Magazine article Sunset

Making Maps for the Ages

Magazine article Sunset

Making Maps for the Ages

Article excerpt

A few years ago, Michael Beard got a phone call. "It was a truck driver," he recalls, "at a pay phone in Redding.

He'd seen our California map at a truck stop, and he had to have one right away. So he drove up to Medford, and I met him by the highway and sold him the map."

One should note a couple of facts about this story. The map in question was not one a trucker would ordinarily use to steer a Kenworth up Interstate 5. It did not indicate mileage between major cities. At 42 by 64 inches, it could not easily be unfolded, even in a semi's cab.

It was simply California presented in such detail that, when God created the state, he could have used this map as a working drawing.

The map was produced by Beard's company, Raven Maps & Images of Medford, Oregon. Raven maps aren't road maps or topographical maps or the bumpy plastic maps you remember from junior high. They are shaded relief maps, with mountains and canyons painted so voluptuously that on unrolling the map it is impossible to resist the temptation to run your finger over the revealed landscape. Raven maps have garnered praise from any number of quarters. But the Wall Street Journal described them most succinctly: "the world's most beautiful maps."

"Maps aren't drawn or printed, they're built," says Stuart Allan, Raven's cartographer. "Like building a house." Allan and Beard-who handles the business side of things-met at a party 15 years ago. Partly out of sheer ignorance, they decided America was ready for high-quality maps. They chose the name Raven, explains Beard, "because ravens soar and look down on landscapes. They're also ubiquitous." They began with maps of Oregon and Washington and the rest of the West; today Raven has charted 36 of the 50 states.

To build his maps, Allan begins with U.S. Geological Survey topographical data, then shades in the elevations, turning contour lines into living hills and valleys. Colors are selected to fit the elevation ranges and, just as important, Allan's sense of a state's visual soul. Early maps were done by hand; today computer-aided digital imaging speeds the process. But mapmaking remains as much art as science. It is, as Allan says, "the marriage of truth and beauty"

"Mountains," says Allan, "are a piece of cake. …

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