How the license plate game made me a stalker

I’m not proud of it, but I’ll admit that I was stalking the man who had been in the cash register line in front of me at the Pilot Travel Center in Fort George, Utah. That’s the lengths you’ll go to when you are playing the license plate game.

The game is one I have been playing since I was a kid on family road trips. The idea is to see how many state’s license plates you can spot, and for most players the hardest to get, of course, is Hawaii. Which is why I had become a stalker.

When the man opened his wallet to pay for his coffee I’d happened to notice that he had a Hawaii driver’s license. It seemed too good to be true that so early in this round of the game – near the start of Interstate Bob’s Ultimate American Road Trip – I might see a Hawaii plate. But I followed him out into the parking lot anyway, and was not surprised to see that the car he was driving was from California.

Hawaii plates are not unheard of in the 48 states. Sometimes, people who have moved from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland will bring them along as mementos or souvenirs, and they’ll occasionally show up on the front of cars in states like Arizona that officially have only a rear plate.

Even without a Hawaii plate, I haven’t gotten off to a bad start on this round. I’ve seen 27 different states so far, including West Virginia, which is very rare this far west. West Virginians, based on my observations of plates, don’t seem to get as far from home as the residents of most states. They are like North Dakotans in that way.

It is a bit worrisome that I haven’t seen an Alaska plate yet. In the West, they are not as hard to spot as some people might think. But it is mid-summer, which is the worst time for Alaska-plate spotting, unless you are in Alaska (the best season for Alaska plates is in the winter, in Arizona), and if I don’t see one by the time I cross the Rockies, this could be a long round.

There are variations to the game. Some consider it a team activity. Others – particularly couples who are just learning how much a road trip can teach us about each other — more often look at it as a competition. Veteran road trippers who have already completed a round or two might time themselves in the hope of setting a new personal best. Some keep a running tally, others reset at the end of each trip. The latter are the ones who sometimes drive a block or two out of their way at the end of a trip in the hope of seeing those last missing plates.

Naturally, there are now apps for the game. I use one called simply “The License Plate Game.” Its only difference from the traditional pencil and paper version is that it tells you how far you are from a state when you spot its plate. So I suppose a variation could be to add up the distances and total them.

Whatever the variation, though, the key strategy is always the same. If you spot a Hawaii plate, and aren’t in Hawaii, drop whatever else you are doing, convene a road trip right there on the spot if necessary, and start playing.

Also, if you are in an interstate travel plaza, which is a great place to spot license plates, and you find it necessary, don’t to be afraid to stalk someone.


Filching napkins wholesale at a McDonald’s on I-40

At a McDonald’s on I-40 in Kingman Arizona, I talked with a retired couple who were filching napkins from the restaurant in wholesale quantities.

The man, who wore a frayed green t-shirt labeled “Lake Havasu,” twice removed a foot-high stack of the napkins from the amenities table, then casually returned to a booth where his wife just as casually dropped them into a canvas bag.

Their booth was next to mine, and the second time the man returned with the napkins we made eye contact. But etiquette doesn’t allow you to ask the questions that come immediately to mind in such situations, so instead I asked if they’d ever been on I-15 North, up to where it connects with I-70, the highway I was going to take across the Rockies.

“All the time,” said the man, who was also named Bob. “We lived in Denver until it got as bad as L.A. That’s when we retired and came down here.”

I pictured gangs. But the problem was air pollution, which because of something to do with ozone had moved the city up to the eighth most polluted in the U.S. It had gotten so bad, Bob said, that they had been unable to breathe without oxygen.

“But tell him about the peaches,” said his wife, whose name I didn’t catch, even after asking her to repeat it, the difficulty perhaps being that she was, she told me “from the Old Country.”

The peaches, from Palisade, Colorado, just off I-70, and perhaps just in season when I would be driving by – like tomorrow – were reason enough to stop, Bob said.

I just might. And even if I don’t I doubt I will ever be able to look at any peach again without wondering what that couple were doing with all those napkins.




Facebook Friends Road Trip. Would you do it?


I was at the Subaru dealership in Scottsdale, AZ, today, having them give my Forester a tune-up in preparation for my resuming my 49,702-mile  Interstate Bob’s Ultimate American Road Trip  when I got into a conversation with a guy who had just driven cross-country by staying only with “Friends” he’d met on Facebook. The Facebook Friends Road Trip, he called it.

“Amazing, the number of offers I got,” he said. “And if I told people I might not get there until after 11 pm, or whatever, they’d say, “We’ll be waiting.”

An interesting idea, but I’m not yet sure if I am that far into the sharing economy.

What if my new friends expected me to stay for a week? Or didn’t watch the same news network as me? Or had been anticipating my arrival  by sharpening their carving knives?

On the other hand, The Facebook Friends Road Trip could be a great way to meet new people (in real life) and hear stories and share good experiences you might otherwise miss.

How about you? Would you do it?  And could you sleep soundly on a stranger’s sofa, maybe with a family pet who preferred watching a different news network than you?

Or if the tables were turned, could you invite somebody in off the road who you knew only through a Facebook photo they said was of them? Would you invite me in?  (Photo attached.) And do you own a set of carving knives?


Interstate Bob’s Ultimate Road Trip — A 49,072-mile highway adventure

Hello rubber tramps and all who wish they could be. I’m Bob Payne, also known to some of you  as Interstate Bob. I hope you’ll join me on Interstate Bob’s Ultimate Road Trip,  a 49,072-mile highway adventure around (and around) America.

As a bit of background, I’ve spent much of my life as a travel writer, visiting 140-something countries and seeing my stories appear in some pretty good publications, including Conde Nast Traveler magazine, where I believe I remain the only writer ever allowed to put the cost of a Polynesian tattoo on an expense account.

But now I’ve decided to settle down, which to my mind means taking the time to see more of my own country. And I have begun with Interstate Bob’s Ultimate Road Trip.

I am driving all 49,072 miles of America’s Interstate Highway System, of which I’ve already done 20,411.

But looking for driving adventure on the Interstate? I know some eyes are rolling, because I’ve done the Blue Highways and Travels with Charley thing, too. And I remember totally agreeing with  Charles Kuralt, the On the Road storyteller for CBS beginning back in the late 1960’s, when he said, “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.”

Consider this point of view, though. Sure, it is possible to travel anywhere without seeing anything. Most people do it all the time. But if you look closely enough, in the desert, on the ocean, along the Interstate, you’ll find life, and drama, and sometimes even beauty.

To see all that, I’m looking  most closely at the people I meet along the way, because one thing I’ve learned in all my travels is that everyone — whether they are taking a break from working behind a fast-food counter, or picking up the pieces of a sofa that has just blown onto the highway from out of the back of their pickup truck — has a story to tell that we all can almost always benefit from listening to.

I hope you’ll come along and listen with me.