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I have driven across the United States of America, around many of its cities and towns, and as of now, halfway back to California. Since buying Bert for the road trip in February of this year, we’ve put about 17,000 miles on him (our diesel fuel bill requires scientific notation).

Since I do about 95% of the driving, I’ve spent a lot of time at the wheel. How much? Well, there is a lot of sitting in the car at stoplights, and an awful lot of cruising on the freeways at 55-60. Let’s just say it averages out to 40 MPH, which is probably nowhere near the actual figure.

17,000 miles ÷ 40 miles/hour = 425 hours

Aside from callused buttcheeks, what those hours have given me is a lot of time to think, listen to various podcasts, surf country/Jesus radio stations, and contemplate vanishing points and how they relate to highway lines. The daily commuter probably spends even more time behind the wheel, unfortunately relegated to a similar or identical path dictated by expedience, rather than refreshed by ever-changing scenery.

Unless navigating to a previously unvisited destination or jockeying with Boston cars, driving doesn’t take much mental exertion besides the minimum spatial awareness required to keep the wheels between the lines, the speedometer needle within acceptable bounds, and the vehicle away from obstacles. This leaves the real thinking structures of the brain free to design solutions to the world’s problems, play tricks with math, construct the perfect imaginary boulder, or blank out. In short, I enjoy driving.

Let’s not romanticize too much, though. Driving gets boring. Games with passengers can be fun, like reading highway signs in different voices. This doesn’t work when your passengers are asleep. Besides, any regular solo commuter will need to entertain him or herself, and you can only listen to so many NPR pledge drives.

My good friends Will and Courtney are also on long-term road-trips. Before that, they lived and worked in the Bay Area, and we’d go on weekend trips to Yosemite or Tahoe. They introduced me to the License Plate Game, and it opened up a whole new world of asphalt meditation. It’s based on the sequential number/letter combinations of California plates, which follow the pattern of 1ABC123. First you find XXXX000. Then, you find XXXX001, then XXXX002 etc. until you reach XXXX999, at which point you have won.

I’ll let Courtney explain the origins:

I played this game with my family when I was a kid in the back of the Astrovan en route to our cabin in Mammoth, as it gave us something to keep us busy so we wouldn’t constantly ask “how much longer” or “are we there yet”.

I know this seems inane, stupid, pointless, and a hundred other adjectives with negative connotations. But if you read this blog, chances are you climb rocks. If you do, I dare you to tell me you don’t pursue entirely personal goals with no tangible payoffs. Then go put your high horse out to pasture.

I have been playing this game for over a year now, and am currently seeking 043. This is a long-term game. And my progress is nothing compared to Will’s:

I’m pretty sure I got 7 plates in a day once in San Francisco. It was a combination of things: 1) I was cycling around town all day. Cycling is the best way to get plates because driving is too fast and requires too much attention on the road, and walking is too slow. Cycling is the perfect speed to see every plate in a line of parked cars. 2) I generally keep a mental record of all plates within 10 numbers of my current target. If I see a few plates ahead, I try to remember where and what kind of car it is for future reference. Many times I know about where a car parks and find it when I need it. 3) I had lots of time on my hands. I started seeing lots of plates in the 10 closest range. Once I started seeing a plate or 2, I was able to zig zag around SF to collect all the plates I had memorized from earlier in the day. That caused a chain reaction of seeing more plates, and at the end of the day, I had collected 7. It was an amazing day for the game.

I’m on 918 right now. South Africa actually has the right letter-number system so that I’ve gotten 2 numbers since I’ve been here. That’s well below average, but cool nonetheless. I’ve been playing since late 2008, almost 4 years. I’d estimate that I get about 4.7 plates per week, with a pretty high variance on that number.

This game can be both frustrating and satisfying, each to a surprising degree. When we arrived in Colorado, I was secretly quite excited because of the format of license plates. I had seen 025 in Texas many months prior, and I anticipated making up a lot of ground. It took me more than three weeks to find 026. I even wondered aloud to Will if Colorado plates were skewed towards higher numbers, or if 026 just didn’t exist for some reason. On a two-lane highway near Longmont, I finally saw 026. Thirty minutes later on the way back, I saw 027.

When playing the game, many subtle strategies and ethical questions arise. Courtney says “Will and I debated was playing the game with only one state’s plates, since it would be a purer form of the game. Once we started traveling around, and using other state’s plates, we realized it gave it a freer form of the game, and allowed us to play it while on the road, which was nice.” And what should you do if you lose track, or if you are 80% certain you just saw your target? I usually err on the side of caution, as I’d rather recount than skip a number.

Will defines a “Gaa” plate:

A gaa is any plate that makes you double-take, only to find out it’s not your number. An example of a gaa is a plate that’s one or 2 numbers away, or has the right numbers but jumbled, or has a similar ‘looking’ number, like a 3 where you need an 8. I’ve driven around the block before double-checking a gaa that wasn’t my number. GAAA!

You also start to notice certain numbers. For example, I feel as though 042 is relatively quite common, though it’s probably because it has a meaning for me (The answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything).

The best part about the game is that it turns every passing car into a possibility. It turns crowded freeways into fertile lands of opportunity (though, as Courtney points out, true stop-and-go sucks because you are usually surrounded by the same cars). It turns parking lots into tempting detours. Mostly, it gives one more little reason to fist pump while sitting behind the wheel for hours on end.

One interesting thing to think about is that if you reach 999, you will have seen well over one million license plates. 1000 plates to see, with a 1/1000 chance that a given plate is the right one, would be roughly a million plates. But you have to add all of the wrong-format, personalized, and awkwardly-numbered government plates out there. That’s an awful lot of plates.

I do have one question about this whole game that I’m hoping a mathematically-inclined reader might shed light on. What if the numerical distribution of numbers was skewed? What if, in your state, 40% of the plates were between 000 and 499, and the remaining 60% were above 500? How would this affect the speed at which you saw the full sequence? What if there were only a handful of a certain number, and every other number were slightly more abundant? Would the increased odds of the more common numbers make up for the presumed slowness of finding the rare ones?

If you start to play the Game, Courtney recommends playing it with someone else:

Sometimes I’d meet Will at his work on my bike to go to the gym and the first thing I’d say is ‘what number are you on?’ I think we’re both pretty competitive so it made it fun and sort of a challenge to beat the other person. When you travel with the same person and are on the same number it might not be quite the same, or maybe it makes it more awesome when you find the plate, since you can both rejoice in the glory of it all! I definitely remember many times when Will would see a number and I would groan because it meant his lead on me was growing.

I remember one day when I was unemployed, I just walked around each block within maybe a mile radius of my house in SF and looked for plates and listened to podcasts of This American Life for a couple hours. That was pretty bad. I think it was at a point when Will and I were closer in number and I wanted to get ahead in the game.

So there you have it. This is the License Plate Game, and it can greatly enhance a bike, drive, or walk. It may take you’re a few days or weeks to find 000, but once you do, you’re off and running. Someday, many months or even years from now, you’ll win. Or maybe you want to start on 999 and count backwards? Either way, it’s a fun game to play, with totally intangible rewards.


  • Erik Bro says:

    I played the sign game when I was little on road trips. It’s the alphabet game, but using signs. You go through the ABC’s and try to find words that start with the letter you’re on on signs. In order to claim a letter you have to find atleast a 2 letter word. It definitely made the hours pass much easier when you’re in the backseat with your brother or sister waiting to kill eachother.

    • Austin says:

      Haha, yeah I played that one with my girlfriend a few times on our road trip, it got pretty competitive… There was always a lot of drama around signs starting with an X, because according to our rules, two people couldn’t use the same sign for the same letter.. Im pretty sure I never actually punched her over a letter, but I think I wanted to..

      • finchplucker says:

        I have a hard time imagining signs that start with X’s…however I do think the alphabet game is much better for kids in the back of the car. There are only 26 to find instead of 1000, and the odds are much better. Plus, you are forced to pay attention to signs, which is a reading exercise, not to mention that it helps you be aware of your surroundings. Lastly, the kids might answer their own question when they read the sign “Los Angeles 255 miles.”

        So did you guys win, or what?

  • Will Wolcott says:

    and that doesn’t begin to describe the ethics of the game.

    1) Cheating. there’s no reason to cheat. the game means nothing to anyone so there’s no reason to try ‘get ahead’. and besides, if you spend 5 years finding ‘almost’ every number, you’d be pretty pissed at yourself for skipping a couple.

    2) Pre-recorded plates. what’s the protocol if your number on a car in a photo or on TV? The agreed upon ethic is that spontaneous pre-recorded plates are acceptable (i.e., watching a TV show you hadn’t seen before, etc.). However, any prior knowledge that your number can be found on recorded media invalidates that plate. Again, this takes a certain amount of ‘game’ morality. but then again, so does the entire personal accountability of the game.

    3) Plate uncertainty. what should you do if you THINK you saw your number but you can’t be sure it was right, and there’s no way to double check? First, you can’t legitimately count that number. You’ll never forgive yourself a 100 plates from now. However, there is a good strategy for dealing with this situation. The best thing to do is begin counting from both your current number and the number you THINK you saw. This can continue for weeks, playing the game for two different numbers simultaneously. Sometimes the higher number will pull away from your legitimate number. But the miraculous thing is: the two numbers will most certainly meet again. Thus proving that, it doesn’t really matter if you took that plate or not, you’d still be at the same place eventually. This is a key point. Because in an bat-shit crazy game as this, keeping your sanity is paramount.

    • finchplucker says:

      Cheating the Game is like claiming to climb a boulder/route when you haven’t. Nobody really cares, and you’re only cheating yourself. The Game is strictly for personal satisfaction. Unless someone starts “” and keeps track of world records and stuff.

      Pre-recorded plates: Totally. I always look for my plate in movies/Breaking Bad, especially since so many flicks take place in California. Haven’t seen one yet, but I’d take it if I did.

      Here’s a quandary…what about a plate that’s clearly personalized, but has three consecutive digits? Something like “LUV 420” or “XYZ 123.” Would you take it? I think I would, because they are so rare. It’s not like a vast untapped source of numbers that we could exploit by changing the rules…it’s not plate fracking. Besides, that plate will be all the more memorable.

      Another question: How to reward oneself for milestones and/or completion? Will, how will you celebrate your imminent completion of the Game? Please don’t tell me it’s replaying the game, but this time with letters…AAA, AAB, AAC…..

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