An Ode to Nevada’s Weird Vanity Plates

When I move away from Reno at the end of the month, I might miss the cars most of all.

Eve Peyser

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Photos: Eve Peyser

When I moved to Nevada from New York City two years ago, I found myself missing strangers. The little interactions I had with oddballs when I was walking down the street and seeing people with bizarre outfits riding the subway was an aspect of New York City living that gave my life color, and only after it was gone, did I realize that I had taken it for granted. But I soon found that even though I no longer had those funny little stranger interactions, I still got to see people’s inner weirdo every time I left my house. All I had to do was look at their cars.

There are a lot of cars in Reno and it is not unique in that it’s almost impossible to navigate on foot: if you leave the downtown area, sidewalks are not guaranteed. But Reno — home to the National Automobile Museum, a half hour away from Tesla’s Gigafactory, and inside a state that’s basically a 100,000-square-foot desert — goes harder on cars than its average American counterpart.

12.73% of vehicles registered in Nevada have vanity license plates — the only places with more vanity plates are Virginia (a whopping 16.19%), New Hampshire (13.99%), and Illinois (13.41%). Everywhere I go, walking across the Walmart parking lot, the grounds of my apartment complex, or any strip mall, I see a plethora of fascinating license plates: a debatably xenophobic 4Runner telling Nevada transplants, “GBK2CA” (go back to California), “NOT OJ” on a white Ford Bronco, a Chevy Suburban with an upside plate that says “IMDUMB,” a radically anti-vegan RAM instructing readers to “BUYBEEF,” a “SMURF” plate on a blue Ford Focus, a Toyota Highlander with a “PLNTKLR” plate (does that mean plant killer or planet killer?), and so on.

Reno is simultaneously the land of vanity plates and no license plates at all. I’d estimate that about 5–10% of the cars I see on the road are plateless. This is likely due to the fact that there are not a lot of cops here, which minimizes the risk of getting pulled over. (The city has 12.7 police officers per 10,000 residents, which is on the lower end of the spectrum of cop-civilian ratios in American cities.)

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Eve Peyser

nyc native living in the pnw. read my writing in the new york times, nymag, vice, and more.