Although they're not meant to be cryptic, studying a subway map in a new city can be a daunting endeavor that requires determination, a basic grasp of direction and the ability not to become overwhelmed and devolve into public transportation meltdown mode. But what does it all mean?!?

Most of all, you just need to trust yourself — and the map at hand — and be willing to ask for help if you're unsure that going 10 stops in a certain direction on a certain line will indeed land you a five-minute walk from your ultimate destination.

With that in mind, imagine how the early explorers of America’s rivers felt. Working with rudimentary maps (or, likely no map at all), these trailblazers — Marquette and Joliet, Lewis and Clark, Henry Hudson, Robert Gray, Francisco de Ulloa — had to really trust in themselves. Asking for help wasn’t a viable option, and the act of navigating from point A to point B wasn’t necessarily an expedient or straightforward affair.

Yet getting lost or veering off course along these early American transportation routes is often what led to the charting of new territory. In a sense, America’s expansive network of rivers is an early subway system of sorts, moving masses of people in one direction or another with numerous stops, branches and extensions leading to somewhere else along the way.

Thanks to the handiwork of New York-based graphic designer Theo Rindos, modern-day subway maps and river exploration have converged in a most clever and visually appealing way.

At first glance, Rindos’ "Major Rivers of the United States" topological map appears to be the sort of schematic diagram you'd spend some time familiarizing yourself with before setting out across London, Montreal, Stockholm, Paris, Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City — any place with an expansive, well-trafficked metro system. However, the multi-colored lines neatly branching out in every which way across Rindos’ map of the lower 48 represent nearly a dozen major waterways or “lines,” the Colorado, the Columbia, the Ohio, the Rio Grande, the Missouri and the mighty Mississippi among them.

“Most public transit maps are simplified as much as they can to make it easy for anyone to understand, no matter how complex the transit system is," Rindos explains in an email. “London's Tube map by Harry Beck or the 1972 New York City subway map by Massimo Vignelli, are two great examples. I wanted the U.S. major rivers to be as easily read as a subway map, I also wanted to make the map look as municipal as possible.”

Subway-inspired Major Rivers of the United States map by Theo Rindos, full view Have you ever traveled along one of these riparian transportation lines? (Illustration used with permission from Theo Rindos)

And Rindos succeeds at this.

If you take an even closer look, you’ll see more than just a subway-esque map of rivers. Rindos has conceived an entire riverine public transportation system including bus routes (minor rivers such as the Sacramento, the Platte and the Chattahoochee), zones (major watersheds) and transfer points (confluences). River sources represent the terminus of each individual line with economically important river towns serving as individual stations. Estuaries and national parks are also plotted on the map.

“I've always been into geography, so it was fun to dive deep into places in the U.S. I had never paid much attention to,” Rindos says. “I learned a lot more about the rivers after my map started picking up traction on the web when curious readers would send me tidbits and feedback. Most of the feedback has been pretty positive, though some readers have gotten upset when they didn't see their favorite river on the map. Even cartographers have been writing me with suggestions on how to make it more accurate, so I'm continuing to learn.”

Although Rindos currently calls the Hudson River-abutting city of Yonkers home, his favorite river is the one he grew up frolicking along as a kid growing up in Montana: the Yellowstone River, which itself is a tributary of the Missouri River. At 692 miles long, this trout-packed waterway is the longest free-flowing (undammed) river in the contiguous United States.

Rindos names the Columbia as another favorite. During childhood family trips to the coastal Pacific Northwest, he recalls being “being awestruck at the mammoth river that would just seem to pop up out of nowhere in the prairie in central Washington.”

It’s fun to see how these two major rivers connect on Rindos’ map as the Pink Line and the Purple Line. However, a rather lengthy ride along the Orange Line (aka the Snake River) is needed to complete the journey.

Although Rindos’ map isn’t commercially available in a pocket-size version, you could always print out a PDF of his creation to have on hand the next time that the waterways of America beckon. For armchair explorers, framed and unframed art prints are available at Rindos’ Society6 online storefront.

Via [CityLab]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.