I’m happy to report that an excellent new map of the United States has been published, so excellent in fact, that it received the highest honor in American mapmaking: the “Best of Show” award at the annual Cartography and Geographic Information Society competition.

But why should we care about paper maps in this day and age? I love seeing my location constantly updated on a scrolling electronic map as much as the next guy (probably more so). But I think we lose something too in our narrowly focused driving directions and map searches, and that’s a holistic understanding of the geography around us.

Well-designed, paper maps facilitate just that. The more information they convey, the deeper the understanding. That said, bringing thousands of discrete pieces of information into a balanced, comprehensible whole is no easy feat. Rare is the map that is both readable and informationally dense.

This map, however, pulls it off. It shows landforms in shaded relief. It indicates which parts of country are forested. It clearly shows rivers, urban boundaries, time zones, national parks, relative elevations, as well as other physical features like the Pacific Crest Trail. It also locates culturally important sites like the Burning Man Festival and Wrigley Field. It names individual mountain ranges and gives the elevations for selected peaks, even for those underwater! It’s packed with information but the overall visual impression is soothing, calm and eminently readable.

Here are some things I didn’t know before reading this map: West Virginia is almost completely forested, so are Maine and New Hampshire. The area known as the Mississippi Delta is not located where that river meets the Gulf of Mexico. There is a point about 112 miles offshore from San Diego where the water is only 13 feet deep.

It’s also worth noting that this map isn’t the product of a large company. It’s the effort of one man, David Imus of Imus Geographics near Eugene, Oregon. This 4′ x 3′ map represents almost 6,000 hours of his time and attention. I’m not sure what mapmakers earn but if I had to pay my mechanic for that much time, the bill would come to about half-a-million dollars. Thanks to the twin miracles of the printing press and the internet though, this map can be had for a mere $12.95 (folded) or $29.95 (rolled). It is titled, “The Essential Geography of the United States of America.”

Here’s a link to an article about this map on Slate.

And here is a link to Imus Geographics where you can pick up a copy for yourself.