Weekend Wanderer: Road-Trip Car Games … to Play by Yourself


weekend wanderer

So there I was, driving eight hours to drop off my kid at camp. 

Then driving eight hours home by myself. 

Three days later, I’d embark on that same trip in reverse — eight hours alone in the car, then eight hours with my daughter on the drive home from camp. 

The eight-hour drive didn’t bother me. I’ve been making that drive every summer of my life since birth. 

Well, since conception. But it’s bad enough I’ve heard that story. I don’t think you need to hear that story, too. 

I also was not troubled by driving alone. We introverts consider that many hours alone the least you can do for us. 

And while legs of this trip included my daughter, she is a teenager. A road trip with an adolescent brings to mind Patrick Swayze’s edict about dance spaces in Dirty Dancing

How can one fill thirty-two hours of solitary driving? I mean, you get your food set up, obviously. And ignore the gas tank because the gas tank is not your job, problem, or the least bit interesting. 

And you need a podcast. And to watch for serial killers because you’ve seen The Hitcher, Vacancy, Kalifornia, and Duel.  

And really. Has Rutger Hauer taught you nothing? 

But once you have your cookies, neglected gas tank, podcast, and serial killer surveillance system, what do you do for all those hours? 

I’ll tell you. 

You play The License Plate Game.

“With yourself?” my friend asked. 

Yes. With myself. 

And because I’m playing The License Plate Game with myself, the rules are much more strict than playing with other people

“Of course they are,” my husband sighed, because, having lived with a very regimented wife for a year or two too long, he knows creating strict rules for myself is, well, the rule I live by. 

It’s not enough to find a license plate from each state.  

Unless you’re accepting participation trophies. Are you accepting participation trophies? Because if you are, then by all means. Play The License Plate Game with yourself with the singular rule of finding each state’s plate. 

But if you’re looking to win — I mean really win — you need a few more rules. 

Rule Number One? License plates viewed during the two days you’re not driving to and from camp do not count.  

I cannot stress this enough. They don’t count. They don’t. Even though Kansas is one of the few states you’re missing. Even though you see two Kansas license plates while you’re tooling around Pennsylvania and zero Kansas plates when you’re crossing five states. 

They don’t count. 

The second rule is a bit more complex. Some license plates have little frames, like they’re family photos hanging in the living room. Those frames block the name of the state. 

Don’t memorize the look, the quirks of that license plate in the frame and Google it later. No. There will be no later Googling. You must be able to identify the plate in the moment or else — yes — it doesn’t count. 

So even if, for example, you really need Michigan, you need Michigan more than you need cookies or to ice those knees you fell on or to check on the serial killer situation, and you see a license plate with a frame that says “Great Lakes” and you think, “That’s got to be from Michigan!”  

Well, it doesn’t count. I’m sorry. That’s the rule.  

The third rule — and don’t quibble with me here — the third rule is the car must be driving. It can’t be parked. Unless you’re a cheater. If you’re like Robbie in Dirty Dancing because I clearly had to watch Dirty Dancing for accuracy in this column today — then go ahead. Cheat. Use that Arizona plate parked at the Circle K. 

This rule has an addendum. The car is also disqualified if it’s getting gas. That’s just the way it is. I’m sorry. I don’t make the rules. 

I mean, I do make the rules. But I don’t. The rules to this particular version of The License Plate Game are like The Rolling Stones. Nobody made them. They’ve just always been there. 

Abiding by these rules, I found every state but Utah, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Hawaii

Yes. I saw a car with Alaska plates. Two cars, actually. 

But Hawaii. If I was Susan Lucci, then Hawaii would be my Emmy. 

I mean, I get it. Catching a Hawaiian plate in the continental United States is like catching Mick Jagger between pregnant girlfriends. It’s not easy to get a car with Hawaiian plates to I-95 unless your parents drove it there Dead Milkmen-style. 

Disturbingly, I saw three cars without license plates and one car with a license plate so dirty, it was unreadable. 

Maybe it was a license plate from the much-desired Hawaii. I’ll never know. What I do know is each of those cars belonged to serial killers. 

Yes. I do know that. Why else would these cars lack license plates? What? They just forgot them at home? 

“What happens,” my husband asked, “If you don’t find a plate from each state?”  

Probably something bad, I told him. Right? It seems like failure to win The License Plate Game against myself is punishable by, like, death or something. 

I am spending this week making a daily, three-hour round trip for my son’s camp in New Jersey. Round Two of The License Plate Game has commenced. 

And generated a new rule. 

Only license plates glimpsed on the camp commute count. So the Wisconsin plate I saw yesterday while driving my daughter to Royersford didn’t count. 

I’m sorry. 

That’s the rule. 

And it’s the only way to win The License Plate Game. 

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