DANVILLE, Vt. – Nature’s splendor is everywhere you look, a 360-degree kaleidoscopic wonder to behold, a full-color postcard of New England as it begins to summon its full autumnal splendor.
Majestic mountains. An impossibly blue sky. Vibrant foliage. A brilliant heaven-made blanket of reds and yellows, oranges and purples beyond any talented landscape artist’s most vivid imagination.
And, as far as the eye can see, tall stalks of corn spread out across a rolling landscape not far from the Canadian border.
But look closer.
Amid those tall stalks there is something other than now-withering acres of corn. There are people wandering in all that green-and-yellow grain. They are plotting. They are muttering to themselves. They are scratching their heads. And shaking their fists.
They are walking around in circles. Some are near tears. And then, every once in a while, a bell rings in the near distance.
That sound you hear is the sweet signal of success in the Northeast Kingdom.
Its message? Someone has just figured out the Great Vermont Corn Maze, one of the region’s toughest and most tangled challenges, where agriculture and geometry, logic and perseverance intersect, sharing the same confounding map coordinates.
And, for those who take this more seriously than a simple, hilly nature walk, it’s personal. Very personal.
“We try to get in Mike’s head,” explained Jessica Fraser, 41, who grew up 80 miles south to the south in New Hampshire and is a maze regular. “We’ll be in the middle of the maze and we’ll say, ‘What would Mike do?’
“We feel like we’ve gotten into his head at this point. But we’re always wrong.”
Or as John Weltman, a 62-year-old lawyer who owns a home in nearby Stowe, put it: “It challenges you intellectually. It challenges you from a spatial perspective. It challenges your memory. It makes you think out of the box.
“What Mike has created is unlike any other maze anywhere. I think Mike is brilliant.”
Mike is Mike Boudreau.
And depending on how well your boots fit, he’s either the clever mastermind or the evil genius behind this undulant slice of landscape that USA Today this month ranked the fifth-best corn maze in the United States.
“This isn’t just walking through a corn field,” Boudreau, 53, told me before the maze’s gates opened the other morning. “This is problem solving. I have had people who you would think would be very good at this — highly educated people — and they’re miserable. They’re just miserable.
“They’re very type-A people. They want to make the answer happen right now. They’ll say, ‘I only cut through the corn one time.’ Well, you can’t cut through the corn.”
Mike Boudreau sure didn’t take any shortcuts to get here.
He grew up in Laconia, the youngest child and only son of a Laconia Navy veteran and textile mill worker — his dad who died young — and a stay-at-home mom. Even as a child, he liked to create things.
“I made my own puppets,” he told me before the maze opened the other day. “I played sports but I would spend more time creating stuff. I’m not an artist. But I like to create things.”
So that’s what he did.
He started his own greeting card company, and learned business lessons the hard way. Turns out it’s hard to compete with Hallmark. Life’s detours once took him to San Diego, where he painted houses and began work on his own comic strip, eventually settling on physical therapy.
He studied and learned something else: He fell in love with a farmer’s daughter, a young woman named Dayna, who is now his wife, the mother of his two children, and his partner at the Great Vermont Corn Maze.
“A lot of people don’t know what this is,” said Dayna, 47. “They think we’re selling sweet corn. Even after 22 years, people think we’re selling sweet corn. So you have to explain.”
Explain? Explain what?
Well, for one thing, the mazes have names: Eeny, Meeny, Miney, and Moe.
To solve the Big Maze, an average, healthy adult will hike through the corn for two hours. Most people have to start over, three times on average. Also this critical piece of advice: Don’t go through any brown doors to solve the maze.
It can get tense out there.
“We see a lot of people who crack and have a breakdown out there,” said Jake Boudreau, the 24-year-old son of the owner.
“There was one instance where a family went in. Twenty, thirty minutes later, the father comes out by himself. He gets in the car and leaves. He came back after a couple of hours. Apparently, he just needed to cool off.”
Turns out these mazes — even amid this dastardly drought — can test the mettle of strong women and make grown men weep.
And these strange new times demanded extra effort this year.
“I redesigned a brand-new maze as a big ‘thank you’ to front-line workers,” the maze maestro said.
And it works. It’s demanding. It’s confusing. It’s difficult. It’s just what maze lovers crave.
“We’re probably going to hate each other after this,” Al Tilbe, 46, of New Hampshire told me inside the maze the other day, when he visited with Kelly Reissfelder, 47, of southern Maine.
“I love this stuff,” said Tilbe. “I love competition. So I want to do it in a certain time. I don’t know what the record time is, but I want to beat it.”
Reissfelder just smiled knowingly. “We’re just having a nice day,” she said. “A nice walk. A couple of hours. It’s all about finding some breweries on the way home.”
Now, that’s the kind of attitude that would propel me — propel most people, I think — through rolling acres of tall corn stalks under a brilliant September sun.
Before long, the latest edition of the Great Vermont Corn Maze will be history, plowed under, the stuff of photo albums and memory.
But before he closes the books on 2020, Mike Boudreau has one more trick up his sleeve.
Some might call it a Halloween treat. But only those people who like severed heads, bloodied bodies, and things that go bump in the night. It’s his epilogue for the season. Dead North, it’s called, the Farmland of Terror.
That’s a preview of coming attractions. But, for now, he’s putting the punctuation point in his field of corn, the 24-acre place where he and his family have made their unusual mark. Their last day is Oct. 12.
“We’ve managed to keep the farm going,” Boudreau said. “We don’t really go anywhere because we’re working all the time. After 22 years, we have to reassess whether we’ll do it next year. Whether we’ll be open seven days a week. Whether we’ll open for reservations.”
And then he’s off to check his maze. To give veiled clues to those hopelessly lost in the corn. To tantalize his customers, who know that it’s the journey that counts, not the destination.
To count his blessings.
“This year is painful,” he said. “I think the next year will be the same. I can’t imagine [COVID] going away, the way things are going.
“But the upside is we’ve brought some normalcy to people who do this every year. People say to us: ‘Thank God you’re open.’ I’ve never been thanked so much. Even though we’re not making a million dollars, I don’t know how you stop.”
But then he did, just briefly to chat with one of his befuddled customers, walking among those tall stalks of his corn.
The poor guy looked lost. I would have gladly offered him a clue.
If I had one. Which I didn’t. I followed Mike out of the corn.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.