The 49th ALPCA International Convention was held in Tucson, Arizona. I decided to attend this one, having missed my chance the previous time it was held in Tucson, in 1997. Tucson is a very long way from Ottawa, and unless I had the time and money to go road tripping for two weeks (I had neither), flying was my only real option. It's a long way to go for a plate show given my meagre financial situation, but my uncle lives in nearby Phoenix, and I decided to visit him afterward and explore the area.
I had not had any need to travel by plane since 9-11. Although I had done my reading and knew what to expect, it was quite unnerving to be the subject of so many security procedures. Over the course of the whole trip, I had to show my passport multiple times, double-scan my onboard bag, open it for searching on three occasions, remove my shoes, and surrender a small, blunt, multi-tool screwdriver that I decided to bring at the last minute. If I wanted to stab someone, I still had a few ballpoint pens, but I guess they were worried that I'd try to dismantle the plane in mid-flight. Lesson learned: put your "tools" in your checked luggage. I had some trader plates in my onboard bag as well, but they let those through.
I flew from Ottawa to Detroit, looking out the window all the while and following all the highways and landmarks that I know so well. I pinpointed Rice Lake, the CN Tower, and even the cement factory in Oakville near an old girlfriend's house. The flight was interesting from Detroit to Phoenix also. The landscape morphed from forest to meadows, then to circular irrigated fields, and finally to rock and sand.
I landed in Phoenix and picked up my tiny, teardrop-shaped rental car: A lowly Daewoo Lanos. The engine was about the size of a sewing machine. Only time would tell how it would perform. Having never been in the desert before, the landscape was fascinatingly alien to me. I took advantage of the 75 mph speed limit to get to Tucson as fast as I could. It was Wednesday, the day was waning, and I wanted to look around the hall, and maybe score a plate before closing time.
I arrived at the hall with about an hour to go. I checked in at the table and introduced myself to some of the security guys, since I was going to be volunteering with them again, just like last year. I wandered about the hall, and got my bearings. I was on the lookout for international plates, just to add some variety to my wall display back home. I picked up a Hungary passenger plate just before the hall closed. I like Euro plates with flags on them, and I wanted something to show for my abbreviated first day.
The security team cleared the hall out and made sure everyone had departed. The convention centre staff locked the doors behind us. I still hadn't checked into my hotel room, but I was hungry. I grabbed a solo, so-so meal at Denny's first. I brought my SLR camera and a small tripod, figuring there might be some interesting sights. I tried some time-lapse photography with the spectacular yellow sunset in the western sky. I returned to the hotel and greeted my hotel roommate, Scott Mitchell, who had his son along for the trip.
It was a fun day, but very long. I spent most of the morning working security at various doors, and keeping an eye out for people without name tags. This year, the vast majority of people were gracious with their name tags—either having them on in the first place, or reporting directly to the registration table if they didn't. The name tag is one's "proof-of-purchase," as it were. Renting a huge convention hall is expensive, and the club can only subsidize that to a point. Those members who attend are expected to pay their fee in order to meet costs. There had previously been some cases of members entering without registering (paying), and we needed to keep random members of the general public out, as this was a private, members-only event.
I spent the whole day in the hall. Since I had flown with only a handful of meagre traders, there was little point in reserving a table, and I couldn't expect to swap much. Of course, that meant that I would have to pay cash to obtain any plates I needed. As I wandered the hall, I saw lots of really cool international plates. During the course of the day I picked up a cool Portuguese diplomat plate, a passenger plate from Ras Al Khaimah in the UAE*, and a great Estonian plate with distinct Cyrillic characters.
In a moment of serendipity, I found some light switch covers that I myself had made out of license plates, years ago. There were four of them, mostly ones that I had made in high school and then either sold or given away. I recognized one of the covers instantly-- the first one I had ever made. I had cut it out from an Ontario truck plate when I was still in high school, and I used it in my bedroom at the family cottage for a few years before my folks sold the place. There was a telltale streak of white paint along one edge from a time when I had painted part of the room without removing the plate. My handwriting, written with a black marker, was even on the back, reminding me that I had made this switch cover in the summer of 1992. I guess I had either sold it or given it away since, probably around 1996, when I was a university student in London, Ontario. Somewhere along the line, in a bulk purchase, Chuck Sakryd got a hold of them, and they happened to be in one of the boxes he brought to Tucson. As soon as I told him the story, he kindly gave them to me for free (there was a $2 price tag on each one). I'm glad to have them back, because I don't have very many plate-collecting mementoes from the days prior to my membership in ALPCA. What are the odds that I would fly all the way to Arizona and find such a thing?
Being an Ontario guy, I was always on the lookout for Ontario plates, but there were relatively few to be seen. But I made a sudden, unexpected discovery from Joe Kohlhas. He's the German fellow who drives around North America with his trailered car to collect road signs. Usually, he has nothing but US signs. But this time, he had an Ontario treasure: A blue-and-yellow "TO QEW" trailblazer sign, clearly used, but overall in strong condition. I bought the sign immediately for about $50 US. I'd never be able to bring a large sign aboard the flight home, but that was a problem I would figure out later.
The overall attendance in Tucson seemed to be down from the previous two conventions. But this makes sense, since many collectors are beyond a reasonable driving distance from Arizona. With the cost of airfare, it's easy to understand why some people would only come if they made enough money to offset the cost of their ticket. I had forked over a fair chunk of change for my own airfare, with the understanding that I would be spending lots of money, and making none of it back. I'm not a dealer, and I could never make back enough money to even put a dent in my airfare. I don't intend on flying to conventions in the foreseeable future. I'm just going to have to accept my geographic limitations for the next few years. Maybe one day I'll be one of those guys who can fly to any convention with a dozen rare plates in a suitcase and recoup their travel and lodging costs.
*The Ras Al Khaimah plate that I bought on this day, as it happened, turned out to be a reproduction. The seller—an older gent whose name I don't recall—wasn't aware of this, and neither was I. My collecting interests had changed by 2009, so I put it up for sale at the 55th ALPCA Convention in Erie. I was alerted by a couple of knowledgeable collectors that it was a "prototype," or more bluntly, a fake that was made in a shop not authorized to make plates. I confirmed this info, and cut my losses by immediately donating the plate to the club's fake plate collection. This is one of the pitfalls of branching out into new genres of collecting.
Something new to me happened on this day: I actually became a little bored. Attendance was down from the past couple of years. There were very few fellow Canadians in attendance. Most of the US collectors I know live out east, so there weren't as many familiar faces to see. The convention is fun, don't get me wrong. I enjoy shooting the breeze with people, but I had pretty much run out of breeze to shoot… and people with whom to shoot it. When my security watch was done for the day, I left the hall to go for a walk and get some pizza. My break from the convention hall offered an ideal opportunity to solve the dilemma surrounding my Ontario highway sign purchase from the previous day. I scrounged up some thick cardboard, bought a roll of packing tape, and made a sturdy envelope for my sign. I headed to the post office and mailed it home for about $20. While there, I bought some stamps and postcards. I spent my time outside the convention productively, but for me, leaving the hall for three consecutive hours was unprecedented.
I did return to the convention hall later on. Among my acquisitions on Friday were a cool Indonesian police plate, some Ontario diplomat plates, and a used Pennsylvania Zoo tiger plate in nice shape for a mere $20. It wasn't a sample plate, but the serial number (900S) did have some consecutive zeroes, and looked like a sample plate at a quick glance. I wasn't going to question the price, though. This was the third day of the convention, and the obvious bargains had largely been snapped up. I wasn't sure how the zoo plate had gone undetected all this time.
As always, I attended the donation auction. The one big barrier that I face with the auction is the length of it: I just start dozing off after about 10 pm. Last year, I volunteered as an auction runner, mostly to see if being on my feet would keep me awake (it did). This year, as a security volunteer, I was assigned to watch over the donation piles during the course of the auction… lots of standing around, with very little "running," as it were. The reason I was given this job was to prevent a confused character within the club from making the error of removing donated plates for themselves.
There were no big bidding wars at the auction... At least, nothing like the couple of previous years when people were racing to win single-digit souvenir plates and rare pre-states. A couple of generous $100 bids were made for souvenir plates while the auctioneer was calling for $30. I put in a couple of bids myself, but I was only looking for an easy bargain. I had already spent my limit, and I wasn't about to blow $150 on a big pile of Illinois passengers like I did five years earlier. Besides, I was traveling light… I would be flying home in a few days, and it didn't make sense to buy more than I could carry (or send home in the mail).
SATURDAY and beyond
I enjoy attending the general business meetings on Saturday, and I always have. I like hearing about the internal mechanisms of the club, what's changing, how much things cost us, who's been suspended, and all that stuff. There's a lot of acknowledgement of the various efforts of the club's volunteers, which is a necessary courtesy to pay. The majority of the members present indicated their enthusiasm for going to Rhode Island next year, and most people said they were planning to go. Count me in, too! I was initially surprised at the cost of lodging, but after it was explained to me that it's a very low rate for a city on the east coast, I put my concerns to rest. People have been bitching for years about the cycle of going to Illinois / Arizona / New York / Tennessee, so Rhode Island seems to be a good cure. Even my wife is interested in going!
Most people were packing up or gone by the time the meeting let out, and I myself was gone by noon. I spent the next four days exploring the Arizona desert. I drove an hour south of Tucson to the border town of Nogales. I found the boundary between the US and Mexico to be particularly fascinating. The Land of the Free, The Home of The Brave… normally stretching out as far as the eye can see… it just ends at an unceremonious fifteen-foot wall of interlocking metal runway plates. In some spots, beneath the plates, I could see glimpses of the parallel universe beyond.
There was a large plaza with a heavy stream of vehicles vying to enter the US, but fairly few vehicles traveling southward into Mexico. My travel literature told me that I should park the car in a pay lot on the US side, and use a pedestrian gate to cross. I parked in "Big Bill's" pay lot and saw a sign directing me down a sidewalk to the outdoor border gate. Entering Mexico was very simple: Just walk through the one-way security turnstile. Immediately upon stepping clear of the revolving bars, I was in the state of Sonora. There were no border guards to greet me; there was only a sign welcoming me to Mexico and advising me to walk ahead. As I emerged from the canopied walkway onto the street, one other sign informed me that reporting to customs was voluntary. Otherwise, I could just walk down the street. There were plenty of people nearby calling me over, asking if I needed a ride, or pharmaceuticals, or women.
I bought a couple of curios as souvenirs in the commercial district. I tried to find some license plates when I was walking in the barrio over the hill, but all the destroyed cars were devoid of plates. There was one Aerostar with plates that looked abandoned, but the tires were inflated, so it may still have belonged to someone. I didn't touch them, just to be safe. I spent a couple of hours in Mexican Nogales before crossing back over at pedestrian gate, guarded by the US Border Service. The customs officers chatted pleasantly with me while they checked my Canadian passport and poked around in my backpack before allowing me to pass.
I drove north to Phoenix to spend the next four days with my uncle. One day, we dipped back southward to Tucson to check out the Pima Air & Space Museum, which is mostly outdoor tarmac with dozens of retired military aircraft to admire up close. Another day, we drove through the high country. The highest point in the area has an elevation of over 8000 feet. Pine trees line the highways, as the temperature is too cold for cacti. The tiny engine of my rented Daewoo Lanos struggled to climb the hills. The automatic three-speed transmission downshifted into second gear far more often than I expected. The engine snarled loudly as the car occasionally dropped back into first gear, in order to maintain a safe highway speed. The grades weren't crazy-steep, but they were lengthy. I couldn't keep the feeble car at the speed limit for several stretches. At one point, after dark, a deer suddenly appeared in our path, but we had just crested a hill, and the car wasn't even doing 40 miles per hour. The car slowed on its own as I steered around the indifferent animal.
All in all, Arizona was a interesting place to visit. The ALPCA Convention was fun, but I had as good—or better—of a time exploring the region afterward. Highly recommended!