation on Aug. 9, 2019. (Tom Eaton photograph)

  • There are several paths to choose from while entering the Great American Corn Maze in Danville, Vt., on Aug. 9, 2019. (Tom Eaton photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, August 12, 2019

When your opponent is an edible crop that goes well with butter, you may be inclined to underestimate the magnitude of the challenge you’re about to undertake.

Somehow, the phrase “corn maze” fails to strike fear in the heart.

That was true even for me, as I arrived at the Great Vermont Corn Maze in Danville last week and approached the field of 10-foot-tall corn stalks rustling lightly in the wind. Being the sort of person who has to draw a detailed map to find my car at the airport, I had no illusions of conquering this challenge in record time, but I figured my good cheer could work in my favor. I’m so accustomed to getting lost I don’t tend to get ruffled by it.

Plus, I had help: my boyfriend, Tom, who somehow gets where he needs to go without the help of a GPS, a skill akin to sword-swallowing, from my perspective. And, well, it was a corn maze. How hard could that be, really?

Answer: Pack a sandwich. Pack a stack of sandwiches, and don’t skimp on the peanut butter. Also, make sure you like the people you’ve signed onto this challenge with. And above all, check any trace of smugness at the entrance.

Billed as the largest corn maze in New England, the Great Vermont Corn Maze is the perfect place to drive yourself mad in the most amusing way possible. About an hour north of Lebanon, the maze attracts 10,000 visitors a year, including maze enthusiasts from all over the world, as well as vacationing families who have no idea what they’re in for.

On this sunny Friday, several groups had already disappeared into the 24 acres of corn as we paid our $15 admission and stood pondering the four possible paths leading into the maze, labeled Eenie, Meenie, Miney and Moe. That nomenclature is accurate, as there’s no way to predict which path will lead to success. Luck figures prominently in the maze game, it turns out.

We picked a path (I won’t say which, in the interest of avoiding spoilers) and set off at a brisk walk, optimistic about our chances of beating the two-and-a-half-hour average completion time. First, we decided to take a right at every crossroads, a sound enough strategy, I suppose, but only marginally helpful, as we encountered nothing but dead ends and had to return to the beginning.

The second path we chose was more successful, at least that’s how I remember it. There’s a very good chance I’m misremembering some details. When all you see is corn for hours on end, your mind can start to play tricks on you.

To keep visitors from becoming completely disoriented and to appeal to the need to chronicle one’s progress, little paper punches resembling mailboxes are positioned along the route. Each one contains a hole punch in a different design, which you can collect on a slip of paper. There are also various sculptures to break up the monotony, including a pair of velociraptor replicas, jaws open wide, that make for terrific photos.

After maybe 45 minutes of negotiating grids of corn stalks, we came to a bridge patrolled by a man in a bright yellow shirt, cheerily addressing maze-goers as they crossed back and forth on the numerous paths beneath him.

Mike Boudreau is the mastermind behind the maze. He and his wife, Dayna, both physical therapy assistants by profession, have been running the corn maze for 21 years. Designing the maze on graph paper, constructing it in the field and then running the attraction, which is open from late July through mid October, is an 11-month-long commitment. They’ve expanded the maze bit by bit over the years, and for the last four years it’s held the distinction of the largest corn maze in New England, Boudreau said.

But size is only part of the story. Boudreau prides himself on the complexity of the maze as well. He’s savvy to the strategies maze enthusiasts — known as mazers — employ, and his methods intentionally thwart them.

“We’ve never met a mazer yet who said it was cute but it’s not as good as the one back home,” Boudreau said. “It’s insanity. Picture a garden house in four sections, and you’re the marble going through it … My job is to tangle it.”

On their website, vermontcornmaze.com, the Boudreaus try to warn people that their maze is not for the easily frustrated. They straight-up tell you that 90% of teenagers give up in the first 20 minutes, and they advise visitors to wear comfortable footwear, bring drinks and snacks and give themselves ample time to solve the maze.

Still, people tend to underestimate the challenge. And a few get downright cranky.

“I’ve had to kick out managers from big corporations,” Boudreau said.

From his vantage point on one of several bridges constructed atop the maze, Boudreau keeps track of visitors and offers them hints if they ask. When faces become familiar, he starts assessing frustration levels and doles out assistance accordingly.

On our first encounter with Boudreau, we were a bit surprised to learn that we were just halfway through the first quarter of the maze. No matter though. We soldiered on without a hint, working our way through another set of grids, crossing a second bridge, finding our way to a massive boat and collecting several more stamps.

After all of that apparent progress, we found ourselves back under Boudreau’s bridge and decided it was time for a hint. He shared a pitfall to avoid, and we eventually summited a hill, bald of corn stalks, that served as a junction for maze-goers. Boudreau’s son, Jake, was stationed there offering additional hints. He told us that, depending on which of the six or seven paths we chose from there, we’d enter the second half of the maze.

We chose poorly and ended up back on the hilltop, then back under Boudreau’s bridge — or was it the other way around?

With nearly two hours invested in the maze, I was feeling pretty much the same as I had at the beginning, the same as I feel every time I’m in an unfamiliar place: utterly dependent on luck and whatever assistance is at my disposal, be it a GPS device, a helpful passerby or the instincts of my traveling companion.

Tom, on the other hand, was getting serious about finding his way out of there. First, he started drawing a small X in the dirt on the paths that dead-ended. Then he took my notebook and began mapping the maze as we worked our way through it. At each juncture, we would briefly split up and then come back together, noting how many paths branched off from each square of the grid and recording it in the notebook.

As we breezed through the grid, our confidence grew.

And then, like a scene from a psychological thriller, the maze seemed to adapt itself to our strategies. Suddenly, instead of grids, we found ourselves in a patch of random twists, forks and passageways (these, we later learned, were the portion of the maze where Boudreau creates an elaborate design, based on a new theme each year). Our mapping efforts thwarted, we resorted to wandering once again — all the way to (sigh) Boudreau’s bridge.

But the most humbling moment in our journey came after that, when Boudreau instructed us to go back up the hill and return to the bridge on the next path over, where he would meet us and give us a hint. Ten minutes later, we dutifully returned to the bridge only to hear: “That’s the same path you were on last time.”

All we could do was laugh at ourselves.

I should mention here that the Great Vermont Corn Maze is a great place to put a relationship to the test. It can illuminate, at turns, leadership skills, tolerance for adversity, ability to collaborate, problem-solving acumen and good old-fashioned gallantry. Most importantly in my opinion, however, it reveals a person’s ability to laugh at him- or herself.

And if you can laugh at yourself, you are probably not too proud to ask for directions. Which is what we did. We took the hints — every hint we could get.

Working our way back around the random portion of the maze, we began to hear the sound of a bell, followed by cheers. Heeding the hints and attempting to follow the sounds, we came to a paper punch kiosk that stamped a bell-shaped hole into our paper. I guess by then we were too tired — “cornfused,” as Boudreau describes it — to note the significance of that particular stamp.

A moment later, we rounded a corner, and there it was: the bell of success. With little fanfare — and after, yes, about two-and-a-half hours of roaming and a lot of hints — we’d conquered the corn maze.

At the end of the maze, you can view an aerial photograph that reveals the year’s theme and try to make sense of your route by comparing your paper punches to the map. You can also take in lovely views of the countryside, buy snacks and souvenirs and pat the friendly goats whose pen abuts the field. There’s a “barnyard golf” course and a play village filled with charming little shops and houses as well. And for families with young children and visitors who don’t thrill at the chance to get hopelessly lost among corn stalks, there’s an alternate “scenic” maze.

And what of that thrill? I suspect that some visitors, finding the exit to the maze, feel victorious. For me, it felt less like something I’d solved than something I’d stumbled and fumbled my way through. But we did come away in good spirits, duly awed by the experience and very hungry. Just not for corn on the cob.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.