Mapping a new course: Imus bringing a unique vision, clearer direction to his life and craft

Dave Imus, in his home office and surrounded by reference books and maps, said he’s trying to reinvent map-making to be more aesthetically pleasing. Besides making award-winning national maps, he has made maps of Creswell, Springfield and other local cities in South Lane County. BRADLEY COOK/FLASHBOX STUDIO

Dave Imus wants to change the world. If his master plan works out, he’ll be able to change the way people view the world. 


According to Imus, nobody has ever taken the trouble to make maps aesthetically pleasing. So he has developed ways to make them more functional while also being more artistic, more inviting and … well, more with the times. 

“Imagine if all prose were written by word processors’ technicians who wrote algorithms so you input information to save you some time. That’s exactly how cartography is done to this day,” said Imus, 64, who says he has been passionate about cartography – the science or practice of drawing maps – for almost his entire adult life.

“They don’t see the point in spending time manipulating all the details so the community works efficiently with their viewers. So for some damn reason, I’ve taken it upon myself to be a one-man cartographic revolution. But I sure thought it would be easier.”

It takes a special type of individual to take on the long, tedious hours of intricate, precise drawing of lines and attaching of labels that’s required in cartography. 

Imus is that person. He’s autistic, so he has the ability to be hyper-focused on his work.

“I know it seems cheeky to think you can change the world … autistic people change the world. The Elon Musks’, the Steve Jobs’, the Bill Gates’ … I think Jesus Christ was autistic, they tend to be idealists, they don’t follow the crowd. … You can kind of spot them, they just don’t fit in society, they’re going down their own path.”

Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin are just some of the great minds who were linked to autism. Popular celebrities like Dan Aykroyd, Roseanne Barr, Darryl Hannah and Anthony Hopkins were diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome – a condition on the wide-ranging autism spectrum generally characterized by high-functioning intellectual ability and poor social skills. Soccer’s Lionel Messi reportedly was diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 9. Armani Williams is NASCAR’s first driver to be openly diagnosed on the spectrum. 

Once considered a stigma, autism clearly, in many regards, helps more than it hinders. Imus is living proof of that. He has won four national awards for his maps. He was just in the running for a prestigious international award last month. 

The grand prize for Imus, though, would be knowing that 30 years of his life’s work has made a difference while opening people’s eyes to the beauty of cartography as an artform.

On a mission

He’s on a mission, because cartography has saved his life. And continues to be his lifeblood. 

His story includes some gut-wrenching recollections of a dreadful, horror-filled childhood. The youngest of three boys, Imus’ lack of developmental and social skills set him up for many years of abuse.

In those days, nobody knew what autism was, so Imus was beaten and called names likes a “dumb r****d” by his family members. Imus no longer speaks to any family members. 

He says there was no way of making sense of what was taking place – all of the verbal putdowns, the physical beatdowns, the emotional and psychological meltdowns. So he bought into it, believing he deserved whatever punishment was forthcoming.

“I fully believed that anyone in my family would have been justified in killing me,” Imus said. “They always called me names and treated me differently, so I just thought I must be a really bad person.” 

As he looks back, Imus said it’s a sad commentary about today’s society. 

“I think we’re living in a time and place when, on the surface, things don’t look as bad as they were in the Roman Empire, but the same indifference to human suffering is taking place,” he said. “That’s why for the the first 80 or 90 years, slavery was legal in parts of this country. And to this day, maltreatment of African-Americans has not ended, they’re still the scapegoats of society.” 

Imus tried facing his parents as an adult, but he said they tried to twist the argument around.

“When I told my parents I had contracted PTSD from being abused, my father’s first reaction was, ‘Pffttt … I took you fishing, and this is what I get?’ And my mom said, ‘Well, I never liked your girlfriend.’ My brothers said they never did anything that wasn’t normal.

“One of the signs of an abusive family is that they are freakishly well-behaved. Go to the store with mom and people talk about what a nice family we were. 

“I’d go to my dad and say (my brothers) are beating me up and he’d say you have to learn to defend yourself,” Imus said. “I weighed about 40-50 pounds and they weighed a combined 150 or 200, and they’d hit me in front of my parents. All they’d ever say was don’t break anything (in the house).

“It’s the same phenomenon as racism, that’s how they felt about me. Imagine a black child being raised by a family of black supremacists.” 

Hiding the pain inside

Aside from a brief stay in the Bay Area during his youth, Imus grew up in Eugene and has always lived in the area, bouncing back between Springfield, Veneta and Harrisburg, where he now lives. He’s in excellent condition, having slimmed down recently on the Keto diet. Twice a week, weather permitting, he hikes Mt. Pisgah and Spencer Butte. He plays his acoustic guitar frequently, sometimes sitting in and playing with a friend at a church. 

Imus leads a happy, productive, fulfilling life. The problem is trying to fight back all those childhood demons that haunt him on a daily basis.

“I just realized my family hated me and the horror of being chased and terrorized took me a few weeks to process,” Imus said last month when told it appeared he had adjusted well. “I think it’s a lifetime process to stay on top of it, but I can sit and talk about it.

“Outwardly adjusted, but what you don’t see is I have a hard time sleeping in a bed. When I was like 10 or 12, I got out of bed and it was cold and I jumped up on the dryer and I was immediately attacked by my brothers and I yelled. Later that day, my mom told me, ‘I told them they have to leave you alone when the dryer is running.’

Dave Imus, right, stands near the washer and dryer in his home. Childhood trauma and PTSD keep him from going to sleep in his bed most nights, he said. The laundry room was a “safe place” for him as a child, and he still finds comfort in sleeping there to this day.

“Yeah, so I may seem normal but there’s that. Try to have a relationship with somebody and say, ‘I have to go sleep on the dryer. Sorry about that.’” 

“That’s where I feel safe and can fall asleep, then usually I wander into the bedroom later and fall asleep for the night.”

After graduating with honors from the University of Oregon with two majors, Imus was married twice and divorced twice, and has now been on his own for about 10 years. He says he’s never been more driven about his work. 

“If I get triggered, I sometimes go two weeks with PTSD episodes. My doctor was shocked when I told him I stopped taking Zoloft,” Imus said. “I recognized that the Indica (marijuana) strain settled me down. It took the edge off of my anxiety. Being autistic and having childhood PTSD are two conditions under which the brain doesn’t produce enough serotonin or oxytocin, which are the neuropeptides of life. I have a huge deficit of that stuff, and marijuana releases it.” 

Award-winning work

In 2010, Imus made a U.S map that was published. Two years later it received “big splashy press” on, he said. 

“I went from being a struggling artist to grossing $750,000 that year. … It gave me the confidence to re-examine my life.

“I’ve wandered away from map-making into illustration. I feel like I’m doing pictures of circles of the earth that make it clear and easy to understand. Mechanical maps are never beautiful, only the human touch makes them beautiful. My work is a depiction of what I see in my head.

“So I hope my work will usher in a new illustrative work, with a more clear understanding of the planet.”

That was a good year for Imus. He and his wife didn’t have to pinch pennies, and they enjoyed seeing how the other 2 percent live, if only for a year or two. 

Finally, the financial well started drying up. Imus’ wife said it was time for him to get a job. He said he was close to selling another map that would solve their money woes.

Back and forth they went … it was like the classic struggling artist argument, ‘When is that next hit song coming out?’

The relationship ended soon after that. 

Imus won the American Congress on Surveying & Mapping national contest four times. That competition is called the CAGIS now. 

“Does that sound like an artform? It’s engineering, man,” Imus said. “And GIS – Geographic Information Systems – is all about data collection and manipulation. It’s important work they’re doing, but it ain’t art.

“What I feel I’m doing is, I’m inventing a new type, a new genre, of cartography. So what are the principles? I knew that making realistic terrain and putting on 10,000 type labels, and to still be able to read it all, this had to be good, but I didn’t know what the fundamentals were. 

“I think the land is incredibly beautiful and you don’t get tired of beauty. … And then there’s that dopamine and adrenaline rush you get from things you’re passionate about. The year solid that I spent working on that terrain image, it was incredible joy and pleasure all the time. 

“Every day was like Christmas. Every day was like being on vacation. I’ve seen plenty of people on vacation not having this much fun.”

Childhood torment, scars 

“People on the spectrum like to be called autistic, not a person with autism. The whole world treats you differently. … I always knew I was different – I didn’t know exactly how or why – but I articulated to myself that I was like a visiting anthropologist just here watching this human animal doing its thing. Another way I viewed it was that the world around me was a distance of a thousand years and a million miles, because I didn’t feel I was a part of it, and now I know I wasn’t.” 

Sometimes he wishes he could just forget all those years of childhood abuse. It isn’t that simple. 

“My brothers used to suffocate me every morning. That’s my earliest childhood memory, is me flipping out, losing my mind, as they pinned me under the blankets when I was 3 years old. Austistic people don’t even like to have tight clothing. 

“Then I would start to pass out and they would let me take one breath and do it over again – but when they first lifted the blanket I didn’t know who they were, I was that far gone!

“They didn’t stop doing that until I was like 9 years old. The size differential between our bodies was not great enough for them to pin me in the bed. So they lost interest.” 

Imus never had a normal, loving childhood, which left quite a void in his development. 

“I was always seeking that biological replacement – what happened in therapy should have happened during my infancy,” Imus said. 

“If you step back from childhood therapy, I’m always looking for the essence in things – ‘Essential Geography’ – what it is, you’re going to this therapist who’s helping you gain the emotional maturity that your family could not pass on to you. If there’s a takeaway from this? Americans are not happy people. They tell themselves a lot of stories about how great they are. … I see myself in my situation, I feel like I’m happier than a huge percentage of Americans, and I’m a traumatized autistic so I’m in the suicide demographic, so that should tell you something.” 

Charting the future

One style that Imus admires is the Swiss Topo maps. 

“They’re artistically exquisite, but because they spend so much money on engineering, all they can do is Switzerland, and the whole world needs to be done,” Imus said. “It needs to be done by practical means, by geographical enlightenment. We could be there now, except for the lack of info the world requires to be there. 

“The whole purpose of cartography was a thing to use during the Industrial Revolution to treat our planet as a mere abstraction that we don’t even have to worry about, let alone see its beauty and understand its importance. This is all left out of the message that Google and everybody else sends with maps that somebody views.

“My feeling is if we adopted a type of cartography that showed the surface of our planet in the same aesthetic light that painters have been showing flowers for hundreds of years, for example, that people would be attracted to the beauty of the cartography itself, not because there’s inherently beauty about it, but because it’s an accurate reflection of the world, which is beautiful. And until this happens, it’s only going to be autistic guys like me who see this planet as a beautiful thing, worthy of cartography that validates that beauty.

“I think this is just the beginning of this style, I think the work I’ve done is good. I know it can still be better. But I’ve invented a practical means by which the whole globe can be mapped – or cartographically illustrated, basically, is what it is – you’re not really mapmaking anymore. It’s illustration. You’re clarifying something so it can be more easily understood, and that’s illustration.

“Maps are just locating data in space, that’s all it is. If you want to take some time to make it more legible, that’s OK. But you wouldn’t start with data and spend years making something that’s more accessible to the eyes.”

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