The Man Behind the Mazes
Hunter Gibbes, a.k.a. the Sunset Beach Maze Man, creates life-size walking puzzles in the sand, much to the delight of beachgoers.
Hunter Gibbes’ first life-size sand maze happened arbitrarily after a long day on the beach. On a quiet piece of beach in the late afternoon, shovel in hand, he began to draw a series of spirals. At first making the random “lanes” were a way of relaxing, a contemplative exercise. But when he stood back and looked at what he’d drawn, he thought, “Maybe I can make a maze out of it.”
The next day, he tried it again, with a little more concerted effort. Fifteen years later, Gibbes’ sand mazes have garnered him much recognition, prompting hundreds of beachgoers to seek out his life-size logic puzzles on Sunset Beach.
Otherwise known as the Sunset Beach Maze Man, Gibbes, who works in the IT field, lives on the island with his wife, Linda. They moved from Winston-Salem to Sunset Beach permanently in 2017, but had vacationed there every year for 19 years prior. Before that, they vacationed in Myrtle Beach, where he first started creating mazes.
Gibbes estimates that he has created nearly 400 mazes since 2005. Prior to this he never designed mazes with pen and pencil. He’s not a mathematician. He’s not an architect. His only study in art came from the doodles he scribbled during hour-long conference calls.
He designs rectangular mazes, square mazes, circular mazes or a combination of those shapes, and the only preplanning on his part is the shape. The rest is inspiration and a lot of imagination.
“When I walk out to the beach, if it’s a dead-low tide and there’s nobody there, it’s a blank canvas to do whatever I want to do,” he says.
The size and complexity of each maze depends significantly on the tides, as well as the crowd size on the beach. A low, outgoing tide provides an optimal work area. “If everything aligns correctly, I can get out there first thing in the morning when most people haven’t yet gotten out of bed,” he says.
Gibbes starts each maze with a principal design element — a shape. Using a square-edged garden shovel and another handmade tool, similar to a hoe, he draws the outline, or the lanes, and then goes back and fills in the line breaks. The time it takes him to complete a maze depends on the complexity. He typically finishes most mazes in a little more than an hour. But if it’s a more intricate design, it can take up to an hour and 45 minutes. The largest maze he’s created is a double-spiral that was approximately a block wide from one beach access to another; that one took nearly two and a half hours to complete. “The time also depends on how many interruptions I get in the process,” he says with a laugh.
To minimize those interruptions, Linda, the “the unofficial, official manager of the Sunset Beach Maze Man,” as Gibbes affectionately refers to her, will take over the conversations when someone walks up to ask what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. Gibbes will introduce himself, tell them he’s making a maze that people can walk through, and then Linda comes over and engages the inquisitive beachgoer while Gibbes fades away and finishes the maze. “He started wearing earbuds so that he can concentrate,” Linda explains. “Not that he doesn’t want to be interrupted, but when he’s creating the maze in his head, focus is important.”
Linda also manages the Sunset Beach Maze Man Facebook and Instagram pages. Because the tide time shifts from day to day, Gibbes can’t always create his mazes at the same time every day. And his location isn’t always the same either. Once the mazes are complete, Linda updates the Facebook page with the location. “People have actually driven an hour and a half to Sunset Beach expecting the mazes to be at a certain time,” Linda says. “It’s just hard to give a specific time, so the social media updates are helpful.”
Once Gibbes completes a maze, his wife and daughters serve as testers to a make sure the puzzles are solvable. They’ve developed a complexity scale of 1 to 10. If it’s a complicated one, it’s a 9 or a 10, which means it requires some focus to get through it. Linda makes him step up his game, so he has to constantly try to make the mazes harder. All the mazes are meant to be solvable — though he’s been known to rig a maze or two to confuse and frustrate his wife. When Gibbes finally opens up the maze, the kids will go around, and within four or five minutes, he’ll know whether or not it works. “Believe me, they will tell on me if it doesn’t work,” he says.
Judging by the crowds of people patiently standing, watching and waiting for Gibbes to finish the maze so they can go through it, it’s clear to him that his life-size logic puzzles make an impact on beach-goers. Some figure it out right away, some contemplate and analyze before figuring it out, and some get frustrated and walk away. Gibbes certainly doesn’t want anyone to get discouraged. “I usually recognize when someone is having a problem,” he says. “If they’ve been in there a long time, we’ll causally go up to them and ask if they want some help. Some will tell us no, that they want to figure it out on their own. But others want help.”
Repeat Sunset Beach vacationers look forward to seeing him during their annual vacation. “People will tell us that the Maze Man is the topic of conversation in the car ride on their way to the beach,” Linda says. “I got a comment on our Facebook page from one visitor who said that their kids love the mazes and talk about them throughout the year, even telling their friends about it.”
The mazes provide multiple levels of entertainment. For those who don’t try the mazes themselves, they get the joy of watching others work through the puzzles and find their way out — or at least try to solve it.
And what does Gibbes get out of the countless hours he spends making the mazes that will eventually be lost to the tide? Is it the excitement of watching little kids high-fiving when they solve it? Is it because it gives people something to do rather than just sit in the sun? Is it the fun of watching people compete to solve it first?
“All of it,” he says. And much more. He likens his role as the Maze Man to a teacher-student analogy — when what the teacher is saying finally clicks with the student. “You can see when it clicks. When someone goes through the maze and they’re stuck, but you can recognize the moment when they realize, ‘Oh, I’ve got it!’ You can see their walk change. Before, they were casually walking. Now, they’ve got a little more drive as they walk. And as they get closer and closer to the exit, the walk gets even faster. You can just see the excitement that comes over them. It’s a great feeling to watch it happen, and you’re glad that they make it.”
There are no hard feelings on Gibbes’ part when the tide takes away his maze at the end of the day. “I got to do what I wanted to do and provide entertainment for others,” he says. Linda adds, “It just cleanses his palette for the next one he makes.”
Follow the Sunset Beach Maze Man on Facebook at @sunsetbeachmazeman.