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How The World Wags

License plate "bingo"
By Dave Kiffer

February 12, 2005

Ketchikan, Alaska - I saw a Rhode Island license plate this week on Dock Street.

That probably doesn't mean much to you, but since I am an aficionado of License Plate Bingo it is akin to finding The Holy Grail. Actually, there are two "holy grails" in license plate bingo. I have seen two Rhode Island plates on the streets of Ketchikan over the years but

jpg Dave Kiffer Ketchikan
only one West Virginia license plate (2002). And it wasn't in the same year that I saw a Rhode Island one. So, unfortunately, the most state plates that I have seen in Ketchikan in a single year remains 49. I have, thus far, failed to achieve license plate "bingo."

Since "the world comes to Ketchikan" each summer in the hordes of visitors, I'm sure denizens of all fifty states trod our rain-slicked streets each week. But I prefer the semi-permanence of "collecting" license plate sightings. At the very least, the owners of the plates are spending more than a couple of hours in our fair Salmon City and that makes them seem more like welcome guests than curio city carpetbaggers.

It's always a little exciting to see an exotic license plate, say a mud-covered Maine or a Georgia streaked with red clay. If it is a far flung plate, you ponder the long strange trip it must have been. Or if it comes from a odd place - Kentucky for example - you wonder what brought the owner so far from home.

Half the fun of license plate bingo is filling the back story for how the plate arrived here. Is the owner just here for a brief visit with distant relatives? Or did they get transferred here and are wondering just what they did wrong in a previous life? Maybe they are one of those folks who have caught the adventure bug and came willingly to live in the Last Frontier? You hope they didn't end up here because they couldn't afford to take the ferry any farther north.

If we had a big international airport, I could suppose I could go sit in the lounge and watch people come and go and make up stories to go with their appearances but since I pretty much already know everyone whom I see at KIA, what's the fun in that?

So I am left to scan the bumpers of the cars I pass, hoping for a slight vicarious thrill (I haven't been to Hawaii lately, but that Ford Escort I just passed has!).

What about Hawaii, you say? Isn't it almost impossible to see one of its rainbow splashed plates locally? No, it isn't. Thanks to the relentless two year rotation of the Coast Guard, one can usually spot one or two Hawaii plates each year.

The Coast Guard even furnished a true rarity one year when a Coastie family arrived with Guam plates! I had to physically touch that plate (wow, microscopic coral dust from Guam!) because it seemed so unreal. Even the West Virginia plate that I saw three years ago was on a car that also had a Coast Guard bumper sticker on it, so anything is - obviously - possible.

Hawaii plates are generally less rare than three other plates: North Dakota, Delaware and South Carolina. It seems that folks in those states don't head up to these parts very often. They must have better places to vacation or maybe they don't care much for summer jobs in the tourism or fishing industries.

Over the years it has also become harder to immediately recognize state plates. Time was each state plate had distinctive colors and designs and those designs didn't change very often. For example, Alaska had a white plate with dark lettering for much of my youth and then changed to a yellow plate with dark blue lettering for another decade.

But now there are at least five different kinds of Alaska plates out there (traditional, Gold Rush Centennial, Kid, UAF, Purple Heart). Other states are becoming equally creative. Colorado has at least half a dozen. Florida in particular must have a dozen different plates on the market, so frequently I'll catch a glimpse of a "different" plate while driving and I'll circle around the block only to see that its just another Florida plate (very, very, very common here with the snowbirds and the Pirates of the Caribbean).

The fact that I will circle around the block for another look at an usual plate is a reflection of how seriously I take this bingo game. Or - as my wife contends - am obsessed with it. I have been known to speed up in traffic or go out of my way for a couple of blocks to follow what could be a previously unsighted plate.

That's probably born of the fact that twice in the last few years I have come up one plate short of "running the table." You get that close, you can literally taste victory. Of course, what that victory is isn't clear. I'm not going to win awards for it (I'm sure the folks who live near national parks like Yosemite and Denali see all 50 states each month). I'm not going to win any money for it. I'm not even the most obsessed with the process (yep, some yahoo in Florida has a website where he displays photos he has taken of all the license plates he has "bagged" each year). I guess, I - like the average Cubs or Mariners fan - am caught up in the thrill that each new year, may finally be "next year."

For those of you playing along at home, I have thus far (mid- February) spotted 20 different states. Some folks - my wife again - would say that since summer has even started yet, keeping track now is somehow cheating. I consider it thinking outside the box. And now since Rhode Island is already out of the way, I can start looking ahead to West Virginia.. Maybe there will be a glorious summer day when I see both North Dakota and South Carolina. Then again, maybe this will be the year that I bag all the "impossibles" and then go the entire year without seeing a car from Oregon. It could happen.

I have also seen two Canadian provinces (Ontario and Manitoba) thus far. I have never bagged more than eight provinces in any given year. One year (2003) I did see Prince Edward Island. Yukon Territory and New Brunswick. But that year, I never saw a British Columbia plate. Go figure.

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Dave Kiffer ©2004

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