By Natalie Jacobsen
“Aren’t we already?”
Sunlight flickers in between towering stalks of corn, stifling heat lingers among the rows, and soft red dirt kicks up with every heart-pounding step. Dodging left, then making a 180-degree turn to the right while keeping a constant eye on the sun’s position and another on the path, I can’t afford any time to let my mind wander.
“I think we already came this way.”
“We couldn’t have. If we are here on the map…”
Minutes—hours—fly by, as do rows and rows of corn while I navigate the largest corn maze on the East Coast. Racing through more than 25 acres, it’s easy to see why Liberty Mills Farm’s maze has become a staple autumn activity in central Virginia.
For the last eight years, the Woods family has owned and operated Liberty Mills Farm, about 25 miles northeast of Charlottesville, in Somerset. Each year, the family plants 1,200 feet by 1,200 feet of corn, then designs and “carves out” an elaborate themed maze for thousands of visitors.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Air Force and 80 years of the Douglas DC-3 being in commission as a passenger jet, thus 2017’s theme: aviation.
“Some years are easier to pick a theme for than others,” says Kent Woods. “In 2011, I already knew what the theme for 2014 would be: 1814, the anniversary of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’”
Looking at an aerial view of the maze, one can see a rocket, a Wright Brothers’ early model plane, the words “Aim High” in the middle above a hot air balloon and…
“An eagle. It all starts with an eagle,” says Evie Woods. The eagle, from wing tip to wing tip, is two football fields wide.
Huffing and puffing, I pause to hole-punch my map, adding another notch in my belt of sign posts that indicate progress. I wrinkle my nose—I’ve missed a few markers along the way—but I have to keep going forward.
“We start planting the corn in June, later than most typical corn farmers, so it’ll stay green longer during peak season,” says Kent. “We do everything by hand. Everything.”
Translation: No tractors were involved here.
“I lay the design out on pieces of paper, using X and Y coordinates,” he says. They know how many steps and rows equal a page and where to, quite literally, “draw the lines” in the dirt.
When the corn is between six and 12 inches tall, a team of four people spends about six hours carving out the maze by hand. Foregoing tractors allows them to focus on details: “You can’t dot your ‘I’s and make eagle eyes with a tractor,” Kent says.
Rounding one of the plane wing tips in the western corner of the maze, I can appreciate the expanse of the maze and the time it takes to design it. I can feel the shape of the letters as I walk through the gentle angles of the cursive type.
Yields vary from year to year, but the Woodses often sell remaining corn to local poultry farmers.
Signs remind visitors to take care around the corn—“It’s all listening!” Kent says—and to stick to rules regarding shortcuts, flashlights and littering.
Staff regularly traipses through the maze to find lost folks and help them get on the right path. “This year, we introduced a ‘panic button,’” says Evie. It’s a foldable sign, with a “You are here”-style map to peek at during frantic moments.
“I’ll find everyone else when I bring my combine out in November,” Kent jokes.
I pass by a tall clump of trees, which means I am near the center. The Woodses explain they haven’t removed them because a small Victorian-era cemetery is nestled there. Suddenly, I am grateful to be doing the maze during the daytime.
The maze is family-friendly, which means the Woodses have seen the same families return year after year, bringing small children who are now high-schoolers.
“I love hearing about complete strangers meeting in the maze,” says Evie. “People in New York City rush by you, acting like everyone is invisible. Here, people will approach anyone for help or conversation and come out as lifelong friends.”
I recognize the shape of a helicopter wheel and immediately feel a sense of relief—I am near the end. I turn left and head down the last stretch and into open air.
“Nothing beats seeing kids come running out, panting and grinning ear to ear, saying, ‘I never thought we’d make it out!’” says Kent.
There are four levels to the corn maze: an elementary section, estimated at 30 minutes to complete, a trivia-based maze, which includes a crossword puzzle, a two-hour maze that spans the majority of the field and a mystery maze, the only one that does not have a map. “For a true challenge,” Kent says.
Clutching my map, I am ready to go back in for a second round. I look to the Woodses for any words of advice.
“I will say this as politely as I can: ‘Get lost,’” Kent says.