Essential Geography of the United States Mapped

Caitlin Dempsey


Dave Imus is a well known cartographer who has specialized in highly detailed, hand annotated maps covering the United States.  he found his cartography company Imus Geographics in 1983 and is based out of Oregon.  The Cartography and Geographic Information Society (CaGIS) awarded his The Essential Geography of the United States of America map the “Best of Show” as part of its 2010 Annual Map Design Competition.  This recent award marks the fourth time Imus has received the top honor from CaGIS.  A posting about Imus’ placement that recently ran in Slate has helped to catapult the popularity of the map and Imus’ web site is reporting a two week back log in orders.

The Essential Geography of the United States of America contains a meticulous amount of detail both in the underlying layers of information covering not only the expected information of major roadways, state boundaries, and major place names, but also the geographic data also includes time zones, over 1,000 landmarks, forest and urban land cover, and mountains.  The annotation was all hand placed, with detailed labels noting high point elevations, points of interest, cities, rivers and a more.  The finished wall paper measures 50″ x 35.3″ and has a scale of 1:4,000,000.  A labor of love, the map took over 6,000 hours to complete, all of it done by Dave Imus himself.

The result is a mesmerizing study of the entire United States.  As many hours can be spent pouring over the intense detail of the map.  The sample state of Pennsylvania reveals such nuggets as the location of the Little League World Series, and on a more somber note, the location of the Flight 93 National Memorial.

State of Pennsylvania from The Essential Geography of the United States of America by Dave Imus.
State of Pennsylvania from The Essential Geography of the United States of America by Dave Imus.

Meant to be more than just a “pretty map”, Imus explains in his companion booklet about his Essential Geography map, that “[t]he Essential Geography represents a new standard of cartographic expression that advances geographic literacy.”  Those wishing to use the map as a teaching tool can take pointers from the example in the booklet of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and how the map can be used to understand a range of geographic characteristics such global position, elevation, land cover, boundaries, population, and landmarks.  He further explains in his essay that accompanied the map’s entry into the 38th Annual CaGIS map competition that “this map uses improved legibility and a greater diversity of content to make basic US geography understandable and relevant to more Americans.”

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The Essential Geography of the United States of America by Dave Imus.
The Essential Geography of the United States of America by Dave Imus.

Who is Dave Imus?

The Eugene Register-Guard profiled the Oregonian cartographer back in August of 2008. Imus has produced maps of Oregon and local jurisdictions in Oregon and won a “Best of Show” award from the American Congress on Surveying & Mapping. The article has some great quotes from Imus and others that were interviewed relating to cartography. Imus holds up the Swiss in terms of the quality of their mapmaking:

“The Swiss, they are the superlatives when it comes to maps,” says Imus, spreading out a map of Switzerland on a dining room table. “The topography. The detail. You see it all. Americans don’t have great map-making tradition. Some of our maps look like spaghetti.”

All of Imus’ maps are manually created using overlays in Adobe Illustrator (no auto-labeling for this cartographer).  His maps are made up of over 256 layers in Illustrator and every last detail is attended to:

“I started doing maps in a very insecure period of my life and I didn’t want to make any mistakes,” he says. “So my motive to be accurate was fear of rejection, I suppose.”

Tom Patterson, a senior cartographer for the National Park Service and a former president of the National Cartographic Information Society praised Imus’ work saying:

“Map making involves switching back and forth as scientist and artist,” says Patterson. “On one level, you have all this research, the details, the left-brain activity; on another level, you have this artistic graphics, making it work visually. Sometimes it’s hard to switch between the two, but he does it well.”

Read more:

  • Map maker brings artist’s eye to his craft (page no longer available) – Eugene Register-Guard
  • Dave Imus Web Site
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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.