The boom has given me a chance to return home to North Dakota. I’m originally from Hettinger and it’s been great to go back and experience Dakota culture again and see people I know and love. But it’s also been tough to see the landscape north of I-94 altered by rigs, trucks, dust. The “quiet beauty” of western North Dakota isn’t so quiet anymore.
Archive for May, 2012
It’s providing numerous job opportunities for workers nationwide, while supporting local industry and retailers. But, like Robert Mitchum’s character in “Night of the Hunter ,” Love and Hate are on each fist.
The first time I met Adell Hackworth, she was lounging atop her food truck. It was a Sunday (a rare day off), so the Tennessee woman had pulled out a ladder and climbed aboard. A friend joined her and they watched big rigs rumble past their perch. I spotted the pair, pulled over and asked for permission to join them. Like just about everyone else in oil country, Hackworth says she’s here to make a buck. That’s why she calls Highway 85 — the narrow ribbon of road between Alexander and Watford City, North Dakota — the Highway of Hope.
“Everybody that comes down this road, they’ve all got a story and all got a bunch of dreams,” she says. “Everybody’s up here to start over.”
— Todd Melby
Photo by Ben Garvin
When a group of guys from Kalispell, Montana, arrived in the oil patch, they didn’t find many places to eat. So instead of looking for jobs, they opened a BBQ shack. The 4P is located along a mostly deserted stretch of Highway 23 in Keene, North Dakota. Its surroundings are humble: Tucked inside a small, green building is a pair of plastic picnic tables, some beat-up beige carpet and a fridge that looks older than the young men working there.
Photographer Ben Garvin has joined me in western North Dakota. And what a difference it makes. During our first day together, we spotted a guy bow fishing in the Missouri River. We pulled over, chatted with him and discovered that he’d just finished his oil patch shift.
Instead of curling up at home with a video game, Benjamin Audet grabbed his bow and arrow and headed to the water. He’d been awake for 24 hours in a row, or maybe 36 hours, he wasn’t sure. His gig, like many oil jobs, isn’t on a rig, but does require long hours. On the night before we met, he worked from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Now the sun was rising in the sky and Audet was pointing his arrow into the murky Missouri at flashes of carp he saw fluttering in the water. His New Jersey Devils cap was backwards on his head and his running shoes were drenched with mud. But he didn’t seem to care.
In fact, Audet was intent on showing his visitors how well he could shoot. On the first few attempts, he missed. “Ain’t this always the way it works,” he said. “As soon as you want to see someone shoot as fish, it doesn’t happen.”
And then it did. A carp swam too close, Audet aimed, fired and impaled his nemesis.
Then Garvin stepped in to capture an image of man and fish.
— Todd Melby
(Photo by Ben Garvin)
Amtrak’s Empire Builder travels from Chicago to Seattle or Spokane every day, making several stops in North Dakota. Before the oil boom in the western part of the state, not many people got on and off the train around these parts. That’s changed.
The passenger train’s ridership is booming:
- In the first seven months of Amtrak’s fiscal year (Oct. 2010 – April 2011), nearly 34,000 people jumped on or off trains in Williston. That’s nearly as many riders as Spokane, a city with about ten times as many people as North Dakota’s biggest boom town.
- If ticket sales continue at the current pace, Williston ridership will hit 57,000 by the end of Amtrak’s fiscal year — a 93 percent jump from just a year ago.
- Ridership in Stanley is also on track to nearly double. For the first seven months of the fiscal year, it’s at 6,500 people, more than all of 2011.
- Instead of riding coach, an increasing number of oil patch customers are opting for more expensive sleeper cars. For the first seven months of this fiscal year (Oct. 2010 – April 2011), more than 5,000 people have plopped down big bucks for sleeper cars in Williston and Stanley.
In cities, people express their style any number of ways, including personal appearance. A man might favor a certain brand of shirt or get his hair cut just so. Style in the oil patch of western North Dakota, is well, uniform: Jeans or overalls, shirt and a ballcap.
So where does personal style come into play?
The pickup truck sticker.
The pickup truck sticker is like a bumper sticker, only it’s placed on the back of a pickup window, not on a bumper.
Since arriving in the oil patch, I’ve become obsessed with these pithy stickers and have snapped lots of photos of them. And if the owner is around, I ask about his sticker.
Like other day in Watford City, there was this sticker on a black truck driven by a burly guy with a thick moustache. It read: “I Came For The Cash Cause I’m Oil Field Trash.” The owner of the sticker was Richard Karpe of Oklahoma. His sticker is a standout in the patch. I’ve seen it and a slightly different version — “Oil Field Trash and Proud” — on several vehicles.
I asked him what he liked about the “Oil Field Trash” sticker. “Just the saying of it,” Karpe says. “Everybody likes it.”
One day while filling up with gas at the Cenex in Watford City, I saw a guy with three stickers on the rear window of his silver Chevy. He wouldn’t give me his name, but he told me he works on a drilling rig. “It’s hard, dirty work. But all and all, it pays big money. Why not do it?” he says.
This guy — we’ll call him Montana Roughneck —has a trio of stickers that tell his life story, from birth to school to present day. His stickers read: “Born To Be A Roughneck. University of Hard Labor. That was my graduatin’. And now it’s Bleep, Fight or Trip Pipe.” Trip pipe? That’s drilling rig jargon for putting pipe into a hole or taking it out.
“I have the stickers because it warns off other roughnecks looking for trouble,” says Montana Roughneck. “It kinda shows you are a little bit of trouble.”
Although Montana Roughneck’s stickers are macho tough, he says others are even more in-your-face. “I’ve seen some pretty foul ones,” he says. “The ones I see are pretty derogatory towards women. A lot of roughnecks have those. I try to shy away from that. This is probably enough. I’ve had people that might be churchgoers that say something about my stickers the way it is.”
While I had Montana Roughneck’s ear, I asked him about a sticker I saw on a pickup parked near Williston High School. “Have you seen the one that says, ‘Welcome to North Dakota. Frankly We Don’t Give A Bleep How You Did It Back Home’?
His reply: “That would most likely pertain to Texans. Lots of Texans come up here believin’ that the Texas way is the best way. Up here, that doesn’t fly.”
A revelation! “So, how does the Texas way differ from the North Dakota/Montana way?” I wondered.
“Texans have the phrase, ‘We invented the oil field,’” Montana Roughneck says. “North Dakotans have the phrase, ‘We perfected it.’ I’ve heard that many times.”
A few days later, I sat next to a Texan at a PBR event in Williston. That’s Professional Bull Riding, not Pabst Blue Ribbon. The Texan looked the part. He wore a big 10-gallon hat and a surly expression. When I tried to make small talk, he stared straight ahead and said he wanted to get lit up. I kept my tape recorder in its case.
By the way, Men aren’t the only ones with stickers. I’ve seen ones in Williston reading “Oil Field Wives: The Backbone of the Oil Field” and “Bad Ass Girls Drive Bad Ass Toys.”
So where do these stickers come from? I’ve been in plenty of truck stop out here and haven’t seen any good ones. I asked Montana Roughneck about that. “Sticker bus right here in Watford City,” he says. “It comes through in the summertime.”
I’ll be on the lookout.
— Todd Melby
Correction: When this story was originally published, we spelled Richard Karpe’s name incorrectly. We also mispronounced Karpe’s name. Black Gold Boom regrets the error.
Global gas flaring is up 4 percent.
In fact, the release of natural gas at drilling and well pumping sites — as commonly seen in North Dakota’s oil patch — is the main reason the U.S. is now in the Top Ten worldwide for gas-flare pollution, according to a Reuters news story.
A source at the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership told Reuters: “The challenge in North Dakota is that there is a lot of initial exploration and production going on, and often some flaring is necessary at that stage.”
The source added: “We are hopeful that when the full data is released, both policymakers and companies in North Dakota will pay more attention to this issue and take the necessary steps to minimize flaring.”
The full report is due later this month.
Photo by Ben Garvin
About a year ago, Jessie Veeder returned to her family ranch near Watford City, North Dakota. Soon, change started to arrive. Oil wells and pipeline construction began dotting the landscape. And people from all corners of America arrived to work. So the singer/songwriter decided to write about her transformed hometown. Listen to Todd Melby’s portrait of Jessie Veeder, which includes Jessie’s performance of “Boomtown.”
To read more about Jessie Veeder’s new album, go here.
— Todd Melby
Photos by Ben Garvin (top) and Todd Melby