How One Guy in Oregon Made the Best U.S. Map You’ll Ever See

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Jan. 2 2012 7:38 AM

The Greatest Paper Map of the United States You’ll Ever See

Made by one guy in Oregon.

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The longer you look at Imus’ map, the more deeply you feel the complexity and the artistry. It comes out of a tradition in which maps were made by hand using hot wax and X-Acto knives. You have no doubt that every tiny decision on Imus’ map was made for a reason.

Other mapmakers I spoke with marveled at the handcrafted beauty of the thing. (One guy reminisced about a Soviet map from the 1970s that used different colors for freshwater and saltwater lakes. He said Imus’ map achieves that level of specificity.) This is an example of heartfelt, artisanal cartography coming from a pro at the top of his game.

Yet, barring a miracle, this opus will barely be seen. Specialty map shops are disappearing. Bookstore chains tend to carry only the major map brands. And even if they were somehow made aware of Imus’ marvelous creation, most school systems can’t afford or can’t be bothered to update their classroom maps. A map is a map, right? That circa 1982 Rand McNally wall blob does the job just fine, the thinking goes.

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Some might argue that classrooms don’t need paper maps at all. That none of us do. The Internet is full of free digital maps that boast amazing functionality. They can dictate driving directions, or help us find stores and hunt for real estate. We can look at these maps on the move—on our mobile phones or on the navigational systems in our cars. What good is an unwieldy paper wall map that can’t be pinched, zoomed, or double-clicked?

For one thing, that zooming capability means the makers of a single digital map are forced to design dozens of differently scaled versions. This severely limits how much time they can devote to perfecting the layout at each zoom level. Imus’ map never varies from its scale of 65 miles to the inch, but everything you see at that one scale is exactly as Imus wishes you to see it. Besides, if you need to zoom in on a wall map you can just tiptoe closer to the wall.

There’s also a certain flavor of geographic comprehension that comes with taking in a map all at once in a large format. Imus argues that you can’t truly understand a place if you only use zoomed-in maps on teensy screens. (Evidence for this notion: Although we probably look at maps now more than at any other time in history—thanks to their digital ubiquity—our knowledge of geography hasn’t improved at all. Studies show that our kids continue to live in geographic ignorance, in some cases worse than it was 15 years ago.) Looking at Imus’ big, richly detailed map offers a holistic sense of what America looks like—how cities spread out along rivers, forests give way to plains, and mountains zigzag next to valleys. In Imus’ exuberant view, a map like this might inspire enough geographic curiosity to guide the next generation of students back on course.

Finally, there’s that simple, ancient joy of paper. The joy one derives from paging through a crisp hardcover book instead of switching on a Kindle. From doing the crossword in ink, on newsprint, instead of typing it into an iPad app. Can we agree that one needn’t be a Luddite to recognize these small pleasures?

This object—painstakingly sculpted by a lone, impractical fellow—is a triumph of indie over corporate. Of analog over digital. Of quirk and caprice over templates and algorithms. It is delightful to look at. Edifying to study. And it may be the last important paper map ever to depict our country.

Surely that’s worth some space on the wall of your den?