In mid-August, I spot an intriguing item in the newspaper: to supplement their incomes, dozens of farmers across the country are planting corn in the shape of mazes. It reminds me of my childhood in Ohio, when a big group of us would race through a nearby cornfield (at least until the farmer complained to our parents).
Summer in New York City has been getting me down, and I miss the just-picked produce at roadside stands. Why not check out a few mazes?By promising him there will be good antiquing, I lure my friend Bruce, a furniture dealer, into coming along.
Our first stop is Davis' Farmland in Sterling, Massachusetts. It has been in the family for six generations, but when escalating costs threatened the dairy farm, Larry Davis and his brother Doug put the land to other uses— raising threatened breeds of livestock and opening a small zoolike area where many types of farm animals are on display. The place is crawling with youngsters of all species. Davis' Farmland's newest venture, the MegaMaze, sits just across the road.
Before jumping in, we survey the action from a walkway above the stalks. The wisecracking maze-master is perched in a lifeguard tower, where he has a complete view of the maze—all the better to issue directions through the "telephone" system of plastic tubes set up at several points throughout.
Inside, the tunnel vision is disorienting. Eight-foot-high stalks (in a few weeks they'll reach 12 feet) loom over our heads, blocking out all but a glimpse of sky. Leaves grow so thick we can't see into the next path. We last about an hour before calling up for help. Growling stomachs have eroded our patience.
We head into Worcester, sometimes called the diner capital of New England. At one time, several diner factories operated in this town, and a number of their models are still in use locally. We choose the Miss Worcester, a vintage 1930's diner made in the Worcester Lunch Car Co. building across the street. A bit worn, she's still a gem, snugly outfitted and paneled like a custom-built yacht. We slide into a booth and order grilled cheese sandwiches.
I have booked us into the 10-room Gables Manor, in the Hudson Valley hamlet of Kinderhook, 2 1/2 hours north of New York City. The only guests, we have the run of the 1721 country estate. I tumble into my four-poster and fall asleep to the sound of crickets chirping.
The next morning, to appease Bruce, we make a beeline to the town of Hudson. Over the past couple of years, its main street has been colonized by antiques dealers— from anything-goes junk shops to purveyors of fine architectural salvage. A pair of plaster-cast medallions of two young men in profile—brothers, by the look of it—catches my eye, but I pass. (The next day, of course, I call to have them sent home.)
The maze at still-working Hodgson's Farm in Walden, New York, is slightly tattier than Davis', but less touristy. Friends have driven up from the city to join us. The sun blazes as Bruce, David, Diana, and I enter the stalks; the desire to find the exit quickly turns into a quest for one of the maze's two watercoolers.
"It's a-maze-ing," says David after half an hour, "how quickly un-fun this got."
Twenty minutes later we realize he has sneaked off. Over the tops of the rows, we see a pair of hands waving from atop the "victory bridge." He yells directions to us and we file out, hot and grimy and a smidge cranky.
At the 45-room Inn at Lambertville Station, 2 1/2 hours south in Lambertville, New Jersey, Bruce and I are given the San Francisco Suite—just down the hall from ones named after Hong Kong, London, Kyoto, Oslo, and, believe it or not, Grand Rapids. We change and head out to dinner.
Tonight we've reserved a table for the famous Saturday-night dinner at EverMay on-the-Delaware, 12 miles up the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. Route 32, which follows the river, is beautiful, passing numerous bridges and swerving around centuries-old buildings that literally stick out into the road. We stumble upon Friday Night Live on Mix 93.7 out of Philadelphia, which plays bands neither of us has heard on the radio since college—Men Without Hats, New Order, Dead or Alive.
Our spirits are high as we take our table on the glass-walled sunporch overlooking the garden. I order lamb chops, while Bruce goes for the scallops (a fateful choice, it turns out).
At 7:45 in the morning, a knock on the door brings Bloody Marys and muffins. They are intended for the London Suite, an hour from now, and the delivery woman can't figure out what to do. Meanwhile, Bruce is turning green, and has to go back to bed. I wander up Bridge Street, the main drag in this 19th-century town of B&B's, antiques shops, and Queen Annestyle houses.
In crowded Sneddon's Luncheonette, I take a seat at the counter. Jean, an 81-year-old local who walks here every morning for coffee (and on Saturdays treats herself to a single pancake), slides over to the stool next to mine. While showing off photos of her granddaughter, she fills me in on the other customers—lamenting that most seem to be day-trippers in search of antiques.
Howell Farm, 10 minutes away in Titusville, New Jersey, is one of those places third-graders go to see how the settlers lived— blacksmithing demos, cow-milking. It's where the Amazing Maize Maze Co. has built a cornfield maze in the shape of a giant fiddle (with no aerial view available, you have to take their word for it). Bruce, still wobbly, opts to sit this one out. Half an hour later, I hear my name over the loudspeaker; a volunteer is sent in to retrieve me. Bruce is sick, shaking in a tent.
The on-site nurse points us to the nearest hospital. Once inside the car, I blast the air-conditioning; Bruce reclines and begins to recover. He decides to try and let it pass, falling asleep as I take Route 202 west.
Pennsylvania's Lancaster County is surprisingly touristy— traffic clogs up Route 30, billboards advertise "authentic Amish dinners," and strange attractions abound (such as Dutch Wonderland, with its Acapulco-ish cliff-diving show). But it's astonishing how quickly it all disappears once we turn off the highway. Country lanes roll over hills and curve around lush fields. We top one large ridge, and the Cherry-Crest Farm and maze suddenly lie below.
I leave Bruce to nap in the car. The atmosphere at Cherry-Crest is pure county fair. A field of 27,000 flowers planted in a rainbow pattern splashes into the north edge of the maze, while an 1890's steam train bisects the rainbow on its trips to and from the town of Strasburg. A small petting zoo, food stalls, and some rides are set up beside the maze's entrance. I buy a black cherry ice cream cone and sit down in the late-afternoon sun. The cornstalks, covering a whopping five acres, are by far the lushest I've seen. Via the P.A. system, conquerors of the maze taunt friends trapped within its aisles. As amusing as it looks, I decide to enjoy this one from the outside.
Taking leave, I am desperate for one last farm stand—I've promised friends I'll make them dinner that night. Surprisingly, after the bounty we've skipped, there are none to be found. But just before the turnpike, one appears. I load up a basket with corn, tomatoes, beets, and peaches—grateful for my taste of the country, but glad to be heading home.