It’s a fall tradition, but for John McCullough it begins during what’s usually the hottest week of the year.
At some point during the summer, McCullough will start to cut lines into a corn field on the 600-acre Mercer, Pa. farm he owns and operates with his brother David. It takes several days to lay the foundation for the Coolspring Corn Maze, named the best in the country by USA Today readers.
This year’s maze is called “Westward Go,” a nod to its dual “Pokemon Go”-American West theme.
“When the Pokemon thing kind of took off, we tried to think how we could make the two go together,” McCullough said of the popular app featuring Pocket Monsters and Western imagery. The resulting design, spread out over 12 acres, includes the name, a tipi, a totem pole and a Pokemon Trail.
The reaction, according to McCullough? “It’s been pretty good.”
“There are actually Pokemons in the maze … You can get your phone out and do that,” he said. Because Pikachu’s not great with directions, there are also human beings to help customers with navigation.
There isn’t any lighting, however, so don’t forget a flashlight or charged phone for evening-hour visits.
McCullough started the maze about 12 years ago, after another local farm decided to stop doing theirs. He taught himself how to make one with a book he bought online. (He’s since learned new techniques at North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association conventions.)
The first design was the head of an American Indian chief — but it “looked a little more like a lion.”
“We were kind of new at it,” he said with a laugh.
The process for the first few years was painstaking. McCullough would draw maze designs on graph paper. Then, when the corn was six to eight inches tall, he would count and mark off squares in the field using spray paint. “Each line on the graph paper was represented by a line of corn,” he explained.
“It was a lot of work,” McCullough said, adding that it took two or three weeks to complete.
Now, he uses Adobe Illustrator to draw the maze design, which is programmed into a John Deere mower using a GPS system.
Farmers can actually buy mazes from companies and program them into this tool, which navigates and moves mowers without human assistance.
“But I’m a little bit artistic,” McCullough said. He still draws the mazes himself and comes up with a theme that either has a special meaning to the farm or references something from popular culture.
And while he uses GPS technology to plot out the maze, McCullough’s still the one steering the mower.
The maze, located about an hour north of Pittsburgh, is open until Nov. 6 on Fridays from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission to the farm costs $9.95 a person and includes access to the corn maze plus a hay ride to a pumpkin patch.