Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

Eau de Crüde (and other ways this place is different from your place)

Posted on: February 19, 2012

When the United States Air Force sent me to Alaska the first time, it was to a teensy 100-man post called Tatalina Air Force Station deep in the Kuskokwim Mountains near the village of McGrath. This was a very short assignment; they were closing the base, and I then wound up in Galena. On the night of my arrival in McGrath, I was billeted in a lodge populated by mushers who were about halfway through the annual running of the world-famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race. It was, for me, a baptism-by-immersion into Alaskan culture. I didn’t get any sleep that night and I didn’t know if I liked this new place.

When the Air Force sent me to Alaska the second time, it was to the big city of Anchorage which quickly proved itself magical and full of energy and opportunity. On the day of our arrival, the first barrel of crude flowed into the brand new Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. Granted, Anchorage was still in the frozen north. But everything is relative, and we found the place very much to our liking; so much so that we stayed five years beyond my time in the service.

What I found was that people either loved or hated being in Alaska — there was no middle ground. Factors included weather, affordability of everything, distance from everywhere, and extremes like long dark Winter nights and long light Summer nights. Me? I liked it all, and I especially liked being among the few hardy souls who thrived despite the inconveniences.

That was then.

A couple of months ago, I traveled to Williston ND to collect impressions of the city, industry and people. Of the first two, I felt that the town was groaning under the weight of its newfound resource mining. Of the latter, I felt that the people were positive, helpful and friendly. I was even invited to overnight with a family; where does that happen anymore? But it happened to me, and a good thing, too…I was prepared to sleep in a rental minivan. In December. There were no rooms at the Inn.

I came away from ND with more answers than questions and had the feeling that something good could happen for me there despite relatively minor hardships.

Time will tell how I fare. Now, with an entire week and a half of residency in The Oil Patch under my belt, I have much to learn; impressions to confirm or debunk. But my ‘relatively minor hardships’ may not be yours. So if you’re thinking of coming here, add this blog to your process of due diligence.

My arrival in Anchorage coincided with the ending of the building phase of the oil boom in Prudhoe Bay. My arrival in North Dakota’s Bakken coincides with the beginning of the building phase of an even larger boom. Swarms of skilled, unskilled, experienced, inexperienced, mature, and immature people are coming into this formerly peaceful area. Some of these are working at drilling sites. Others are building infrastructure. Still others are managing things. All are working long and hard. For all of this, we are paid well.

But what becomes of us when we get downtime? Williston is not like where you live now. Here’s why.

If you’re living in a man-camp, you’re being taken care of. But if your living circumstance requires buying groceries, there are only two choices: Economart and the modestly-stocked Walmart Supercenter. Prices? This is a boomtown and prices are high. How about a nice meal at a restaurant? Here again, the choices are limited. And sometimes, you’ll find long wait times to get a table.

Retail stores, in general, are struggling to keep their doors open. They can’t find workers at the wages they are able to pay. Any worker worth his/her salt is capitalizing on the boom; making way more than the $12-15/hr. offered by Arby’s or O’Reilly’s Auto Parts. It’s not unusual to find a sign posted on a retailer’s door stating that hours have been curtailed due to the limited availability of people — in the middle of the day! For sure, you’ll find fewer stores open after 5pm.

Okay, then. You’ve got a little time and a full tank of gas. Hop in the car and go somewhere that has what you need. Here are your nearest options:

  • Minot ND — 2 hours (one-way from Williston)
  • Dickinson ND — 2:45
  • Bismarck ND — 4
  • Regina SK CN — 4
  • Jamestown ND — 5
  • Billings MT — 5:15
  • Fargo ND — 6:30

So a quick trip to Target becomes an all-day affair. (Note: there are no Target’s in Dickinson, Jamestown or Regina.)

But you might want to stretch your legs a bit, anyway. Be well-rested; the panorama may be boring and the road hazards can be many. Varmint crossings are plentiful here just as they are where you live. But the deer and the antelope like to play on the roads, too. Trucks mean business. So do the rocks that hit your windshield. And train crossings are particularly hazardous, day or night. In the wide open country, a distant train can be on top of you in a jiffy.

One more thing. As you drive, you’ll see oil pumping rigs dotting the landscape of the northern Plains. Nearby, there may be a heavy flame shooting out from a separated corner of the wellsite. These are gas flares and they’re lit to let off built-up pressure in oil wells. While they may seem interesting on one level, they can be offensive on another. If your olfactory system is even a little bit better than mine, you’ll experience a car-full of Eau de Secaucus.

If you had the good sense to leave your spouse back in civilization, you’re fine. If not, there might ensue a lively discussion about how much you love being here.


4/17/12  Afterthought — I grew up in New Jersey which has long been the butt (pun intended) of smell jokes. In particular, the marshes of East Rutherford and the odiferous emissions of industrial Secaucus. Say “SEE-kaw-kus” in a sentance and expect a laugh of derision.

That was so 40 years ago. I just had occasion to give the place another look (via Wikipedia) and found that Secaucus is now a high-value Hackensack River suburb with lovely streets and homes. I knew that Hoboken had undergone a Renaissance, and of course Giants Stadium and other development had changed the marshland completely. But Secaucus was a surprise. I now understand why my little geographic joke didn’t get a single response: nobody got the joke. There is no joke to get. Sorry, Secaucus.

4 Responses to "Eau de Crüde (and other ways this place is different from your place)"

Seems like you should be writing for the Williston Gazette… if there is one.

I actually did talk with the publisher of the Williston Herald back in December. He’s paying $12/hr. End of story.

Quite an accurate view of what things are like in Williston these days. From someone who’s lived in this area all my life, the changes taking place are huge – some positive, some not so.
I’m thankful to live in an area where the economy is so great and to have a good job I enjoy, but I never used to feel the need to lock my house other than when I went to bed at night.
The crime rate has increased and the traffic is annoying at best, but my neighborhood that I’ve lived in for 35 years is still quiet and friendly.
I’m meeting some new and interesting people who would not have come to this area if it weren’t for the job opportunities (this means you, Fred).
As for shopping – aside from groceries, I generally prefer the internet to dealing with crowds, although we do have a few nice little specialty shops and a great mocha place (my kids keep telling me I should call it a coffee shop)!
Keep up the great work, Fred – I enjoy your writing.

Thanks, Sherri. As I adjust to life here, it’s good to know good people like you and the family.

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