John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
A designer who spent his youth floating on rafts has conjured up a delightful transit guide to America’s waterways.
If any modern-day Huckleberry Finns and Jims wanted to navigate the mighty rivers of America, they’d do well to take along this delightfully crafted guide to waterways that looks like a subway map.
Theo Rindos, a 27-year-old graphic designer and illustrator who lives in greater New York—right along the Hudson River, no less—created the map as an ode to his lifelong love of the water. “I grew up on the Yellowstone River in southwestern Montana. It’s the longest undammed river in the contiguous United States,” he says. “I spent a lot of my childhood floating the river on tubes, rafts, and drift boats. Fly fishing is one my biggest passions and the Yellowstone is one of the best rivers for it.”
Rindos pulled data from the U.S. Geological Survey, Google Maps, and Wikipedia, and for his design imperative relied heavily on Harry Beck’s London Tube map from the 1930s, which he calls “complex but very clean.”
“London is a very old city and the streets are not laid out in a grid, but Harry found a way to transform something chaotic into something clean, readable, and beautiful,” he says. “I wanted to take something completely natural and structure it as a transit system, because technically these rivers once were and still are a form of transportation.”
At one end of each “line” you’ll typically find a solid-colored circle representing that river’s source. For example, look for the appropriately mud-tinted Mississippi River’s origins all the way up in Minnesota’s glacial Lake Itasca. Some lines join or divide at white circles, which indicate confluences like where the Columbia River meets up with the Snake in southern Washington. The “stations” dotting the lines are cities and towns that abut the rivers such as Little Rock, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans.
Rindos tried to include the waterways most important to the shipping and transportation sectors, though for aesthetic reasons such as avoiding clutter and weird-looking connections he had to leave some out. (Sorry, snakehead-infested Potomac!) Meanwhile, smaller rivers were demoted to bus routes, like California’s Sacramento River and the South’s Chattahoochee, made immortal in the eponymous 1993 hit featuring a jeans-wearing, water-skiing Alan Jackson talking about the weather being “hotter than a hoochie coochie.”
For folks who’d like to carry this map in their own jeans pocket while ripping around behind a motorboat, the day is not here yet but it might come soon. The paper pamphlet on Rindos’ website is just an illustrated mock up, but the designer says he’s “definitely considering” printing out hard copies, hopefully waterproof, for public enjoyment.