By Matt Forney
“Looks like they forgot about us,” Dale remarked.
It had been half-an-hour since our boss had dropped us off in that abandoned parking lot, without giving us our assignments. There was no trace of civilization around us for miles, save for a farmhouse off in the distance. Across the road, a pond glowed a delicious shade of blue in the morning sunlight.
“Let’s take shelter in there,” I pointed to a nearby storage unit, my teeth chattering in the prairie wind. “He can find us when he comes back.”
Dale and I ambled over to the unit, tipping the door shut behind us.
While killing time, Dale and I started making small talk. He was a working-class man my dad’s age, with eyeglasses, a bushy white pornstache, and bad hearing. He was from Conrad, Montana, though he’d only moved back there relatively recently from Everett, Washington. Like most everyone else, Dale had come to this fresh slice of hell looking for work.
“This is the furthest east I’ve ever been,” he remarked between drags of his Marlboro.
The conversation turned to family. Dale asked me if I had any kids. I replied in the negative.
“Oh well, you’re still young,” he mused. “How old are you again?”
“Ah yes, I’ve got a son your age. Computer programmer. Lives down in Portland. Got a daughter too, studying at UC Berkeley. She’s a bitch.” Dale ground out his Marlboro with his foot.
I managed a chuckle. Dale kept going.
“Takes after my mother. She was a real bitch, too. I think it runs in the family.”
“Looks like the bitch gene skipped a generation,” I tried to joke.
“Yeah, well my wife didn’t help.” Dale grinned, the grin of a man about to bare uncomfortable secrets to a guy he’d only known for a about two hours.
“My wife was a Blackfoot Indian. Genius-level IQ. Absolutely gorgeous when she was young. Met her when I was living in Missoula. But Jesus, she was mean. Always starting fights and yelling at me over everything.”
For some reason, complete strangers always unload their personal issues on me even though we barely know each other. I’m used to it by now. I just smiled, nodded and let Dale ramble on.
“Finally, one night, she went nuts. Confronted me at our bedroom door, started slapping me. I hit her back and she called the police. Spent five days in county jail.”
At this, I was incredulous. “They sent you to jail! You were defending yourself!”
“Well, in Washington state, hard to believe it, but if the police are called out in a domestic violence case, they have to arrest somebody,” Dale replied without a twinge of regret in his voice. “Doesn’t matter who started it.”
“That’s insane,” I said.
“As you can probably guess, we’re not married anymore,” Dale concluded, lighting another Marlboro. “A real bitch, she was.”
Stories like Dale’s are a dime a dozen out here. This is Williston, North Dakota, the land that the recession forgot.
Williston is the headquarters of a new oil boom driven by hydrofracking, which enables oil companies to exploit deposits that have previously been inaccessible. It’s been estimated that the Bakken formation, which covers roughly 200,000 square miles in western North Dakota, eastern Montana and northwestern South Dakota, contains enough oil to not only make America independent of foreign oil, but actually make the country into a net oil exporter by 2030. Because of this, companies like Halliburton and Baker-Hughes have been swarming in, offering jobs that pay up to $120,000 a year without requiring any experience or qualifications, aside from the ability to pass a drug test.
It’s not a stretch to say that Williston is not just one of the most important cities in America right now, it’s one of the most important in the world.
A couple days after I landed in Williston, I was heading back to my pad when I met one of the new arrivals, a black guy from Seattle. There are a lot of Washingtonians out here for some reason.
“Hey man, this city is great!” he exclaimed.
“I was down at the temp office today. They had me sweeping the floor at John Deere. I made $90 just sweeping. And when I got there, they actually said, ‘Thank you for coming to Williston!'” He grinned.
“Yeah man, this is probably the only place in America where we call the shots,” I said. “They need us workers more than we need them.”
That might be an exaggeration, but it’s not a big one. North Dakota is the state with the lowest unemployment rate, at a mere 3% (versus 8% for the country at large); Williston’s unemployment rate is less than 1%. Even with all the press the town gets and the dismal state of the economy, local business are still screaming for workers, forcing wages ever higher. Applebee’s is the only employer I know of that pays less than $12/hr, and that’s only because their employees get tips. Not only do workers get paid big, they work considerable overtime (80-100 hours is the average for roustabouts), further upping their paychecks.
Even the temp agencies, ordinarily the province of the desperate and downtrodden, have good-paying work available. Roll into the office each morning and you’ll have your pick of unskilled labor jobs paying around $13-17 an hour, flagging being the most notable. Flaggers are the folks at road construction sites responsible for directing traffic with stop/slow signs, and with all the expansion in the Bakken, they’re in huge demand during the warm months. To become a flagger, all you have to do is head down to Job Service North Dakota, watch a 15-minute video, take a multiple choice test, and if you pass (and if you have an IQ above room temperature, you will pass), take your freshly printed certification down to the temp office.
That’s right: you can make $16-17 an hour just standing around holding a stop sign.
Workers are so scarce in Williston that employers are resorting to increasingly desperate measures to lure them in. For example, Walmart is now paying for its employees’ hotel rooms, at least through the Christmas shopping season. This is on top of their starting pay rate of $17/hr ($21/hr for overnight stockers). A Pilot Travel Center north of the city is also offering housing in hopes of rounding up enough employees ahead of their grand opening in a few weeks.
Basically, Williston is perhaps the last city where the American Dream is still a reality.
Williston looks like what you’d expect a middle-of-nowhere burg suddenly invaded by thousands of jobless men to be. The city is over two hours north of the nearest Interstate; the closest major cities, Minneapolis and Calgary, are over a dozen hours’ drive away. It’s as close as you can get to pure isolation in the lower 48.
Downtown looks like it was trapped in a time warp back in the 70’s. There’s a J.C. Penney’s, a movie theater, a cafe and bars, and that’s it. The roads leading in and out of the city are a confusing patchwork of half-finished McMansions, freshly paved cul-de-sacs, and hastily erected gas stations. There are no malls, no art museums, and no nightclubs. There is, however, a Walmart. And a Hardee’s. And a Dairy Queen.
Working 80-100 hours a week doesn’t seem so bad when you realize there’s nothing else to do in this town, aside from sit around at home and stare at the walls.
The Census Bureau says that Williston’s population is 16,000, but don’t believe it. With all the out-of-staters looking for work, I’d estimate the real population is around 30,000-35,000 right now, and 40,000-50,000 during the summer months. The city’s as much of a madhouse as you’d expect.
The Bakken oil boom has attracted gobs of attention from the international press. In my time here, me and/or my friends have talked to reporters from all over the world: Germany, France, Switzerland, Japan, the list goes on. I’ve also met a couple of filmmakers working on a documentary. They all do a decent job, but because they only hang around for short periods of time, they don’t get to penetrate the town too thoroughly. As a result, a lot of misinformation about Williston abounds.
Like the myth that it’s the “wild West.”
I’m from upstate New York. When I first mentioned to my family that I was thinking about relocating to North Dakota, they reacted with shock and horror. To hear it from New Yorkers, everyone west of Chicago and east of Seattle is a bloodthirsty psychopath eager to slit strangers’ throats, steal their credit cards and anally rape their corpses. I knew on a certain level that they were full of it, but I still didn’t know what to expect when I landed in town. It didn’t help that one of my first sights was of a drunk getting Rodney Kinged by two of Williston’s finest in the city park.
As it turns out, my family was full of it. Williston is easily one of the safer cities I’ve ever lived in. If you’re a man, you can easily walk from one end of town to the other at night and not have to worry about anything aside from traffic. Try doing that in Syracuse, Albany, New York City or any of the “enlightened” Eastern metropolises; you’ll be leaving town in a body bag. Aside from a couple of incidents, I never felt like my life was in danger.
Now, is Williston a hundred percent safe? Of course not. There are a lot of shady characters in town, particularly working for the temp agencies. There are some employers who will try to stiff you if you let them. Fights are not uncommon, and women in particular aren’t advised to go around at night without a male escort. But exercise common sense, keep your eyes open and you’ll be fine.
Speaking of women, they’re yet another commodity that Williston doesn’t offer. Not to say that there are no women, but they’re here in considerably fewer numbers than the men. While it’s true that the most lucrative roughneck jobs are basically for men only, physically demanding as they are, this is a place where even “menial” jobs like being a register jockey are pretty damn lucrative. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, feminists and white knights continue to argue that the current recession has hurt women just as much as men if not more so; were this the case, I’d expect to see the sexes here in roughly equal numbers.
Yet, the only women coming to Williston for work are either strippers or prostitutes. Why?
The answer is twofold. Of course the feminists are lying when they claim that women as a group have been impacted by the recession to anywhere near the degree that men have. I’ve met guys here from all over the country; the Pacific Northwest, California, New Mexico, and the Deep South. I’ve also met numerous recent immigrants from Peru, Poland, Russia and Ethiopia. The only women I’ve met are either locals, college students or came with their boyfriends/husbands. But even assuming that the feminists were right, I doubt we’d see many women in the Bakken for one reason:
They don’t have it in them.
On a flagging job during my first week in Williston, one of my compadres, a journalism major from California, notified me of some oil job opportunities out in New Town, a tiny Indian village about seventy miles east. He was planning to hitch a ride out there and live in a tent so he could apply in person. I thought he was crazy: the wind chill in North Dakota makes sleeping outdoors a risky proposition in summer, and suicidal in the winter.
“C’mon man, we’re pioneers,” he exclaimed. “We’re charting new lands!”
I ended up declining, mainly because I like sleeping indoors too much. But the point stands: the men of Williston are supernaturally dedicated to their work. They’ll drive thousands of miles across the country, sleep in their cars, wake up at five in the morning in the vain hope of getting dispatched to dig ditches for nine hours a day, anything to keep themselves and their families afloat.
Women don’t have that drive. They’re creatures of routine and habit. Left to their own devices, they will always take the easy way out. The average twentysomething female debt slave (shouldn’t have majored in Butterfly Sexuality, dear!) would rather tend a Starbucks in a “cool” city like New York or Washington, D.C. for minimum wage than migrate out to a “boring,” “scary” place like Williston. This shows in everything they do. While women do receive the majority of college degrees, they’re typically in useless subjects like the liberal arts; the majority of useful, difficult degrees (in math and science majors) are still going to men. Women dominate useless office jobs and HR departments; men still dominate construction, the trades, engineering and other careers that are responsible for keeping society afloat.
And of course, they rule the Bakken, helping drill the very substance—oil—that makes the luxurious, first-world life of so many American women possible in the first place.
Unfortunately for men, the boom times in North Dakota are coming to an end.
In the run-up to the presidential election, many of the oil companies put hiring freezes in place in hopes of a Romney victory. Environmentalists are a core bloc of the Democratic Party, and word on the street was that Obama would attempt to either regulate fracking or ban it entirely. Heavily Democratic states such as New York and California have fought tooth and nail to keep fracking illegal in their communities due to overblown fears of its’ environmental impact. This is despite those states dismal economies, and North Dakota’s booming one. With his scuttling of the Keystone pipeline, Obama has shown that he’s not afraid to “stand up to Big Oil” (read: destroy America’s best chance for energy independence).
I’ve also heard (but can’t confirm) that Saudi Arabia is contributing a lot of money to anti-hydrofracking groups, all the better to keep us hooked on their supply.
With the Messiah’s reelection, the aforementioned hiring freezes have been extended indefinitely. Skilled workers (such as those with a CDL or rig experience) are still in demand somewhat, but the days of being able to get off the bus and score an interview with Select Energy the next day are over. Even if the House Republicans successfully block Obama’s suicidal energy policies, you can bet that the Democrats will tax the oil companies into oblivion so they can keep funding worthless government jobs for women back in Washington.
This all comes on the heels of a number of ordinances the city of Williston has passed to crack down on people sleeping in their cars and bringing campers within the city limits. I don’t entirely blame them—it’s not pleasant to have people freezing to death in their cars overnight—but it’s just one more obstacle to contend with.
The net effect of all this is that workers are fleeing Williston in droves.
This includes myself. Last June, I left my home of Syracuse, New York on a hitchhiking trip to Portland, Oregon. I landed in Williston in mid-September hoping to land a job on one of the rigs, if only for the amusing stories it might provide. I left the Monday after Thanksgiving, unable to secure a job that either provided housing or paid enough to afford it: studio apartments go for around $2,500 a month here, and hotel rooms around $400 a night, assuming you can find either. Even RV hookups, long the province of white trash, are no cheaper than $2,100 a month.
When I came into Williston, the roads in and out of the city were absolutely clogged, Chicago-style. When I left, they were half-deserted.
This is a requiem for the American Dream. The sentiment that Williston is the last place in America where you can rise up and become rich through your own efforts is something that nearly every guy I’ve met here has echoed. I’ve met countless guys who were at the end of their rope—homeless, penniless, hopeless—who made it to North Dakota and were able to make something of themselves. The feminists and liberals want to see this crushed, to see them crushed.
The problem with dreams is that you eventually have to wake up.