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Know the West

The renegade cartographer

Dave Imus challenges the murkiness of modern mapmaking.


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.

"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.' "