The renegade cartographer

Dave Imus challenges the murkiness of modern mapmaking.

  • Dave Imus' award-winning "Essential Geography of the United States of America" map.

    Imus Geographics
  • Dave Imus at a work table with the Essential Geography of the United States of America.

    Imus Geographics
  • Details include Area 51 and Yucca Flat in Nevada.

    Imus Geographics
  • Details include Mount Chamberlin and Anaktuvuk Pass in Alaska.

    Imus Geographics
  • Details include the Missouri River headwaters in Montana.

    Imus Geographics

A red storage locker in my living room holds the dozens of maps I've collected from my travels over the years. Inside, a laminated street map of Portland, Ore., sits atop a bound gazetteer of Washington, a trail map of Mount Hood National Forest and a tourist map of San Francisco.

These maps have helped me plan everything from hiking excursions to road trips. But I didn't realize until recently -- when I tacked Oregon cartographer Dave Imus' U.S. map on the wall across from the couch -- how much I've missed with my piecemeal approach to geography.

Winner of the Cartography and Geographic Information Society's Best in Show award in 2010, Imus' Essential Geography of the United States of America displays the entire country from satellite perspective while conveying the distinct character of each locale.

From across the room, the 4-by-3-foot Essential Geography looks like most any other U.S. map: 50 states, punctuated by cities and towns and crisscrossed by rivers and roads. But studying the image more closely, I've realized the map is not remotely standard fare. I've learned a lot I didn't know about the West –– the Missouri River springs up in the Rockies near Bozeman, Mont.; the Navajo Council meets on the Arizona/New Mexico border near the town of Window Rock; and the mysterious Area 51 abuts a homey-sounding town named Rachel in the southeast Nevada desert. I've also come to understand how the places on the maps in my storage locker fit within the larger American landscape.

When I visit Imus in his farmhouse workshop in the wide-open Willamette Valley outside Eugene, he's eloquent about his mission: to promote geographic literacy by inspiring curiosity about the world.

"Americans are geographically illiterate; they're famous for it," he says, citing the depressing fact that half of Americans aged 18-24 can't locate New York City on a map. "I'm trying to introduce cartography that takes clarity seriously and tries to express something. I want to pass on appreciation of the world to people who think the world is interchangeable scenery and one place is as good as the next."

In his mid-50s, with a mop of silver hair, Imus wears wire-rimmed glasses, blue jeans and a tie-dyed button-up. He labored seven days a week for two years over every square millimeter of his map's surface, working and reworking label placement and letter size. He tweaked the relief shading on the mountain ranges, sculpted rivers to widen and narrow depending on their flows, and carefully selected the landmarks he felt most central to the country's character. Finally, after 6,000 painstaking hours, he had created a definitive map of the U.S., one he could not improve.

Most cartographic corporations download information from public-domain databases and position it using algorithmic software. While Imus also started with a digital file and used a computer to draft, his final product represents craftsmanship at its finest, the geographic equivalent of a wood-fired pot or hand-woven rug.

"He's well recognized as a guy who really does it right," says cartographer Stuart Allan, founder of Raven Maps in Medford, Ore. "What's unusual is, he's done it right on his own. Most of us are working for organizations."

Imus fell in love with geography as a boy in Eugene, poring over maps of the Cascades for places he and his father could go fishing. He earned a degree in geography from the University of Oregon in 1982 and almost immediately founded his own mapmaking company, Imus Geographics, which produced street maps of Oregon cities and recreation maps for areas like the Wallowa Mountains and the Metolius River.

Imus credits his college cartography professor, the late William G. Loy, with teaching him many of the practical principles of mapmaking, and Raven Maps' Allan with demonstrating that maps can be works of art as well as utilitarian guides. In 1998, Imus began collaborating with Massachusetts cartographer Pat Dunlavey. Together, the two mapped Alaska and the Sierra Nevada Range in California. Dunlavey helped with the Essential Geography, compiling the original file of geographic data and giving Imus feedback throughout the process. "He's my toughest critic," Imus says. "He tears apart my work and keeps me on my toes."

Though Imus appreciates the work of European cartographers, he's critical of American mapmakers: They fail to communicate the character of the land, he says, and don't spark public interest in geography. He gets downright riled when he talks about maps that fall short, including the wall maps produced by Rand McNally and National Geographic.

"They lack so much of basic geography," he says. "They're just a slathering of place names set in brightly colored state boundaries." Imus spreads a Nat Geo map across his dining room table. "See how their type labels are going every which way?" he says. "They don't even put time zones on their map." The only things you can tell about a city like Salt Lake are its longitude and latitude and general size, he says. "That's it."

By contrast, Imus' Salt Lake has a discernable character. Looking at the northwest Utah city, I can tell it sits about 4,300 feet above sea level on the southeastern banks of the Great Salt Lake and encompasses numerous suburbs, including West Jordan and Bountiful. The Wasatch Mountain Range rises to the east, a river cuts through the west side of downtown, and important landmarks include Temple Square and Bingham Canyon Mine.

Brandon Jett
Brandon Jett
Sep 17, 2013 08:44 AM
Thanks for helping keep the art alive. As a fellow cartographer working for a large consulting firm (officially my title is GIS Analyst which I find unbearable) I understand the frustrations of producing a map with no soul. I miss the freedom of being able to spend time creating something visually appealing and useful.
Rixanne Wehren
Rixanne Wehren
Sep 18, 2013 10:49 AM
Again, thanks for keeping the art and science of cartography alive! I'm a cartographer too, working in my own little shop, and while the independence is really fine, the economics of competing with the large corps is just devastating. Now with mapping going to the internet there is very little true cartography involved. Just data display supported by code programming. I was very heartened to see David Imus' maps and know that artistic cartography is still alive in the hearts of some.
David Imus
David Imus Subscriber
Sep 18, 2013 12:49 PM
Like botanical illustration, cartography is an identification art. Botanical illustration allows users to identify wonderful things like flowers, while cartography allows users to identify the dazzling patterns of the world in which we live. There is more to the art of expressing geographic patterns than most cartographic organizations have the budget to attend to, because like all good identification art, good cartography takes a lot of time to create. I am fortunate to have had the deep time needed to make maps to the best of my abilities. Thank you Christina and HCN for telling my story.
Dave Carson
Dave Carson
Sep 18, 2013 01:14 PM
Another "GIS Analyst" here, but maps are my love. Thanks for keeping the beauty alive.
Pam Bond
Pam Bond Subscriber
Sep 25, 2013 01:23 PM
Absolutely love your Essentials map. Huge fan Mr. Imus.
Michael Menand
Michael Menand
Oct 02, 2013 11:45 AM
Wow, it is really good to read this story and to validate my belief that Cartography is very important . As a Geographer/GIS Analyst I often times run into conflict with my managers over time spent producing effective cartographic representations. Displaying data via mapping software is easy, producing meaningful maps that are clearly readable is not. Cheers to you Mr Imus!
Joseph Barreca
Joseph Barreca
Oct 02, 2013 11:59 AM
Interesting that other cartographers are dominating this discussion... I too have my own home-based cartography company, Map Metrics, and do spend the time to move labels were they will work best and be readable from one direction. Still I think of maps as an index to time and geology and think the hyperlink is the quintessential artifact of the Internet age. Beautiful maps can be the beginning of an understanding of place populated by ties created by others who pay attention to where they are. Like other innovations bent to the corporate will, they can be awful, but there is a lot of potential to communicate beyond the surface of the map.
Martha Page
Martha Page
Oct 04, 2013 12:32 PM
Even in a crisis, maps can take us to a different level of information. Exceptional map maker Evelyn Backman Phillips produced amazing maps of wild land fires that threatened the Wood River Valley (Sun Valley) Idaho. The most recent was the Castle Rock Fire this summer. Although inciweb, the government site, had a map, it could not compare to Evelyn's for details about fire involvement for the beloved canyons, rivers, trails, and the Sun Valley ski mountain itself. The map is available online at the site of the Idaho Mountain Express, where she published updates throughout the fire. Mr. Imus map will join our collection not only because of its beauty and information, but because talent like his and Ms. Phillips needs to be noticed and nurtured!