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VENTURA COUNTY LIFE

Children--and Adults--of the Corn

July 30, 1999|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the middle of a maze in the middle of a cornfield in the middle of nowhere, I was hot and hopelessly lost.

If I were a different kind of person, I'd have been neither. After a half-hour or so, I'd have easily found my way through this exasperating labyrinth called the Amazing Maize Maze. Then I'd have hopped in my Jaguar and motored to the country club for a late lunch with my financial people.

But I don't have a Jaguar, or belong to a country club, or have financial people, or possess a fraction of the self-assurance and mental discipline it takes to wend my way through two miles of Chinese-puzzle paths in the middle of a cornfield.

That's why I was hot and hopelessly lost and scrutinizing my comrades in the corn for a sign--any sign--that someone there knew what they were doing.

There are two distinct ways of achieving success at the Amazing Maize Maze.

One is the method recommended by the people who built it: You plunge into the four acres of cornstalks and methodically locate the 12 "mailboxes" containing pieces of a map that you tape to specified places on your Amazing Maize Gameboard. Using this map, you can determine the 23 correct choices that will get you out.

I knew this method wasn't for me. I haven't made 23 correct choices in the last decade. I don't have the patience to do a 10-piece jigsaw puzzle of Farmer Jones' barnyard, no less figure my way out of this miserable vale of ears.

My sense of location is rudimentary; I'm one of those haggard people you see traipsing through big parking lots, scanning acres of cars for one with a white roof and a radio antenna.

The other technique is to find someone who knows what they're doing.

That's why I tagged along for a while with Ryan Booth, a 15-year-old from Simi Valley.

"We should be right here, and that means all we have to do is follow that path there," said Ryan, reading his map with the authority of a second lieutenant on jungle patrol. His mother was relying on Ryan, and so was Jeff Barry, a KCLU-FM reporter wielding a recorder and a big microphone.

It turned out they were as lost as I was.

And so was just about everyone else. Like life, the maze is filled with dead-ends, blind alleys, disappointments and decent people fumbling through the best way they can. Those who seem to know what they're doing usually don't.

Two hours after the maze's noon opening Thursday, more than 400 people--mostly parents and young kids--had disappeared into the field at Hueneme and Las Posas roads.

On the paths between green rows of corn 10 feet tall, the lost groups greeted each other: "What do you know?" "Where have you been?" "Can I see your map?"

From the air, the corn is cut in a pattern said to resemble an elaborate California mission. From the ground, it resembles nothing so much as an awful lot of corn.

Each group carried a flag that bobbed above the corn stalks. That way, observers on platforms could track down people in trouble, frustrated by the enormity of it all or stricken by some medical problem.

"The New World Symphony" and other vaguely inspirational pieces boomed through loudspeakers. From a tower, a worker urged on the masses.

"You're not here to compete," she said. "You're here to enjoy the challenge and to challenge yourselves to see what you can in the corn. . . ."

What I saw was niblets. All corn looks the same. This particular corn was of the breed called Pioneer 234. The funny thing is, I could have sworn it was Pioneer 233.

I finally hooked up with Kevin Gates, a second-grade teacher from Redondo Beach, and her 10-year-old daughter, Arlene.

We walked around and around, then went around some more. Gates was impressed with the maze's "wonderfully low-tech" quality. She tried to study her map, but she was as lost as I was.

Finally, we made it out. After aimless wandering for 1 hour and 31 minutes, I attribute my survival to faith, perseverance and the knowledge that if worst came to worst, I could survive on corn until the search-and-rescue crews could be mobilized.

"Good work," I told Gates as we exchanged high-fives.

Then I had to find my car.

Steve Chawkins is a Times staff writer. His e-mail address is steve.chawkins@latimes.com.

FYI

Camarillo's Amazing Maize Maze opened Thursday at Hueneme and Las Posas roads. It operates from noon to 8 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays through the summer and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the fall. Tickets are $8 for adults, $5 for children ages 4 to 12 and free for children under 4. Discounts are available for groups and charity fund-raisers. For information, call 495-5678 or visit http://www.AmericanMaze.com.

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