Riley’s in back of the airport truck-taxi: six-foot-four, 270 pounds, face puffy and pockmarked, sitting quietly. Our pickup swallows asphalt beneath its hood and cigarette smoke drools out the windows. In the distance, flames spew from the earth as we tear down the highway. Riley is 21-years-old and has been making good money working in North Dakota’s oilfields for three years, but by the time I met him, which was about an hour ago, he only had $50 in his checking account. Now he’s hunched over his cell phone, probably texting his girlfriend, who’s got a baby on the way. A sky of pastel blues and thin, streaked clouds linger over the ground, pockmarked like Riley’s mug.1
“Everyone’s out here for himself,” Riley tells me in a soft Minnesotan accent. He wears a ratty baseball cap askew on his head and loose-fitting sweatpants that slip below his waist when he walks. Riley says that out in the oilfield “you’ll find out if you’re a man or not.”
We drive by plains dotted with pumpjacks, bobbing methodically as they draw out oil from wells, and flares — natural gas that the oil companies burn off into the atmosphere because it’s cheaper than storing it. The highway is only two lanes wide on each side, and most of the traffic consists of long-nosed semi-trucks carrying the materials that make the oil industry run, as well as its toxic byproducts: sludge, scoria (small, sharp rocks dumped onto the dirt roads leading up to the rigs to help truck tires gain traction) and sand and chemicals used for fracking. So many semis pummel this highway that they’ve created wide, shallow grooves in the road. Riding in a sedan or pickup truck as it pitches over these grooves feels like sitting in a rowboat loosely tied to a dock, rocking listlessly with the incoming waves.
A few years earlier, thousands of men like Riley migrated to the northwest corner of North Dakota, drawn in by promises of six-figure starting salaries, early retirements and enough sweet crude streaming below their feet to last for decades. The boom caused everything to rise. Population. Wages. Rent. Crime.
Like a relic of the old west, Williston, North Dakota, the self-proclaimed “Boomtown, USA,” had been described to me by one local as a lawless place with gun fights in the streets, rampant drug use (especially meth, a favorite among truckers riding out long shifts) and prostitution.
In late 2014, the price of oil-per-barrel plummeted from a high of nearly $100 to less than $50, causing mass layoffs. When I got there in mid-March 2015, the roughnecks who remained didn’t know whether their next paycheck would be their last. I was there to see how these guys handled the uncertainty pervading their lives, how they approached every day of work not knowing if by the end of their shift they’d lose their job, or a limb, or their life.
Since the drop in oil price, Riley has seen guys fired, or “run off,” of the worksite. A company man, who oversees the drilling schedule and budget, will call over the rig worker and fire him on the spot. The fired rig worker won’t throw a tantrum or crumple to the dry dirt in a pitiful ball; he’ll just stand still, stunned and silent.
If Riley can manage to hold onto his job, though, he tells me he thinks he’ll be able to retire in his early forties. The comment sounds coached coming from a 21-year-old who recently trashed his truck driving drunk through a field on one of his off days. (“There’s not much to do out here,” he says. “Work and sleep. So when you’ve got a day off you drink. Before you know it you’re drunk.”)
“What would you do if you didn’t work in oil?”
“Buy a house out in Idaho on the top of the mountains so nobody can fuck with me and I can just do what I need to do out there.”
As we near Riley’s home, a small trailer park about an hour south of Williston, he casually mentions that because of fracking chemicals, his tap water sometimes comes out yellow. He says you can light it on fire.
Before we reach Riley’s trailer park, we pass another off to the left, where, according to Riley, a recently fired rig worker used to live. No more, though, because when the rig worker found out his wife was cheating on him he put a bullet in her head.
The truck comes to a stop. Riley gets out and sighs, “Back to paradise.”
This wasn’t Williston’s first oil boom. On the night of April 4, 1951, Bill Shemorry, managing editor of the Williston Press-Graphic, sped down the highway in his 1950 Pontiac coupe. At his destination, he strapped himself into hip-length boots and waded through a flooded prairie to take a photograph of the Clarence Iverson No. 1, a well that had struck oil and was now sending up a gas flare that was visible from more than 10 miles away. As Shemorry plodded closer to the flare — a light so bright it “was almost as if it were daylight” — he feared, for a moment, that the well would explode.2 But fear didn’t stop Shemorry that night. His camera captured the gas flare tickling the night sky, shining on the oil derrick to its left, and shimmering across the melting prairie snow.3
Shemorry’s little adventure marked the starting point of oil discovery in Williston. In less than a day, the Clarence Iverson No. 1 yielded more than 300 barrels, according to Elwyn Robinson’s History of North Dakota. Oilmen moved to North Dakota to cash in. But much like today, the state soon experienced a supply-and-demand problem. The oil market was hampered by the state’s location, by the scarcity of refineries, as well as by an international surplus of crude oil. Over the next half century North Dakota cycled through booms and busts.
At the time, the most recent boom was subsisting on the Bakken formation, a 25,000 square-mile patch of oil trapped in dolomite and shale. While the oil was initially believed to be too difficult to extract, innovations in fracking and horizontal drilling have made it accessible. Still, the state was losing out to competitors like Saudi Arabia. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia increased its daily oil output to more than 10 million barrels compared to the Bakken’s 1.1 million. At the time, oil was selling at around $50 per-barrel; a well drill salesman told me that number would have to get up to $65-$70 soon or companies would likely start running off more workers. Some of the people I met were steadfast in their belief that the price of oil would rebound. After a brief uptick, a year later the price of oil steadily dropped and was selling at around $30 per-barrel.
It had taken three flights to get from New York to Willison. I spent the time negotiating the nauseating anxiety I feel whenever I fly through turbulence, or whenever the plane makes one of those hairpin turns where it tilts almost entirely on its side so all you can see is the ground below out one window and the blue sky out the other. Anxiety makes me feel like I have a jawbreaker wedged in my throat.
I get on most planes wondering if I’m surrounded by the last people I will ever see. After I take my seat I try to appear casual as I review the safety pamphlet, holding it loosely and thumbing through it quickly. I might fake a yawn or rub my eyes. But really my mind is frantically scanning the page, usually twice over, straining to make out the motions of the crudely drawn cartoon characters with lumpy limbs performing the actions that, in the event of a crash, are supposed to save my life. Are they pulling the lever out or down? Does the plastic handle on the window lock just pop off or do you twist and pull? I make downward social comparisons to the characters in the comics: if they can make it out alive then so can I. Most of the time, though,this exercise fails to put me at ease. The characters have expressionless faces that lack any semblance of feeling, either of utter horror or total peace, in what could be their final moments. They look like they’re already dead.
My pre-flight routine was interrupted on the last leg of the journey, from Denver to Williston, by my fascination with the thickest neck I’ve ever seen rising above the headrest in front of me. I couldn’t tell where this man’s neck ended and his skull began. I was further distracted by another man a few rows up who had a shaved head and a spiderweb tattooed across his occiput.
About two-thirds of the plane passengers were men, most with full beards, flat bill hats and mock-camouflage shirts. In an effort to fit in, I’d worn a pair of my most tattered jeans, fraying at the knees and back pockets, and Timberland hiking boots. Before I flew out I’d been warned by multiple people with friends and family in the oil patch to leave my chinos and henleys at home or else I’d be called a fag.
Would I pass as a “real man?” I’m six-foot-three, I played basketball in college and at the time I flew out I had a thick beard. Having grown up in southeast Minnesota, I know how to slip into that type of midwestern masculinity that is marked by long pauses, grunts, and clipped expressions often spattered with “fuckin” to exude a brand of carelessness that I’ve always read as defensive rather than earnest. How long I could maintain such an act around roughnecks, though, I didn’t know. If my “manhood” was tested I’d certainly fail — if I found myself in a bar fight I wasn’t going to kick any ass. My plan was to keep my ears and eyes open and my mouth shut, lest I be exposed in the brutal northwest for what I really was: scared.
I was writing down snippets of conversation coming from the back of the plane, when my anthropological observations were disrupted by my seat-mate, Tim, who caught me taking notes. Tim has stubbled cheeks, thin eyelids and even thinner hair that he’d covered with a baseball cap. He does contract work out in Williston and doesn’t care much for the place. I told him I wanted to know more about the uncertain lives of the men in the oilfields; despite my inclination to hide my vulnerability, within minutes I found myself talking about my own anxiety about work, the fear that I’d never find a job after grad school, that I hated the feeling of not knowing what my next step would be. He said people in their mid-20s worry too much about what they can’t control, that you’ve got to embrace the uncertainty.
“Here’s the thing about the fear …” he began.
My hotel was near an active oil rig and nestled among man camps — temporary housing for rig workers that, from the outside, looks like a civilization on the moon with long rows of interconnected narrow barracks sticking up from an endless expanse of nothingness. On my king size bed I found a wrinkled note with a clip-art image of a boot print and a polite request: “Guests: Please help us take care of our floors by removing muddy work boots in our mudroom.”
One day at noon, I pulled into the Walmart parking lot, which was packed with souped-up pickup trucks brandishing license plates from across the country: Michigan, Texas, Wyoming, California. A sea of camouflage and blue jeans rushed past a sign out front that read “NOW HIRING $17 PER HOUR” and seeped through the sliding doors, choking the entryway. Once inside, many of the men navigated the aisles in small clusters, comparing prices of ground beef and piling cases of Coke into their carts. These men looked lost and lonely. To be sure, Williston has a legendary high male-to-female-ratio. Many of the rig workers are far away from their families, often for weeks or months at a time. That lonely feeling is no doubt exacerbated by what feels like an incessant stream of country music ballads playing on the radio.
But if the guys at Walmart looked lonely to me, some may not have stayed that way for long. I was tipped off by one local that the Walmart doubles as a popular spot to pick up prostitutes. They slip through the aisles, dressed down in sweats and T-shirts, thumbing through their phone on a hookup website and waiting to meet up with the next person who returns a friendly smile.
A bouncer at one of the town’s two strip clubs recalled to me how he once met a man who was so lonely he tipped the bouncer $500 just for talking to him. The bouncer tried to return the money, but the man insisted he keep it; he said the money didn’t even matter — he was making so much of it.
On my second night in town I met an oil worker named Tyler. Tyler is in Williston to support his newborn child who lives 1,000 miles away. He works 40 days straight to get 10 days off, and when he’s in Williston he’s on call 24 hours a day. He’s worked 30-hour shifts without a break. Like Riley, Tyler’s soft voice belied his rugged appearance. Compact and sturdy, Tyler looked to be in his early 30s, and he had tattoos running up his arms and in the spaces between his knuckles. Since the drop in the price of oil, Tyler wasn’t getting as many hours at work, and he hated the down time. He said waiting around was the worst part about his job. Then, as if his boss had heard him, Tyler got called into work. It was 9:30 p.m. Before we parted ways, Tyler mentioned offhand how a couple of months ago he had broken a few fingers on the job and how they were still healing. He was pretty certain they were going to hurt tonight. Snow had started to fall.
I’d been warned by a local that there would be a lot of drunk drivers on the road, so I was back at my hotel by 11. As Tyler was arriving at his worksite, I was tucking myself into bed. For just a moment, I tried to convince myself that I should be living a life like Tyler’s, that I, too, should be in harm’s way. But then I rolled over and turned off the light. My bed was too soft and warm.
I woke up thinking about Tyler’s broken fingers in the cold.
By noon the next day, the snow in the parking lot had melted under the sun. Two Coors Light cans rolled across the wet, muddy lot, hurried along by a light breeze. I was trying to leave the hotel, but two guys were blocking the door.
“Did you oversleep? You’re going to be late!” one of them teased through slurred speech. I couldn’t tell if they actually thought I worked in Williston, that maybe I was passing as a “man,” or if they were just teasing. I was pretty sure it was the latter. I’d been growing out my beard, but I foolishly cleaned up my neckline before flying out, which prompted one friendly local to tell me that I had “too much college” on me to truly fit in.
The guys reeked of alcohol and cigarettes, and they could barely keep their scruffy faces straight. Even if their next shift was that night, I doubted they’d be able to sleep off their hangovers in time. Mindful of why I’d come, I plunged in with my questions and told them I wanted to talk to them about their work. One of them gave me his number and promised he’d tell me “all kinds of shit.” He never returned my calls or texts.
This became a pattern: current and run-off rig workers would give me their numbers and then ignore my calls.
I hadn’t been getting very far with my questions anyway. None of the guys I’d talked to — reckless roughnecks, seasoned veterans who’d ridden out the boom-and-bust cycle before, clean-shaven company men who exuded a corporate coolness — could describe what it was like to approach every day of work not knowing if it’d be your last — whether you’d quit, get fired, or get hurt, or worse. Instead, I got platitudes about living in the moment, vague offerings like “it fuckin’ sucks,” denial, and a staunch belief that this downward cycle would pass.
“What’s it like not knowing if you’ll have a job tomorrow?” I’d been asking guys that, but I began to see it carried a certain presumption. Given the machismo associated with the job, it occurred to me that maybe getting run off a rig was considered better than quitting. For example, a video on YouTube titled “The reason I quit working in the ND oilfield” was met with the following comment: “I think you weren’t cut out for that job and you didn’t realize how tough it would be, so you left. In other words my friend, you couldn’t hack it. That’s OK man, some work isn’t for everybody.” Other commenters piled it on: “It’s OK Sally, you quit because you couldn’t hack it. There is no same [sic] in admitting that. Las Vegas needs more guys like you.”; “YOU QUIT BECAUSE YOUR [sic] A PUSSY, PLAIN AND SIMPLE…..”; “Kill yourself!!!! You are just a pussy and couldn’t hack it! You went from working in an office to being a real man getting your poor little hands dirty and you weren’t ready for it.”; “I wrote this self-help book you should check out, it’s entitled, ‘Better Living by Stopping Being a Pussy.’”
With the men I met, machismo was tied up with a sense of duty rather than egoism. No one gushed about working in oil. They spoke about it as something they had to do because they had family to provide for and the money was just too good. Men leaving town for vacations appeared chipper, some riding a morning buzz with a bounce in their step. Those who were just flying into town to start an interminable shift shuffled their feet and kept their heads down. Riley said of his shifts, “Those four weeks feels like it takes forever.”
Because aside from quitting or getting run off, the other way out of that life is death:
“… a 27-year-old Williston man … was crushed between two pieces of pumping equipment.” Williston Herald, December 28,
“… Zachary Anderson, 20 … was joining pipes on a platform at the rig site about 30 to 35 feet above the ground. ‘It appears one of the pipe joints got stuck and it basically threw the victim onto the side of the rig,’ [Burke County Sheriff Barry] Jager said. The victim was pronounced deceased at the scene.” Williston Herald, January 31, 2006.
“Two men are dead of burn injuries after an oil well exploded Wednesday in rural McKenzie County and two more remain hospitalized at a burn center in Minnesota. One man was burned to death at the scene and the second died of his injuries Thursday at Region’s Hospital Burn Center in St. Paul, Minn…. McKenzie County Emergency Manager Jerry Samuelson said it’s likely that pressurized oil and gas escaped the well during the work over. ‘When you’re dealing with high pressure, you just never know, anything can happen,’ Samuelson said.” The Bismarck Tribune, September 16, 2011.
“A 22-year-old man … hit in the chest with hydraulic tongs….During a Life Flight to the Bismarck Trauma Center he went into cardiac arrest.” Williston Herald, February 2, 2013.
In my room, I noticed the framed photograph above my desk: two dozen people milling about the base of a lighthouse perched on a rocky coast. Like the photos in the hotel’s lobby and hallways — of frothy surf crawling up a beach, a waterfall spilling into a tropical lagoon — this image also seemed to encourage escape from this place. Just go! I wanted to tell the men I met. Drive far, far away and do anything else.
I called a friend who has family in the Williston area. When I told her I couldn’t really understand how people could hack this oil life, she told me my confusion only highlighted my privilege. A lot of these guys believe they must work the job that pays the most money and just suck it up. This life has been chosen for them.
Still, I couldn’t help wondering if a small part of Riley or Tyler wouldn’t welcome being run off a rig.
Had I arrived in Williston a few months earlier, I was told, I might have been offered a job on the spot. The woman I talked to said I probably would have been on the ground, working as a fracker, because I was smart. This felt like a backhanded compliment.
Riley had told me that fracking is the worst because it’s so monotonous: all you do is change out valves, shut them down and repeat. I wouldn’t have thought that boredom would be the worst part about working in oil. Maybe the threat of suffering first-degree burns, or having a limb taken off by an exploding wellhead, or falling from the top of a rig and breaking every bone in your body.
Riley actually used to work up on the mast, or “derrick,” of an oilrig, as a “derrickhand,” positioning drill pipes into the well. Balancing nearly 100 feet above the ground, he’d extend off the platform to get hold of drill pipes and usher them in place. He was strapped into a harness to prevent him from falling to his death.
When I finally saw an oilrig up close I thought about Riley squeezed into one of those harnesses. The sky was hazy and the cool air was still as I craned my neck up and wondered what it would be like up there.
The longer I stayed in Williston, the colder it got. On my last day in town, I showed up to the hotel’s continental breakfast late, a little after nine o’clock. Aside from a few older men in their 40s wearing flannel shirts and nursing coffee, the place was empty. To meet the needs of rig workers staying in the hotel, breakfast service began at 4:30 a.m., and by the time I arrived all of the hearty hot food — crispy bacon, thick sausage, scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy — had been cleaned off.
I spooned some granola into my mouth and contemplated peeling an orange when I heard a voice over my shoulder.
“You work outside?” the tall, lean cook asked.
“Nah,” I said sleepily.
“I was gonna say, because cereal isn’t gonna be enough if you work outside.”
I wandered the quiet streets inWilliston. The two strip clubs in town are right next to each other. Outside one of them, a bouncer I talked to vented about his disdain for the boomtown lifestyle. “I’d leave tomorrow if I could,” the baby-faced hulk of a man wearing a backwards baseball hat said between long drags of his cigarette. He looked down the dip in the road to the train tracks, lost in thought. He was joined by a friend who’d recently been run off a rig; he reminisced about a time when he was pulling in $11,000 per month.
On the way back to my hotel, I talked to a short, wiry man who shared my truck-taxi. He appeared to be in his mid-40s and had a tanned, creased face. He’d been working in oil for years and he’d even lost a house because of a previous oil bust. With his slight frame slouched back in his seat, facing forward but not really focused on anything, he sounded as though he’d given himself up to the chaos of his job. In the same cadence one might say “It is what it is,” he told me dispassionately, “You follow the boom.”
As I boarded the plane for my flight home, I kept replaying a snippet of conversation I’d heard before going through security: “Sixty, that’s not dyin’ age. Youth fucked him.” I took my window seat in the third-to-last row. Snow began to fall on the wings and melted snowflakes scurried down my window. More snow collected on the wings the longer the plane sat humming on the tarmac. Will we be able to take off? I worried. Will the plane’s tires lose traction on the runway and send us skidding into the oil patch? My seat-mate, a stocky, middle-aged man wearing blue jeans, a sweatshirt and sunglasses resting on the brim of his weathered cap, didn’t display any outward signs of anxiety. As the flight attendant read off the safety information, he stared straight ahead with a blank look on his face like the characters in the safety pamphlet, unblinking and unmoving. When the plane finally pulled forward, he didn’t grip his armrests with sweaty palms in anticipation of spinning out on black ice. He just leaned back in his chair and pulled his sunglasses over his eyes.
Once we were airborne the flight attendant started the beverage service. I timidly ordered a glass of water and drank it quickly in case we hit unexpected turbulence. My seat-mate grumbled something to the flight attendant and within seconds she handed him a double vodka tonic. It cost $16.
After leaving Williston I came across a job posting for a derrickhand. Applicants had to have “the mental stamina to stay alert and attentive for up to [a] 12 hour [shift]” and be physically fit enough to “[r]epetively lift and carry items weighing upwards of 60 lbs up and down stairs” and “[r]epetitively swing 20 lbs sledge hammers.”
I tried to imagine doing this job. I could stay awake for the shift, and as long as my occasionally tender back held up I’d have no problems lifting the weight. But I think I’d have trouble with the requirement that applicants must “be able to work while suspended upwards of 90 feet above the rig floor in a [harness].” I wouldn’t trust the harness to keep me safe. Up there, I’d spend the whole time worrying about falling.
The frontier mindset of the men I met in Williston didn’t allow them to express their fear. Their pride in providing for their families and their approach to life-threatening work seemed counterbalanced with their heavy drinking and free-spending.
One man boasted, “I’m a fuckin’ roughneck.” I could imagine him reading the derrickhand requirements and believing he’d be just fine up there. And I could hear him repeating his mantra in the mirror each morning until he believed it was true, and then again as he climbed the rungs of the derrick, and then again when he strapped into the harness, stopping only briefly to remind himself: Don’t look down.
- This is a pseudonym, like the other names here.
- “A Day to Remember — The Discovery of Oil in North Dakota,” The 50th Anniversary of the Discovery of Oil in North Dakota.
- This excerpt from Shemmory’s book is quoted in The 50th Anniversary of the Discovery of Oil in North Dakota under the heading “Drilling the Clarence Iverson #1—North Dakota’s Discovery Well.”
All photos by Hal Sundt.
Hal Sundt teaches writing in New York City. He received his MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University and graduated from Oberlin College in 2012. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Classical and Wilder Voice. For more of his work visit halsundt.com.