Life in a modern boomtown is living on the frontier but with a smartphone. “Capitalism on crack” is the way historian Clay Jenkinson referred to it – everyone taking what they can get, as fast as they can.
I spent nearly a year in an oil boomtown:from summer of 2013 to winter of 2014, I worked in the Bakken oil patch out of Williston, North Dakota.At the time, politicians, geologists, and much of the national media claimed the townwould be booming for decades to come. They were all wrong.
North Dakota began to boom in the midst of America’s forever wars, when technological advancement in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing made a formerly impenetrable seam of crude oil suddenly recoverable.
Williston, a rural community in an Indian service area with ties to the Turtle Mountain Chippewa, found its population ballooning. Most of those coming to town were men looking for work. Much of the hiring by oilfield companies was pitched toward veterans, but in the wake of the 2008 crash, anyone who could swing a hammer had a shot at landing a job. Williston was swamped by out-of-work carpenters, plumbers and contractors of every stripe.
At the beginning of the boom, many oilfield jobs had provided signing bonuses, housing and per diems to the ever growing migrant workforce – benefits trumpeted by the oil industry, the media and local lawmakers. By the time I arrived, however, the perks had mostly dried up. I wasn’t the only guy late to the party.
The roads were cluttered with clunkers with out-of-state license plates, 18-wheelers, and construction crews. Under the yawning blue of the endless sky and cradled by rambling waves of prairie grass on either side of it, the busted macadam of Route 2 existed as the most visible mundane daily reminder that everything and everyone was a bit overwhelmed.
The Williston job services office estimated at the time that eight new people were arriving in town every day. Williston grew from 12,000 to over 30,000 residents in a few short years, according to some estimates. Most likely those estimates are low. At one point, the town’s mayor claimed Williston was providing services to as many as 60,000 to 70,000 people.
Some of the men I worked with were locals but a great deal were migrant workers like me, general laborers willing to follow the money, or so hard up that “willing” didn’t enter the equation. Migrant workers had come not only from the heartland, but from everywhere. I lived with a group of Jamaicans, and worked with several Congolese immigrants. Several guys I knew had worked the silver mines in Elko, Nevada, then moved to Williston when the price of silver dropped. I imagine many of them drifted down to Texas to work the Permian once Williston went bust. Before I met them, I thought of these kinds of transient workers as a relic of the dust bowl. I didn’t know they still existed. Now I think about them every day.
I landed a job at a crane rigger and swamper for a company that moved oil rigs. I feel stumped every time I attempt to find an adjective that captures how hard the work was.An average day in the patch runs between 12 and 14 hours, much of it back breaking. While many oilfield jobs required two weeks on and two weeks off, I was on call every day. On days off, I sometimes didn’t leave the bed, just lay there staring up at the ceiling, the worry in my belly tightening like a metal coil, waiting for a call from dispatch saying “You’re headed out on the gin truck tomorrow, Magic.” My longest work day was 17 and a half hours. The longest week I recorded working was 95 and a half hours. I once worked 172 hours over the course of 14 days. To the men I worked with, this was unexceptional.
It was considered bad form to show how much you were struggling on the job. Guys got run off for looking weak or operating a step behind. I worried over my lack of size, strength and skill. It wasn’t until I’d earned my place in the patch that one of the toughest hands I knew admitted that for his first several months on the job, he used to go home and cry every night.
We worked through all kinds of weather. From the 99F dog days of summer to deep into North Dakota’s bracing winter storms. The coldest I ever worked in was -38F. I was never provided cold weather gear by the company I worked for, although I asked for it multiple times. Frostbite was not uncommon. One guy joked that you could tell a real oilfield hand by the fact he was missing the fleshy part toward the tip of his nose. There was always a lot of talk about real oilfield hands. Pride was one thing no one can take from you out there.