Musings, North Dakota Living

Leaving the Oil Field; Taking it With Me

The title does not refer to the abundance of mud on my shoes, although I dragged plenty of that with me to the Minneapolis aiport. My most recent mode of transportation out of the oil field allowed me to travel part of my journey with some my Bakken compadres instead of leaving them in the dust. Literally. (There’s a lot of dust in the Bakken.)

This Thanksgiving, my family went to North Carolina to visit my oldest brother Andy and his wife Shawna. I flew out of Williston’s tiny Sloulin Field Aiport.

I have not flown out of Williston since the oil boom hit. Let me give you a little rundown. In the 2000 census, Williston had around 12,500 people. Now, newspapers estimate it is closer to 22,000 people, so it has almost doubled in size in the last several years; and that’s only Williston, not the rest of the Bakken. Williston’s airport is currently servicing thousands more people than it was designed for. None of this, however, crossed my mind when I got my plane ticket. I was just relieved not to have to drive hours to the next closest airport.

It turned out to be a little more of an adventure than I was anticipating. After leaving my teaching job early for my 47-mile drive to Williston, dodging daytime traffic like a MarioKart driver – which I don’t generally have to do, being hidden safely in school during the workday – I arrived at the airport a bit late only to be met with what seemed to be miles of muddy pickups parked haphazardly in every possible location. There were so many that they were spreading down the frontage roads surrounding the airport. I was beginning to contemplate the dangers of parking at Walmart a few lots away when a pickup left, opening up a spot. I zoomed in, hoping it was legal. Minor details. I gathered my belongings and trudged through the slush with my suitcase, picking up a layer of mud on the bottom of my boots along the way.

Pickups lined up at the airport. Of the hundreds of vehicles parked here during Thanksgiving break, about 75% are pickups. These three have California, Montana, and Texas plates, and next to them (not pictured) are pickups from Alabama and Wyoming – a pretty good sampling of the oil field.

When I finally got through the mad rush of getting my boarding pass and going through security, I had some time to relax before boarding the plane. It was then that my surroundings finally struck me.

I realized I wasn’t in a typical airport. First of all, instead of the usual advertisements on the wall for exotic travel locations and imported vodka, the faux wood wall panels were caked with oil-related advertisements only: fracking technology, oil field GPS services, and housing options. Second, I was sitting next to one of only two other women in the entire waiting area, and she looked like she could beat up most of the men. I liked that about her. Scattered around on every available chair were scruffy males mainly in their 20s, 30s, and 40s of various builds and ethnicities. Two were speaking a Middle Eastern language I didn’t recognize. Two others within earshot were discussing whose home state was better: Florida or Arkansas. Some were wearing baseball caps from Kansas City, California, and Colorado. A couple had jeans tucked into cowboy boots. One individual was passed out on his chair with his head slumped on his chest, looking like he was sleeping off a hangover. It was a perfect sampling of the oil field in one tiny airport sitting area.

I found myself fascinated by everyone around me. In a Thanksgiving church service last week, the pastor had encouraged us to feel gratitude for the overabundance of jobs in our area and the 2.4% unemployment rate rather than cursing the oil field and what it has done to our homes. “After all,” he had said, “people must be coming from hard times if they’re willing to live in a camper in your backyard just to make some money.” It was true, I thought. What hard times are these men coming from? What are their stories? Do they have wives back home, or aging grandmothers? Are they excited to escape the oil field for a few days? I saw several men I would like to interrogate: a few friendly-looking oil workers, a well-dressed business-looking man and one older gentleman in a neat wool suit jacket and matching driving cap who looked like a local farmer. He reminded me of my Grandpa Tim.

As I walked down the aisle toward seat 9C, I anticipated getting to know my seat partner. Then I caught a glimpse of the man in 9D. The hangover man. He had somehow moved seats but not demeanors. He was still passed out, head slumped on chest, and when I got closer I realized, reeking of alcohol. He didn’t move a muscle when I sat down.

I decided not to “accidentally” fall into his lap in an attempt to wake him up. Swallowing my disappointment a little, I flipped through my magazine instead. Halfway through the hour and a half flight, 9D jerked awake and blinked at me, bewildered. He had a flushed face rather like a rat: pointy nose, beady little eyes. “Well hey there,” he said in slurry grin. He leaned over to look at my magazine, a little too close considering the state of his breath, and I instantly felt myself groan on the inside. “Whatcha readin’? Any-shing good?” Leftover alcohol scent washed over me with every syllable. “Nope,” I replied, trying to be pleasant but mostly trying not to throw up in his lap. “Then you’re not reading the right pagshesh,” he drawled, waiting for a response. I smiled back, keeping my face neutral with great effort. I am not a cold local girl, I told myself. It didn’t work, but I lucked out. Mostly unconcerned with my lack of enthusiasm, he ordered two Blue Moons from the stewardess, put his headphones in, and began bobbing his head to his music, taking long draughts of beer between bobs. The only problem was that every time he bobbed his head, muttering lyrics to himself, a new waft of leftover boozy breath floated my way. I leaned as far into the aisle as I could without being obvious and concentrated on the guy ahead and to the left of me with nice eyes and nice arms. (Nice arms = One great benefit of hard labor jobs, of which we have plenty.)

I decided to skip the interrogation. The less 9D breathed on me, the better. As we were landing, however, I realized something: I felt a strange sense of camaraderie with these people. No, we don’t seem to have much in common, and yes, sometimes I wish they weren’t overrunning our farm; but they have stories, too. They’re coming from all over the United States and beyond to make ends meet. They’re living in junky campers and trailers, putting in long hours and days. They’re flying home to their families this holiday. What kind of stories are they telling over sweet potatoes and turkey? All the trucks on the road? The lack of girls? Frustrations with the lines at Walmart?

It takes a special person to make a life in the Bakken, after all… And survive to tell about it over Thanksgiving dinner.

Musings, North Dakota Living

My Brother, the Farmer

For all my jokes about the oil field, let me say that there are in fact some great people working here too. Teachers, pastors, electricians, farmers, mechanics, truck drivers, public employees, day care providers: hard-working, genuine men and women represent every category. My brother Danny, for example. He has decided to make his livelihood here and become a farmer, and is in the gradual process of taking over my dad’s farm. He’s one year younger than I am, and currently we’re roommates. I keep things clean; he keeps things running. I think we match up pretty well.

Danny didn’t choose the location of the farm. He didn’t choose to place it directly in the center of the Madness. But here it is, and here he is with it to make it happen. Farming fits Danny. He’s an artist, and farming is its own unique kind of art.

Three generations of farmers (Danny is on the left)

I enjoy watching Danny at work. He’s a coaxer. He coaxes little plants to grow in little pots in his kitchen, and crops to grow in big fields. He coaxes kittens out of their hiding places in the barn where they’ve been hiding, wet and shivering, from the dogs. (This particular kitten is now the white terror named Saul running around the farm.)

He coaxes melodies out of his guitar.

He coaxes tractors into reluctantly sputtering to a start, an ability that I don’t quite possess despite helping on the farm for years. He coaxes airplanes into gentle landings. If you’re scared of flying, don’t be, if Danny’s your pilot.

He coaxes art out of things where many wouldn’t see art: bison skulls and moose antlers; a foosball table, each soccer figure now its own unique character; an ordinary piece of wood that, with some careful wood-burning, becomes a beautiful mountain scene with subtle purples and blues skillfully interwoven with a paintbrush. He has taken an ugly branch-scattered backyard – if you could have even called it a backyard before – and created a well-designed fire pit behind his house, perfect for bonfires.

Danny’s fire pit, waiting for spring

Danny also coaxes smiles and stories out of people. I don’t think he asks for it. He just has an easy-going manner that makes people feel comfortable. I’ve seen him make my mom break into a laugh when she’s at her angriest. I think he’s the only one of us with the ability to do that.

Farming fits Danny.

And I’m happy to be here with him.

Musings, North Dakota Living

There are Plenty of Fish in the Sea, but Mostly Sharks Where I Live

Our little corner, the very far northwest corner of the Midwest, is not a bad place to be. The economy is booming, unlike most areas of the country. Help Wanted signs are posted daily. Money is flowing; local commerce is expanding. The streets are bustling, which is saying something, since five or six years ago it looked like we were heading for Ghost Town USA. I should mention that most of the bustling is males. I wish I had statistics on the ratio of men to women here, but I bet it would be a fascinating number. I’m no statistician, and as an English teacher I know I should be looking for credible and reliable sources, but as a practiced exaggerator I’m just going to assume it’s along the lines of 287 to 1.

Girls here will generally agree that going out in public can sometimes feel like swimming in shark-infested waters. By “going out,” I mean going to the grocery store, the bar, or even walking down the street alone. My younger brother Joey was with me one late summer morning, helping me carry things into my classroom. A white pickup full of oily men parked next to the high school was hurling very inappropriate comments my direction. By the fourth or fifth time I walked by, Joey was ready to say something to them, but stopped when he saw me stomping toward the pickup. When I get mad enough, my ears turn bright red and I swear I’m seven feet tall. Let’s just say I was eight feet tall that morning, and after some choice words and index-finger-stabbing in their direction, the pickup was kind enough to leave the premises of the high school. I was just looking out for the safety of the school, I swear… but I’m still happy my administrators didn’t walk outside and hear some of my… choice words.

I can’t always blame these guys. With the lack of women, I have no doubt these men would like a little female attention. But some of the things we hear!… They are real gems. My friend A. and I came up with a short list of some of the best lines we’ve heard since living here:

  • Once, while I was walking down the main street block where one of our two grocery stores sit, a red pickup pulled up next to me. This was one of the variety that I like to call the “tool pickups,” which run rampant in the oil field. (Tool here does not refer to the hammer variety, just to be clear.) Tool pickups are any of the innumerable vehicles drawing an outrageous amount of attention to themselves: they might be jacked up, embellished with smokestacks or Cherry Bomb exhaust systems, slathered with stickers proclaiming genius things such as “Roughnecks: Rednecks, only Tougher!” or “Be a Flirt: Lift your Shirt,” or generally made to match their drivers in classiness levels. (Sorry if I offend you by mentioning you here, guy with the “Lift your Shirt” sticker, but really, you did have a toddler in your pickup.) Anyway, this jacked-up red pickup pulled up beside me. The mustached man in the driver’s seat rolled down the window, said, “Hey baby, I got a song for you,” and blasted from his sound system – wait for it – “You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals.” This is a true story.
  • A. was once approached by a young man who said nothing more than, “Do you live alone?” Thankfully, she did not tell him. We might not be friends anymore. Mainly because she would probably be kidnapped by now.
  • I once had a man sidle up to me at the local bar, slide his finger against my arm, and say in an astonishingly oily voice, “That is a lovely pumpkin colored jacket.” Once I was able to quit choking on my drink, my reply was a mumble along the lines of, “Thanks… um… I think it’s more of a mustard…”
  • Along these same lines, last fall A. had a man run his hands through her hair and say, “You have sexy Goldilocks hair.” While A. does have beautiful golden hair, I feel as though there are better approaches to complimenting women.
  • A. and I were both approached one evening and told, “I work for the New York Times. Could I interview you for the paper?” We looked him up and down. He was wearing muddy boots and canvas pants. He had tattoos covering his forearms. He had several piercings. He did not look the New York Times part. Perhaps he was just trying to fit in with the locals, but somehow we still didn’t believe him. He didn’t get his interview.

These are only a handful; there’s more. Ask me sometime. But really, do we sound like cold local girls? (Or if I can make a super lame metaphor, “cold fish”?) Possibly we do after all. But it wasn’t always that way; I used to be a bit more friendly to the males species. Trust me, a girl learns quickly when to be on the defensive. As evident in the above examples, a girl is wiser not to encourage sharks by throwing them bait in the form of smiles and winks if she wishes to enjoy the rest of her evening in relative peace. So we stick together, wading the waters, hoping to find the ones worth keeping. And there are a few of those around, if you can find them.

Just for fun, I created a poll (mostly to test out the polling feature), so choose the smoothest pickup line by voting below. Or for the girls (and guys I suppose!), feel free to comment with some of the best pickup lines you’ve heard!