license plate game

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.


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