If you were to drop Dave Imus anywhere in the United States, he could likely point out something unique in the landscape around him.
This winding road through flat farmland, 30 miles outside of Eugene, Oregon, is no different.
“This spot has the unique characteristic in that you can see all five of Oregon’s highest snow peaks in the Cascade Range,” Imus said pointing to the mountain range obscured by clouds and distance. “One thing I’ve learned is that all landforms, regardless of how subtle they are, have their own beauty and character.”
Imus is one of the most well-known cartographers in the United States. He’s won the country’s most prestigious map award, “Best of Show,” from the Cartography and Geographic Information Society, four times.
But unlike many other winners, he’s not part of a large institution like National Geographic, or a university. It’s just Imus in his farmhouse.
Seeing The World Through Place
Imus has an unique point of view, forged during a tough childhood in Coos Bay. The experience made it hard for him to connect with people. But places were easier to understand. This closeness to place gave him a different perspective.
“As if I were an anthropologist visiting from another planet,” he said. Before Imus even discovered mapmaking he was thinking like a cartographer.
On a map, the chaos of daily life is muted. All that’s left is place and our impact on it. Imus transformed the way he saw the world into award-winning maps, work he sees as art.
“Artists, I think, are people who see beauty where other people don’t see it,” he said. “That’s what I’m doing with maps, trying to show people the beauty that I see.”
It takes a careful eye to see what makes a map extraordinary. Cartographers are gifted editors, their job is to determine among the endless choices which define a place — cities, roads, landforms — what stays on a map.
“You can’t put everything on a map,” said Daniel Cole, the chief cartographer of the Smithsonian Institution.
“Part of the process of mapmaking is always deciding what not to include as much as deciding what to include. Because you just want to focus on a particular subject.”
The Great American Map
Imus’s decades-spanning career made him stand out in the small mapmaking community, but it wasn’t exactly paying the bills.
“I was a struggling artist. I decided I’ll make a United States map. There’s a bigger market — how about that for an artistic justification?” he laughed.
In 2008, Imus dove head first into the creation of a general map of the entire United States. The work ballooned into the most grueling, demanding project of his entire career.
It took 6,000 hours to complete. That’s 250 days of work Imus did in two years. As the work and pressure mounted, the isolation he’d harbored since childhood surfaced. All of it pushed him close to an emotional edge.
“I worked on the first edition of the U.S. map like I had a gun to my head,” Imus said. “I didn’t just work 6,000 hours, I worked 6,000 hours like somebody that was doing it to save their life. Really that’s what I was trying to do. I was trying to show the human race that I deserved to live, too.”
It starts at the base. Instead of solid colors, Imus illustrated the landform through shaded relief. The viewer can see mountains, elevation and the thickness of forests. From there, every decision of what to include was made in painstaking detail.
Dave highlighted things that define places: the Oregon Country Fair, Forest Park and The Pendleton Round-Up. He organized the entire country this way.
The map ends up showing a careful viewer the complex landscape of the United States.
It highlights both the Burning Man Festival and the Deepwater Horizon wreckage site, Wrigley Field and the Tule Lake Internment Camp, the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre and the Golden Gate Bridge.
“The Essential Geography of the United States” won the highest award in American mapmaking, and it blew up online.
“Half the money in my life, I made in January 2012,” Imus said. “It changed everything.”
It allowed him the time to take a few years off work and go to therapy. “It was all about fear,” Imus said. “I have a new lease on life.”
A Mapmaker Charts A New Course
Imus is in the middle of a new edition of “The Essential Geography of the United States.” The changes aren’t subtle; they’re transformative. He’s added new locations that have grown in significance, Mar-A-Lago Resort in Palm Beach, Florida, for example.
But the fundamental change takes shape across the landscape through the shaded relief.
“I’m trying to make the map look like it was painted by an artist with a deft hand and a very fine brush,” Imus said.
It’s best seen in Nevada, where he uses two sources of light to highlight the top and bottom of mountains. In other maps, this part of the country looks flat and barren, but in Imus’s work the land pops out from the page. Across the entire country, a viewer can see all the land rise and fall in elevation and sea level. Imus said this new map feels like a culmination of his entire career.
But if he does his job right, the viewer won’t see a highlight in a mapmaker’s three-decade career, or a personal transformation. It will be more than a dot on a map; they’ll see the beauty through his eyes.