Wednesday, May 21, 2014

the license plate game.

Ah, summer: the season of road trips.

I love a good road trip. You pack your car full of good snacks, good music, and good people, and off you go.

My road trips have taken me all over the place: from Minneapolis to New Orleans to Canada, as long as you have a (mostly) working vehicle, the possibilities are endless.

Everybody has a different road trip style (yes, I just said “road trip style”), and my road trip style could best be called “engaged.” I like to stop at the tourist traps and eat at the greasy diners along the way. Most of all, I like to play the license plate game.

Now, what is the license plate game? The first thing you should know is that it’s awesome. It is simple, but simply delightful. You and your road trip friends see how many different license plates you can find. That’s it.

However, the license plate game can’t be played on just any road trip. It’s best played on road trips that are at least five hours long and go through either a.) major metropolitan areas, or b.) major tourist attractions. For example, even though James and I road trip to Minneapolis all the time, we have never played the license plate game because it would be SO DISAPPOINTING. The road to Minneapolis only goes through farmland, so we’d probably only see Minnesota license places… and maybe Iowa and Wisconsin if we’re lucky.

The best license plate games are the ones played on long-haul multi-state road trips, like when James and I drove to Canada, or when Dad and I drove from New Orleans back to South Dakota. The license plate game is best played with company for a number of reasons: you have extra sets of eyes, you have someone to keep track of what plates you’ve seen (so you don’t have to try and take notes while you’re driving), and you have someone to share your excitement with when you find an unusual plate. (Maine, I’m looking at you.) When I drove myself from South Dakota to New Orleans, I tried to play the license plate game by myself, but it just wasn’t the same.

When I play the license plate game, it’s not a competition. Everyone involved works together to complete one master list of states and provinces. You could make it into a competition if you wanted: believe me, we’ve thought about it. Everyone could have their own list, and the person who actually sees the license plate has dibs on that state. So if I see a Hawaii plate, I get to mark Hawaii off my list – and you have to see another Hawaii plate to mark it off your list. Whoever has the most states at the end of the road trip wins.  However, that seems a little unfair to the driver of the car. After all, you’d probably want them to focus more on driving than what the license plate is on the car in the rear view mirror.

I don’t remember when we first started playing the license plate game, but we used to pile in the family car and drive to Colorado each summer, so I’m assuming it was during one of those summers that we started playing. Over the years, the license plate game has evolved into a finely tuned machine with strict rules.

We start off by making an alphabetical list of all 50 states, plus the Canadian provinces. (I like to do it by memory, so I time how long it takes me to come up with all 50 states - about five minutes, in case you're curious.) We check them off as we go, and this makes it much easier to keep track of what we’ve seen and what we haven’t seen. The license plate on the car you’re in does not count: you have to see another car with that license plate for you to mark it off your list. (Example: I was recently in Phoenix visiting my sister, who has SD plates on her car. We couldn’t mark South Dakota plates off our list until we saw someone else with South Dakota plates – and, thanks to all the snowbirds, it didn’t take long before we did!) Also, license plates on semi-trucks and trailers don’t count unless they are regular looking license plates with pictures and all (not those special black-and-white trailer plates).

Finally, you have to decide when the game will begin and end. When James and I went to Canada, we had a separate game for the way up and while we were there, and we started fresh when we headed home. While traipsing around in Arizona this May, we kept the same game going the entire time.

The license plate game has taken me all over the country. I’ve played the license plate game from South Dakota to Colorado, Minnesota to Canada, Phoenix to Las Vegas, New Orleans to South Dakota, New Orleans to San Antonio, Arlington to Rapid City, and not to mention all around San Antonio, Winnipeg, Phoenix, and more. There was a time period (May – December 2009) when I played the license plate game so much (two round-trips from SD to Denver and a round-trip from New Orleans to SD = six license plate games) that I learned to recognize license plates by color alone. (Fun fact: I can still do it.)

I should’ve been keeping track of our license plate game totals over all these years. While we have never completed a list, we’ve come damn close. During this last trip to Phoenix, our grand total was 41: including three from Canada, one from Mexico, plus Alaska and Hawaii.
Go ahead. Be impressed.
Here’s an insider’s tip: you can find license plate gold mines in the parking lots of tourist attractions. When Dad and I were driving from New Orleans to South Dakota, we stopped at Graceland – but before we even went in, we made a round through the parking lot and checked off a ton of license plates. (We made a second round when we were leaving and checked off a bunch more.) James and I have done the same thing at Wall Drug (I think we found something like 20 license plates there, which is both awesome and completely ridiculous that so many people wanted to visit WALL DRUG) and Mount Rushmore, and while in Phoenix, we may or may not have cruised the parking lot at Montezuma’s Castle… and the one at Salt River tubing.

The license plate game is a GREAT way to pass time on long road trips – plus, I can’t explain the pure joy you feel in the fourth day of the game when you find that elusive Rhode Island plate. (Which we have yet to find, but that’s beside the point.) So the next time you find yourself settling in for a nice long road trip, I’d highly recommend the license plate game. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even find that sneaky Rhode Island plate.

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