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.
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.