One man finds way to escape new plates' blandness

When it comes to matters of aesthetics, I am not generally one whose opinion carries much weight. Fortunately, I have spent much of my life surrounded by people well qualified to be arbiters in such matters. They have worked overtime to insulate me from the potential embarrassments and other pitfalls waiting for those without a clue about such things.

There is one field, however, in which I am confident that my sensibilities represent the cutting edge in tastefulness.

That would be the art and science of license plate design.

License plates come to mind right now because it was my turn this week to line up down at the courthouse and pick up my new Montana license plates.

Gradually, more and more vehicles are showing up on the streets with the re-designed Montana plates. If you haven't seen them by now, you haven't been looking.

If you have seen them, I am absolutely sure that you, like me, have been underwhelmed by the bland offering that is being foisted upon us.

Over the years, we have been blessed with fairly distinctive, but in no way gaudy, license plates. They have always been the kind that you could identify as Montana plates from quite a distance.

It was always a nice feeling, when driving in some distant state, to see a Montana plate coming down the road. As the vehicle approached, somebody would say: "Hey, it's a Montana car coming. Try to see where they're from."

That won't be happening with these new plates. Until you are real close, it is difficult to discern them from the pale, lifeless plates that the state of Missouri is handing out.

Missouri!

I am in full agreement with Clem Work who wrote in a recent letter to the editor that the new plates are nothing but "wimpy."

So I was not particularly excited to be standing in line, waiting for my opportunity to join in the wimpiness. But as I stood there thinking about how those plates were going to look on my truck, I began to see a bit of an opportunity. You see, there is an alternative.

But let me back up a bit.

It is common knowledge among those who venture east of the Divide occasionally to engage in a bit of hunting or fishing that a license plate from Missoula County can be something of a liability.

The perception that Missoula is a hotbed of wacky liberal ideas and a cesspool of sin and general licentiousness sometimes tempers the welcome one might get when asking a landowner for permission to, say, hunt pheasants or take a walk across the pasture and down to the creek to check out the fishing.

"You're from Missoula huh? Still got all those hippies raising hell over there?" or "Missoula? Seems like the only time I see Missoula cars over here is when somebody wants to hunt my pheasants."

Or worse.

Sometimes, that telltale Missoula plate actually means the difference between permission and rejection. Really!

There have been many times when I fervently wished that my plates had something like a "42" or an "11" on them. Carter County or Phillips County don't have near the socio-political baggage that comes with our little corner of the world.

I was thinking about that when I noticed the display of license plates on the back wall in the clerk and recorder's office.

A broad array of choices was displayed, none of them tainted by the blandness that inflicts the new plates. There are plates for veterans of various branches of the armed services, for Ex-POWs, for Purple Heart winners and others deserving of such distinction. And there are also special plates proclaiming the names of various institutions of higher learning in our state.

Suddenly I was faced with a choice, not a sentence to several years of blandness. And the choices could serve to kill two birds with one stone.

Although I am a true blue Griz fan and have done my share of time warming a seat on campus, I immediately eliminated the UM plates as a possibility. The same problem that comes with a Missoula County designation also comes with UM plates. Sorry.

So now, the choice was among such possibilities as Western, Northern, Rocky Mountain College, Salish-Kootenai Community College, Dawson County Community College, Miles City Community College and several more.

While I mulled the choices, I fantasized a bit about a mass rejection of the new Montana plates. If everyone chose one of the alternative plates instead of the standard offering, maybe the powers that be would get the message.

There are still some mighty nice license plates out there in the world. Utah and New Mexico are dandies. I know we could come up with something like that.

When the time came, I made my choice and ponied up the few extra bucks for a set of plates that are clearly down-home Montana.

Back at the ranch, Anne and Sander regarded the new plates with surprise and bit of eye-rolling as I explained my reasoning. They'll get over it.

After all, I'm the expert on this deal.

- Greg Tollefson is a Missoula free-lance writer. His column appears each week in Outdoors.

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