License Log

Long time ago in a building that no longer exists, Don Lyons got me hooked on the license plate game. The building, a long low ramshackle structure back behind Woodland Market, then housed the Martha’s Vineyard Times, where Don and I both worked. We and a bunch of our colleagues were sitting around a table eating lunch on a rush-to-deadline Wednesday when Don, apropos of nothing, wondered if we collectively could identify the five hardest-to-find state license plates on Martha’s Vineyard.

Turned out he was a longtime license plate spotter. In that moment I became one too. For at least 22 years now, I’ve been spotting license plates and logging them month by month on a map of the U.S. The ground rules are simple: The vehicle bearing the plate has to be either on Vineyard soil or on the ferry coming to or from. The plate has to be current. As I recall, Don didn’t count D.C. but I lived in D.C. for 11 years so I do.

The most elusive state of all

I don’t remember which five hard-to-find plates we came up with, or which ones Don had in mind. I’m pretty sure that Nebraska and Mississippi were two of them, and I’m certain that North Dakota was at the top of Don’s list. You’d think Hawaii would be rarer than North Dakota, but it isn’t. North Dakota is the perennial spoiler. I’ve only seen two North Dakota plates in all my years playing the game. Without North Dakota, you can’t finish the year with a fully colored-in map.

Since 2005, I’ve been issuing monthly license plate reports in the Bloggery at With the advent of 2012 I’m moving it over here. Make of it what you will.

5 Responses to License Log

  1. I just returned home to the island last week with a motorcycle I purchased while living abroad in British Columbia. I’m sure you can imagine the number of comments I’ve received about that license plate. And I have to say how weird it is to be on the other side of this game while on the island.


    • If you see a woman with a malamute rubbernecking as you go by, that’s me. 😉 Anything from western Canada (as in “west of Ontario”) is as rare as North Dakota. Plenty of Quebec and Ontario, the occasional Nova Scotia. That’s about it.


  2. jo says:

    my brother and i used to play the license plate game on road trips. the hitch there was that only one person could claim a specific plate. if i spotted a Georgia plate first, for example, my brother would have to wait for the next one. i used to be able to recognize plates from most states at quite a distance. the alphabet game was a favorite as well.


  3. Sharon Stewart says:

    I wonder why N. Dakota folks rarely drive to Martha’s Vineyard. Too poor for such a holiday? I guess I’ll just have to speculate for now.

    –Sharon, with Ontario plates fore and aft (unlike my Quebec neighbours, which have ’em aft only)


    • My theory is that Martha’s Vineyard sightings of a particular state’s plates are influenced by the (1) distance from, (2) population of, and (3) median income of that state. I see lots of California plates. California is a long way away, but it’s also got a big population and plenty of affluent residents. North Dakota is a long way away, and it’s also got a relatively small population that isn’t rolling in money. Likewise Mississippi. West Virginia is another chronic toughie — the West Virginia plate I usually see first belongs to someone I’ve known since I was a teenager.

      Ontario and Quebec (“Je me souviens”) plates are pretty common. I usually spot at least one Nova Scotia a year. Newfoundland & Labrador is rare, and the western provinces are even more so.


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