An Early Dispatch From Oil Country

A peek inside a drilling rig

Roads in western North Dakota used to be peaceful, almost quiet places. About eight years ago, my niece and I happened upon a dead snake on one of these two-lane highways. We stopped the car and got out to take a look. We didn’t pull over to the shoulder. We didn’t have to. We were the only ones around for miles and miles. These days, an act like that can get you killed. Thousands of trucks hauling oil, water, rigs, pipes and dozens and dozens of other things cram crowded highways and narrow gravel roads. The oil boom has come to western North Dakota and changed the way of life here.

In the first few weeks here, I’ve met men from Detroit, Chicago, southern California, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. One trucker compared the gravel roads here to gravel roads in Iraq — he’d previously hauled military supplies in the Middle East. A former Los Angeles police officer, who now sells fire-retardant clothes to oil workers, says traffic is more dangerous near the tiny town of Watford City than in L.A. during rush hour. Some men are shift workers, hitting the oil fields at night. Which explains why one 27-year-old told me he sleeps every chance he gets. On a rare off-day, he’s been known to curl up on the carpet or slump in patio furniture at a store for cat naps.

Dirt is everywhere. Signs warn men (nearly everyone who works in the oil business is a man) to wipe their feet before entering the mall in Ray or the showers at the swimming pool in Williston. At a gas station in Watford City, men are told not to spit tobacco juice or “loogies” in the public urinal. Most truck stops sell shirts, hats and Wrangler jeans, the only blue jean for a true westerner. Most gas stations sell pre-packaged sandwiches and pizzas, but one place in Bowbells went out of its way to offer homemade goulash and breadsticks for $3.50.

Housing is scarce. During my first month on the job, I paid $1,100 for a one-bedroom apartment that lacked a bathroom, shower and kitchen. All three were down the hall. Some workers live in poorly insulated trailers with limited access to utilities. One man told me he drives down the road to shower and complains that his $30/hour salary isn’t enough to buy anyplace better. Others don’t mind living in so-called “man camps” because food is included and their employer pays for most of the cost.

Although I haven’t met any of these folks yet, some people are getting rich. One banker whispered to me that hangars at a local airport are filled with private jets. It’s also rumored that one rancher has so much money that he’s traded in his pickup for a Cadillac and that he actually drives that around his pasture, dirt and mud be damned.

— Todd Melby, March 2012


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