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Creating the world's largest corn maze

What does it take to make a complex maze in 40 acres of corn fields? And what does it take to get out? It all starts out with an Excel document.

Matt and Mark Cooley have created the world's largest corn maze in the small agricultural town of Dixon, Calif., about 70 miles northeast of San Francisco. It is open to the public through at least November 5.
Matt Cooley

DIXON, Calif.--I am so vindicated.

Yesterday, I spent several hours deep in the middle of the world's-largest corn maze, a creation of brothers Matt and Mark Cooley in this little agricultural town about 70 miles northeast of San Francisco.

For much of my time inside the maze, I religiously followed the map that's provided, probably being a little too rigid about it, but deciding that I wanted to see if i could do the whole maze without getting lost.

The markers that were placed to help visitors locate themselves on the map have mostly been moved or destroyed, making them a useless component of the corn maze. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

I got to the middle of the maze using the map and spent some time on the bridge there. Then I set out to continue on through the rest of the grid. But I simply couldn't find the path the map indicated was there for getting out of the curved rings in the center and back onto the straight line grid that makes up most of the maze.

I became convinced that the map was wrong. But how to prove it? Well, Matt Cooley sent me a copy of the aerial photo you see at the top of this post, and in comparing it to the map they give out, I see that, in fact, I was right. They left out an important connection point from the rings in the middle to the regular grid. And the aerial shot proves it. Hah!

Which kind of, if you think about it, begs the question of how the brothers Cooley made their giant corn maze in the first place.

Well, before I stepped into the maze, I sat down with Matt Cooley for a few minutes to ask him just that question, as well as to get some tips and tricks on how to find my way out. Frankly, I was a little worried that I would get stuck in there and they'd have to send in a rescue party.

It turns out that the process of creating something like this is remarkably simple, though carrying it out in 40 acres of corn is certainly an exhausting enterprise.

Cooley told me that his brother plotted the whole grid out using an Excel spreadsheet, with every little square that you can see on the map you get at the beginning representing five feet of actual corn field spacing. Much of it was pretty straightforward, though Cooley said the circles in the center of the maze gave his brother fits.

I asked if they had ever used CAD software, and he laughed.

Many visitors to the Dixon corn maze cut their own paths through the corn after they got lost. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

"We haven't gotten that sophisticated," Cooley told me. "I think (my brother would) like to."

Then, once the grid is created and the map printed up, the brothers plant the corn. Forty acres of corn.

You might think--okay, I thought--that cutting the extremely complex maze into a corn field featuring stalks at least eight feet high would be a monstrous task. And it would be. If that's what they did.

Actually, though, they cut the maze into the field when the corn is just one inch high.

And while that's still a gigantic task, it's obviously a great deal easier than what I thought they must have to do.

In general, the brothers plant their corn rows thirty inches apart, but in order to make the maze denser and therefore harder to cheat in, Cooley told me that in this case, they made the rows only fifteen inches apart, effectively planting twice as much corn as usual.

Initially, the Cooleys flagged each intersection in the grid with a small marker on which they put the corresponding location. The idea, Matt Cooley told me, was to give visitors a sense of where they are when walking through the maze, since they can look at their map and say, "Aha, I'm at JJ-42. I know where I am!"

In practice, however, it didn't really work. That's because with thousands of feet pounding through the maze, many of the markers got destroyed, and some people even moved them to other locations as a joke. That explains why most of the markers I saw when wandering through were not at their intended location. I think maybe one of the ones I saw was correct. So much for visible help when inside the maze.

After nearly two hours of wandering through the world's largest corn maze and getting pretty lost, seeing the sunlight reflecting off a truck on the outside was a great feeling. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Not only that, but the maze is more complicated than it has ever been in the Cooleys' six years of doing this.

"It all used to be right angles," Cooley said. "Last year, we made arcs in it. This year, we said, 'let's put arcs in the center.' And (his brother) got bored. So over (on one side) we put in angles."

Those angles, or rather, diagonals, are hard as heck to navigate through. I tried. Oh, I tried. But I got lost.

And while I might ordinarily have freaked out getting lost in the middle of a giant corn field--too many late-night movies, perhaps?--Cooley's words get me calm.

He said that visitors regularly get lost.

"Oh, yeah, that's the idea," he said, adding that most people who get lost end up cheating and "cutting through the corn" to get out.

In fact, he said, people often just decide to give up and pick a direction to head in, seeking out the edge of the corn field.

"You'll see people walking out at one end of the field," Cooley said, "not even close to where they started."

That ended up being my strategy after I got lost. I had really hoped to stay on the map, but once I hit the angles, all hope was gone. With only the sun as my guide--and even then, I was constantly wandering off in the wrong direction--I decided to head for the edge, map be damned.

It's definitely helpful that there are so many custom pathways plowed by previous visitors, because that makes it easier to get through the corn when you're not on an official path. On the other hand, you don't know where these faux-paths are going, and that's one reason my direction seemed to be constantly changing. But at least I didn't have to hack down any corn stalks myself.

Finally, I spot the sun reflecting off a truck that is obviously outside the corn field. Is it the right side, I wonder to myself, still hearing Cooley tell me that people regularly wander out far, far from where they started.

Who cares, I decide. Out is good enough.