Editor’s note: We left Havre, Mont., home of the Divishes and Blue Ponies, late Friday night, Aug. 16, after a wonderful visit with Ed and Patsy Divish, the parents of my former colleague Ryan. We made it as far east as Chinook before plunging deep into the Bear Paw Mountains. We hoped to pay our respects to Chief Joseph, but instead turned onto the wrong road, which soon turned to gravel before degenerating entirely into a one-lane, dirt path to nowhere.
We drove 45 miles into the maw of blackness, narrowly averting a head-on cow collision, before doing an about-face and finding a place to crash for the night. I’ll have more on this misadventure as well as our evening with the Divishes, who were sweet and wonderful and nothing like Ryan had described.
In brief, we got up Saturday morning, meekly returned to U.S. 2 and followed it right out of Montana.
By late afternoon we had arrived in Williston, N.D., which a decade ago was just another small town on the high plains scuffling to stay alive in the age of globalization.
Now it is the boomingest, craziest place in America.
Saturday, Aug. 17, Williston, N.D.
The circus has come to Williston.
Williston is on fire, and the devil is on the loose.
How surreal is life in Williston?
Walmart is paying $17 an hour, McDonald’s $15.
What else you need to know about the land of oil and money?
They warned us to stay away.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Rick Linie, who sells CDs, DVDs and books at Creative Leisure on 1st Street in Havre.
Ed Divish and Charlie Gallus, also of Havre, described Williston as a snakepit of violence, greed, lust and worse.
Ignoramus that I am, I hadn’t given Williston any thought.
But now my mind was aflame with scenes of Biblical debauchery. The warnings about overcrowded roads and infernal traffic jams made it sound like it would be easier to cross the Alps with an army of elephants than pass through Williston in a car.
What kind of reporter would I be if I bypassed this dusty, greasy, sweaty, covetous, licentious, toxic Wild West boomtown without so much as stopping for gas?
And so we came to Williston. We had no choice. We are hardly pioneers, though. Like unemployed folks from California and truckers from Maine, writers have flocked to North Dakota from all over the country, looking for a taste of the petroleum pie.
And Lord, there’s plenty to go around. Williston is the epicenter of a fracking boom that almost overnight has turned North Dakota into the country’s second-largest oil producer, just behind Texas.
The 2000 census counted 12,512 people in Williston. Ten years later the number was 14,716. Nobody knows for sure how many people are here now. The number changes daily. Recent estimates suggest as many as 33,000 people live in the swollen town.
As of last year, with 200 wells active, the North Dakota boom directly employed 40,000 people. That number is expected to crest at 60,000 around the year 2o22.
Incredibly, there are more jobs than people here. If you have a pulse, you can find work in Williston. The unemployment rate is negligible, less than 1 percent.
In the land of oil and money, neither the thinnest resume nor the fattest rap sheet presents a barrier to finding work.
In a sensational landscape, the most sensational story involves the murder of Sherry Arnold, a high school math teacher from Sidney, Mont. Mssrs. Gallus and Divish listed the murder of Sherry Arnold as Exhibit A-1 on why we should avoid Williston.
Arnold, 43, was snatched from the road during a Sunday-morning jog on Jan. 7, 2012. Police found one of her shoes, but more than two months elapsed before her body was uncovered in Williston.
Long before that, investigators had zeroed in on two Colorado men who’d come to North Dakota to cash in on the oil frenzy. One of them, 22-year-old Michael Keith Spell, confessed his involvement to police, saying a crack bender had “brought the devil out of him.”
The other, Lester Van Waters Jr., cut a deal with prosecutors last month. In exchange for pleading guilty to deliberate homicide, Waters, 48, was spared the death penalty.
Now the focus falls on Spell, who pleaded not guilty. Reports describe him as mentally disabled and illiterate, with “less education than a kindergartner.” Both men compiled a history of run-ins with the law before traveling to North Dakota.
After killing Arnold, they allegedly drove the hour north and east to the Williston Walmart, where they purchased bread, bologna and a shovel. After burying Arnold nearby, court documents reveal, one of them returned the shovel for a refund.
Welcome to Williston.
If there aren’t enough workers to fill the jobs, there are more than enough to overrun Williston’s limited housing supply. Trailers, prefab modular units and hastily cleared RV lots have popped up all over Williston. These “man camps” are as ubiquitous as oil wells and gas flares. And they’re not cheap.
Just south of Love’s truck stop, prominently displayed to catch the eyes of drivers on U.S. 2/U.S. 85, a banner stretches across the length of a semi trailer. It advertises Williston Village RV Resort, where a month goes for $795, plus electric.
It’s a world gone mad.
Still, that’s a steal compared to a conventional motel room.
A studio at the Value Place hotel will cost you $699 for one week. The same room in Fort Myers on Florida’s Gulf Coast goes for $239.
Some generous locals have tried to ease the transition. For the past two years, Jay Reinke’s Concordia Lutheran Church has accommodated 30-40 new arrivals on its floor each night. Just a few days ago, Williston officials put the kibosh on this act of Christian charity, citing zoning-code violations.
On Nov. 1, 2012, a city ordinance making it illegal to live in an RV outside a designated RV park went into effect. Violators are subject to a $500 fine. That’s $500 a day.
Welcome to Williston, Boomtown USA.
So reads the billboard sign at the corner of U.S. 2 East/U.S. 85 North and Phil Jackson Way. Everywhere roadsides are torn asunder. Earth movers, backhoes and cranes gouge the land and kick up an ocean of dust in a desperate attempt to catch up as Williston blows up like a city on steroids. The roar of tractor trailers and rumble of heavy machinery supplies the soundtrack to the Bakken boom.
Technology has made all manner of things possible that were unthinkable a century ago. Among the most notorious Bakken phenomena are “trucker bombs,” two-liter soda bottles filled with urine and discarded in highway medians.
Our senses overwhelmed, we pulled into the parking lot at the McDonald’s. In a minute I counted license plates from 20 different states. For the first time in 20,000 miles and two years, we found a McDonald’s that didn’t offer wifi access to customers.
So this is Williston.
We got out of there as fast as we could. We plodded north for about five miles until we were lured into a sprawling lot beneath Love’s truck stop by a sign promising free Internet and showers.
As we were adrift in a freewheeling hotbed of unfettered commerce, I was dubious. Becky, however, is ever the optimist.
We took a spin around a lot half-full with semis, pickups and passenger vehicles of all kinds. In the Behemoth, we are never inconspicuous.
We caught the eye of Jeff Jacobs, a refugee from Eau Claire, Wis.
He pulled his pickup alongside us. He sadly reported it would cost $25 to stay the night. We moved on to happier topics.
He came here to drive a water truck in the oil fields. He has a degree from the University of Wisconsin. He came here to pay off college loans, put a drunk-driving charge behind him and make a new start.
If you’re an interloper in Bakken’s inferno, you could do a lot worse than finding a guide such as Jeff Jacobs.
He’s affable and astute, articulate and analytical. He’s liable to sprinkle references to Shakespeare and Jung into his discussion of the Bakken madness.
After a brief tenure driving, he landed a job up the hill at Truck Wash Express, a newfangled, automated facility for purifying the armada of trucks that maraud up and down Williston’s beleaguered roads on their way to and from the oil fields.
He makes $22 an hour, and he doesn’t have to get dirty or expose himself to oil-field toxins. When he gets off at 1 p.m., he works part-time in security for the RV lot/Mobile Motel.
He sleeps here in his van free of charge.
Everything you’ve heard about Williston (putting aside for a minute that I’d cultivated a studied ignorance on the subject), Jacobs said, is true. At least in part.
Men outnumber women by nearly 2-1. When they get liquored up, they get libidinous. When that happens, all bets are off. Women are advised to tread carefully in the Bakken.
“Oh yeah,” he said, glancing in Becky’s direction. “You’ll hear the whistles and catcalls,” Jacobs said. “They don’t care if you’re married or in a relationship. They don’t care.”
People have been known to disappear on occasion. But like anyplace else, if you watch your step, you’ll be OK.
“It’s situational awareness,” he said. “You can’t be laissez-faire. You have to know where you are at all times.”
He made Williston sound fascinating but only mildly dangerous. He put our minds at ease.
His biggest complaint?
“The Walmart,” he said flatly. “It’s the worst Walmart in the country. They don’t open on Sunday till 12. They have bars over the doors like it’s Black Friday. And the shelves inside, they’re just gutted. I mean gutted.”
As for the unsavory element, it’s simple mathematics. The oil boom busted Williston’s dam of rural isolation wide open; when the ensuing flood of humanity washed over town, it carried with it an inevitable collection of scoundrels and scalawags.
“Some people are raised by loving parents, and some people are raised by wolves,” he said. “They’re all here.
“But I’m 40 years old. I don’t need to go to taverns. It’s all a matter of where you are. If I’m not in a tavern at 2 a.m. acting like a drunken buffoon, I’m not going to get a knife in my back.”
The technological revolution brought about by hydraulic fracturing, popularly known as fracking, unlocked the door to the rich Bakken shale two miles underground. With all its attendant controversy and potential for environmental degradation (according to one report, the practice of burning off natural gas, in addition to squandering $1 billion in fuel, produces the emissions equivalent of adding a million cars to the road), the Bakken boom will turn the United States a net exporter of oil within the next decade.
So there are jobs to be had. Lots of jobs. Come get you one.
And if your water bursts into flames, or your dog dies, or your neighbor gets diagnosed with cancer, so be it.
Just don’t expect gas prices to plummet.
“It’s not the 1950s anymore,” Jacobs said. “The 1950s aren’t coming back. China’s in the 1950s now, and they’re burning up oil like us dummies were doing then. That’s why we’re paying $3.50 a gallon now.”
While we chatted, Becky and Max had driven up to the Love’s. When Jeff and I parted ways, I walked up the hill in search of my family.
When I found them, we decided to look for a supermarket. We drove past the Walmart and the new Doc Holliday’s, which seemed an appropriate name for a Williston steakhouse. We drove by the Wildcat Pizzeria, home of Williston’s only 18-inch pie. Billboards for oil interests lined the roadsides. Job-seekers were cordially invited to join the teams at Calfrac and Halliburton, respectively.
We found our way to Albertson’s on Phil Jackson Way. As forecast, more than one head swiveled in the parking lot to get a better look at Becky. The aisles were full of men who looked like they’d put in a hard day’s work. Men with greasy hands, stained T-shirts, dirty faces. Men in need of a shower. Even more than us.
It was Saturday night in Boomtown, and we had some neighbors. The Tattoo Guy, Jeffrey Krieger ,and his wife, Sarah, had come all the way from Sequim on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula to get in on the action.
Their trailer was parked next to the Love’s, just behind the Halliburton “Stealth” bus. Jeffrey Krieger found out recently that he is related to the truck stop people.
His trailer is a revolving door of men paying hard cash for new body art. There’s no shortage of cash here. Jeff disappointed me, saying they hadn’t come here to cash in. Instead they were on the road raising money for Ronald McDonald House. He said they do this three months out of every year.
I made plans to talk with Jeff later.
I loitered for a bit outside the Tattoo Guy’s trailer, trying my best to eavesdrop on a conversation. A diminutive, bald-headed evangelist in construction garb waggled a Bible at one of Krieger’s prospective patrons.
The carnival never comes to town without a Dickensian legion of camp followers, con artists and sociopaths trailing in its wake. Seething cauldrons of humanity always entice God’s emissaries, who loiter on the fringes hoping to pick off a few wayward souls.
When the object of his message managed to break free, I said hello to Bible man. He said nothing right away.
He eyed me warily.
“Are you a photographer?” he said, his voice laced with suspicion.
No, I said.
He paused. My presence in his narrative threw him off. He looked down and examined the pavement at his feet. Then he looked up into the blinding swirl of neon and vapor.
“So what are you doing up at this truck stop?” he said. “Anything specific? Taking pictures?”
This was my introduction to William Cronsell, a 27-year-old day laborer from Bozeman, Mont.
I tried to put him at ease, though that was easier attempted than achieved. I said I was a neophyte here.
He seemed incredulous.
“Is this is your first time in the Bakken?” he said.
Yes. Yes it is.
I asked him what he could tell me about his experience in the Bakken. He began to warm to the task.
“You can be fortunate and get a job that provides housing and have a stable situation, but if you don’t get a job that provides housing, you’re going to have a tough time,” he said. “Housing is incredibly expensive.”
He carried a sleeping bag, a camping pack and a hard hat. He said he occasionally sleeps outdoors, though that practice can elicit unwanted attention from police. He said city officials have a three-strikes rule when it comes to sleeping in public spaces, though I couldn’t find anything in the endless volume of dispatches from the oil boom that mentions such an ordinance.
He said he received a warning when he unrolled his sleeping bag beneath the American flag at Willsiton’s fire station.
“I was trying to make a point,” he said. “I was kind of angry about things and I wanted there to be social justice, so I thought ‘What better place to roll out my sleeping back than under an American flag?’ The alternative, if you don’t want to get caught, is to sleep in a secluded area.”
Here he paused once more. His face darkened. He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial murmur.
“But there are bad people in Williston,” he said. “There might even be a serial killer right now. Have you heard about that?”
What? If ever an interrobang was justified, this was the place. I will, however, show the proper restraint.
“See here’s the thing (William likes to preface thoughts this way): People have been disappearing,” he said. “It’s hard to prove there is a serial killer or hard to know if people have been disappearing, but bodies haven‘t turned up. I think it’s like people who are coming here without a vehicle and don’t have too much; people who could easily go unaccounted for. See, here’s the thing: I hope it’s not a serial killer; I truly hope it’s not. But it could be.”
And I could be the next Prince of Siam. Still, he might be onto something. He admitted this was pretty sensational stuff. I asked what the hell led him to believe a serial killer might be loose in Williston?
“The missing posters,” he said. “Have you not seen them?”
Yes, I have not seen them. No matter how often I confessed my ignorance of life in the Bakken, he inevitably reverted to addressing me as a seasoned veteran who just wasn’t paying attention.
I asked about his parents. He said his dad had a liberal arts degree from MacAlester College in Minnesota, a degree in theater or photography or something. He said this as if he had just tossed back a double shot of lemon juice.
It was obvious he dismissed his dad as a hippie slacker.
Suddenly I wasn’t worried about serial killers or nutty evangelists. I worried what Max might say about me in another 20 years.
He said his dad died on May 2. I asked him how he felt about this. It is, of course, complicated.
“Not to disparage my dad,” he said, “but I hope he repented and came to Christ before he died. And I think he may have.”
And so it went. Together we slipped in and out of sanity. I don’t recall how we got onto the subject of health care, but we did.
“Health care has fallen away from its traditional roots,” he said, and I nodded my head and began to think warm thoughts again. “Now the motivation seems to be profit and money. When the Bozeman Deaconess Hospital first started, the nurses didn’t receive a salary, just a small stipend. Nowadays the nurses are after the large salaries.”
So there you have it: It is the money-grubbing nurses who are responsible for spiraling health-care costs in this country. And the 45 million uninsured Americans? It’s all their goddamn fault. Fucking nurses.
I was pretty sure this conversation had outlived its usefulness, but I persevered. I asked William about his work here.
He showed me his ID card for Bakken Staffing, which operates as a sort of middle man connecting employers with employees. Only he called it “Bakken Staffin.’ He began dropping G’s like we dropped bombs on Dresden in February 1945. He does construction cleanup. You get paid at the end of the shift. The going rate is $14 an hour.
The highway flaggin’ generally pays more, he said. My focus began to waver as he veered from remodelin’ to housin’ and fundin’ and puttin’ band-aids on gapin’ wounds and, I think, corruption.
I think that’s what he was on about when he said, “It’s pretty easy to milk the cow. And that really picks a bone of mine.”
Right then I wished I had the jawbone of an ass or the femur of a buffalo or anything large and hard enough to produce one of those Looney Tunes lumps atop his head.
At this point, I just hoped to say goodbye before he asked after my immortal soul.
I shouldn’t have worried.
William was occupied with more worldly issues.
“I don’t intend to make any long-term commitments in this country,” he said. “I sincerely believe that the government intends to invoke martial law. ”
I couldn’t resist. I asked him why.
“The evidence is there,” he said simply.
Eventually I caught up with Jeff Krieger. He’d taken the long road to Williston. Recently, T-shirt testified, he’d been to Testy Festy. I asked what Testy Fest entailed.
“It’s a straight-up testicle festival,” he said.
You don’t say?
He’s lived a colorful life, not counting the tattoos. He was associate executive chef at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. He’s worked on crab boats in Alaska and gambled in Vegas casinos.
“I’ve been a master chef my whole life,” he said. “I got a four-star chef degree. Everyone says I’m a five, but I don’t think I am. I hate pastries. I was doing that and tattooing, and then every winter I’d run to Alaska to go crabbing.”
As for his presence here, he said it’s just a mission of philanthropy.
“We donate everything we do to charity,” he said. “It’s our way of giving back every year. We almost lost our daughter, Jeannie, when she was born. And we almost lost our son. And I have another kid that lives back east that’s got disabilities.
“We donate 75 percent everything we make from every tattoo piercing, because we have to cover fuel, food and repairs and a clean T-shirt every once in a while.”
One day, somewhere between Baltimore and Las Vegas and Alaska, his motorcycle broke down. He bought a Greyhound bus ticket, but got stuck in Seattle when someone stole his backpack. Another unlikely twist or two landed him in Port Angeles.
“I met the woman of my dreams, but she was married,” he said. “So I had to mess that up. I met her on my fifth day there and decided I was never going to leave without her.”
He grew up in Baltimore. His dad is a steelworker and a truck driver, his mom a bartender and a bar owner.
“I grew up on one side of the family, I was actually raised by my grandparents, and they’re all chefs, engineers and shit,” he said. “The other side of my family is all truckers and bikers and tattoo artists. I went after the other side of the family, and when I got tired of doing all that, I went home and did the rest.”
He said he’s still getting acclimated to life in the Northwest.
“They don’t understand my east coast mentality and attitude,” he said. “They all think I’m an asshole. I’m like, ‘I already knew that.’ People either love me or hate me or hate to love me.”
Jeff said we shouldn’t hesitate to ask if we needed anything.
He said he’d get us plugged in to Love’s electricity later.
He said I should stop by for a beer later. I thought maybe I had the potential to develop into the kind of person who loves Jeff.
We went looking for Jeff and Sarah around 1 a.m.but they were nowhere in sight.
The night was cool and comfortable. We hung outside the Behemoth for a while. Two spots over, a man was sleeping in the driver’s seat of his little pickup. Or he was reading. Hard to say.
We gave up on hanging with Jeff and retired to the Behemoth.
Somewhere in Williston oil workers were getting shitfaced and accosting strange women with outrageous propositions.
Somewhere prostitutes were plying their ancient trade and serving the local economy by satisfying a skyrocketing demand and pulling the release valve on untold barrels of pent-up testosterone.
Somewhere strippers were making good money, though nowhere near as good as Halliburton executives.
Somewhere drunken men were fighting, and someone was getting robbed, and, who knows, maybe someone was committing murder.
All was quiet on the Love’s front, however. We locked the door behind us and bid boomtown a peaceful goodnight.
Sunday, Aug. 18, Williston, N.D.
I woke up in the darkness, put on a T-shirt and went into Love’s to use the restroom. It was nearly 4 a.m.
A squadron of white pickup trucks bearing Halliburton insignia was parked out front. Inside workers purchased supplies for the shift.
Dawn was about to break over Williston. It was Sunday, just another day in the Bakken circus.
I went back to bed. I awoke a few hours later and shuffled out into the parking lot, where I met the fellow who’d been sleeping in his truck.
His name is Russell Black. He’s 54 years old. His manner is thoroughly understated. He wields a sideways grin and a wry sense of humor.
He came here about a year ago from Longview, Wash. On his way, he stumbled into a temporary driving job with a company out of Culbertson, Mont. Said he cleared $6,000 in four weeks.
Now he works 16-hour shifts as a highway flagger and lives in his tiny Chevy truck. He goes to work at 3 p.m. and knocks off at 7 a.m.
He said some people around here call him the Professor. I was about to find out why.
When his temporary driving gig ended, the company asked him to stay on as a “pusher,” which I guess is the guy who manages an oil rig. He didn’t find that appealing.
“I’m getting up in years, so I’m not going to be a roustabout,” he said. “I’m not going to work on a platform.”
He is well-versed in the nuances of Bakken life. He can parse the fracking process in complex chemical detail. He can tell you about the geological history that led us to this tumultuous moment in human history. He can brief you on city ordinances and safe places to hole up for the night.
Russell Black comes from a long line of working men. His dad, James Black, was a railroad journeyman on the Great Northern’s Hi-Line in Havre. His grandfather, Oscar, shoveled coal for the railroad.
And his great-grandfather, Hans Peter Black, left Norway and sailed around the world, ultimately landing in Chicago.
“He was a colorful guy,” he said. “He was sailing ships on the Great Lakes. I think his name originally was Schwartz. I think he might’ve killed a guy, so he Anglicized his name.”
Russell did two hitches in the Army, which he describes as “dignified welfare.” Then he worked 15 years for the Vancouver (Wash.) Aluminum Company.
“When the aluminum business went belly up, I went to driving trucks,” he said. “Over the road. I went to 48 states, all over the place. I was driving trucks for about 10 years. I started to hear people talking about how there’s good jobs out here in Williston.”
When he got here he witnessed the primal wonder of unrestrained capitalism.
“Rules and regulations were thrown out the window, it seems like, in the beginning,” he said. “Police were having hard enough time keeping track of criminals and protecting property without concerning themselves with a bunch of DOT stuff.”
Now, he said, the climate is a little tighter.
In the Bakken and elsewhere in the oil business, a commercial driver’s license, or CDL, is known as a golden ticket. Truck drivers can make upwards of $30 an hour hauling water to the oil fields.
Yet he works marathon shifts as a highway flagger. He says he’s wary of running afoul of the law and losing his CDL.
“People say, ‘you got a golden ticket and you’re not working driving trucks?’ Well, I want to keep my golden ticket. I don’t want to get tickets from the highway patrol.
“The oil companies, right now they got their teams put together. If you got experience somewhere else like Alaska or Texas, and you’re coming up here, they’ll hire you in a heartbeat. If you got schooling, or if they think you’ve got potential, or if you’re young and energetic, they’ll hire you. Otherwise people find jobs the old-fashioned way, through nepotism, favoritism and networking.”
He looked like he was ready to get rid of me. I could respect that.
Besides, the skies had darkened. The wind kicked up with a surprising ferocity, blowing sand and dirt and god knows what else in our faces. I could barely hear a thing he said.
And it was 11:45. We had only a few minutes to make it to the Walmart so we could witness the weekly stampede.
I thanked Russell and wished him luck. We got out on U.S. 2/85 and headed south, and not a minute too soon.
Just as Jeff Jacobs promised, a gaggle of Sunday shoppers were massed outside the portals to always-low prices. A portable yellow fence kept would-be miscreants from crashing the doors.
I got out, took a few pictures and had a brief chat with the young security officer. He found the whole drama rather amusing.
I considered pulling aside an eager consumer and getting a reaction, but I didn’t have the heart.
We’d had our fun at the circus.
Now it was time to head east.