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

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"I wanted to express the basic geographical arrangement of the U.S.," Imus says. "What's the elevation of Denver, Colo., and of Minneapolis, Minn.?" Physical details like these shape everything about their locations -- life at 8,000 feet is very different from life at 80 -- which is why understanding them is so important, he says.

The field of cartography has undergone massive changes over the last few decades, moving from a labor-intensive process involving specialized drafting pens, sheets of Mylar and industrial-sized lights and cameras -- to one that's digital and software-driven. Imus produced his last hand-drawn map, of Oregon, in 1999. "You can go to the Brownsville Historical Museum and see the tools I was trained on," he says.

Now, computer technology makes the drafting process much easier, cheaper and faster and enables cartographers to devise increasingly sophisticated maps. They have access to loads of already-compiled geographic data and can make once-tedious revisions with a few clicks.

Despite this, the overall quality of mapping has declined, mapmakers say. Many mapmaking corporations don't allow their employees time to craft anything beyond the status quo. "An awful lot of what's called mapping now is really just data display -- just display the data and you're done," Allan says. "You've got to pay someone who knows the trade to spend a lot of time making it better, and it's the Walmart-ism of American life -- we don't want to spend that money."

Creating a map is a winnowing-out process for most cartographers. Imus, however, prefers to start like a painter, with a blank canvas. To create his U.S. map, he selected data points from a comprehensive digital file. First, he used a mouse to redraft coastlines, smoothing out detail that came across as gnarled when viewed at his 1:4,000,000 scale. Then he selected rivers, fine-tuning each and every bend. He added relief shading to indicate landforms, background colors to signal land cover and lines of varying thicknesses to mark boundaries.

Next, he chose the cities to include -- 10,000 from the 100,000 in his data file. Then he selected the 1,000 landmarks -- including Haight-Ashbury, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre -- he felt most important to the country's culture and identity.

He placed each type label to ensure the lettering did not overlap anything important and excluded anything that compromised clarity, foregoing the town of Golden, Colo., for example, in favor of the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, and waiving some St. Louis suburbs for the Gateway Arch and Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company.

In a field dominated by algorithms, the presence of a person with a vision making educated decisions about which data points to include, and how, can mean the difference between a lackluster map and one that inspires awe, says Daniel Huffman, a cartographer and map critic in Madison, Wis. "Maps are spatial stories, not neutral collections of facts," he says. "Something that looks very lived in and very personal is what I appreciate most."

Geographical awareness connects us to the world and attunes us to other people's realities, equipping us to make better decisions about politics, economics and the environment. But above all, it's just plain fascinating. "Imagine your life without music," Imus says. "That's what I think people's lives are like without geography. They're missing a huge chunk of what's interesting and enriching."

Imus believes so strongly in promoting geographic awareness that he plunged $117,000 into debt over the two-year period he spent creating and printing his map. The public did not take notice, however, until January 2012, when a Slate article proclaimed his work "the greatest map of America you'll ever see." In the month following the article's appearance, Imus raked in half the money he's earned in his lifetime. ("That's not saying all that much," he qualifies.)

Nearly two years later, Imus estimates he's sold perhaps 35,000 maps. "I'm really convinced that the potential market has barely been scratched," he says.

Imus would like one of his next projects to be reference maps of each of the 50 states, something he estimates would cost $50 million. Also, he would like to get his U.S. map onto more walls -- which, given my own living room revelations, I think would benefit everyone.

"To me, something like the United States viewed at the distance of a map is the most colossal and elegant art that's ever been conceived," Imus says. "It's like a giant tapestry of interwoven elements, and if you pay attention, you're like, 'Oh my God, that's exquisite.' It's just thrilling that I'm somebody who gets to put it all out there and be like, 'Here it is folks -- this is the world we live in.' "