Gun on the kitchen table: Not so different around here

Diane Richard on Oil Rig

The gun was on the kitchen table. A Kimber .45.

I’ve never seen a gun this close before.

“What’s this?” I ask.

“A gun,” Gayleen says.

“Why’s it here?”

“I’ve got guns all over the house,” she says.

Oh. I make a joke about Chekhov’s gun and dramatic inevitability. She glowers and moves the gun from my place at the table.

It’s my second day visiting Black Gold Boom producer Todd Melby in western North Dakota.

Sure is different round here.

Gayleen, a bartender at the one bar in McGregor, a tiny hamlet nearby another tiny hamlet called Hamlet, pointed to her own personal packing site, snug between her cleavage.

Nobody gives her trouble at the bar, now full to the taxidermied walls with male migrants trying to make it rich on the boom of black gold.

Or they might die trying.

The day before, we stop by Outlaws Bar & Grill, in Watford City. Watford City was once a sleepy little town, but oil has it mainlined on 5-Hour-Energy and it hasn’t napped since.

It’s prom night. Couples stream in, the girls wearing glistening taffeta and spandex confections, their dates sporting matching garters like funereal bands around their biceps. One prom goer hoists her toddler on her hip. The teens drive up in a white stretch limo and a kit car, a pair of flip-flops in the passenger seat, and pose for portraits beside the crick.

The day before, Bobcat John the itinerant knife seller tells us, a woman in a Cadillac Escalade collided with a truck on the ribbon of road between Alexander and Watford City. The Escalade squished like escargot. “You can’t miss it,” he says.

What’s hard to imagine is that it doesn’t happen every day. Trucks have conquered the landscape here, running 24 hours a day over roads built 50 years ago for wagons and dirt-caked pickups.

Because of the ruts the trucks make, and the way their weight bites into the asphalt and gravel, a temporary paver now rouges the roads. I learn a new word: “SCOR-ia.” It sounds like a rash and is the color of Spam and it doesn’t seem to help the roads much.

My first night, Todd takes me to Ray, N.D., for dinner. From the outside, the storefront looks long vacant, a plastic 7Up sign the only glimpse of 20th-century occupation. Inside, though, the tables are packed. Todd notes that the décor resembles an old lady’s bathroom, all peach and lavender and gauzy white curtains and calico wallpaper borders. He’s dead on.

By 5:30, many diners are already ordering their ice cream desserts.

While we wait on our orders—steak (Todd) and walleye (Diane)—a man in his 30s or 40s walks in and asks for a table for seven. A family, I figure.

Through the door come six other men, similar age span. I’ve haven’t seen so many men communing together since I walked by a church in my neighborhood that hosts an AA meeting, during an outdoor smoke break.

I squirt a second package of sour cream and chives on my baked potato, doubting that I should eat dairy products that require no refrigeration.

In Williston, we go to a PBR—professional bull riding competition. All I can see are broken necks and limbs and concussed skulls. So I study the women in the stands. One is wearing butt-skimming cut-off denim shorts over black lace stockings and boots with stiletto heels. She’s about my age. Another woman’s hair is dyed in silky ribbons of dark brown and white, like fudge ripple. Some of the men’s eyes look positively dead.

Todd introduces me to a woman whose family farm and ranch is now a burgeoning oil field. From her living room, she can look up at the dinosaur apparatus soon to be extracting, so she and the oil companies hope, millions of dollars’ worth of crude from miles under the soil. She drives us to the site, past the little plaque hammered into the ground announcing the company’s claim.

Using her landowner’s privilege, she breezes us through the company hand/company man’s trailer, grabs some hard hats and lets us climb into the rig. Up near the heavens, five men are wrestling metal anacondas dangling from the air and wrapping the jaws around metal rods, for what purpose I do not know. The clanging is deafening.

Walking back down, my hands glint with oil tinged the color of yolk.

Everyone has Purell in their trucks. Every business has a boot wiper, like a conjoined hedgehog with bristles to remove gunk from your boots. At the Bakken Buffet, a man camp also open for public dining, mud-packed boots are lined up under seats like you’d see outside a mosque. Burly men in trucker’s caps wear pale-blue paper booties while standing in line for all-you-can-eat spaghetti and grilled cheese and ham sandwiches.

If you go away hungry, the line assistant tells us, it’s your own fault.

I will not go away hungry.

— Diane Richard

Diane Richard lives in Minneapolis and will be producing stories and audio portraits for the Black Gold Boom oil series. 



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