Searching for the Good Life in the Bakken Oil Fields
A seven-year oil boom in North Dakota has drawn thousands of investors, laborers, and fortune-seekers. But from behind the counter of a local truck stop, it’s unclear just how much anyone is winning.
An enormous white bust of Abraham Lincoln stood by the road, near an RV park and billboard for a gravel site. I would soon learn that Abe, with the long crack across his neck, was just about the only government figure keeping eyes on this stretch.
The road had not been built to hold 12,000 vehicles a day between Williston and Watford City, a sixfold increase from before the oil boom. Now the highway between those cities was being widened from two to four lanes, as part of the largest road construction efforts in state history. Motorists tended to ignore the 45-mile-an-hour speed limit in the construction zone, and flattened traffic cones lined the roadside. Around here, you earned more the faster you moved.
I drove past Enbridge, a company whose pipelines move crude oil across the country for refining, then the Ragged Butte Inn and a sign bearing the Ten Commandments. Just ahead was a “now hiring” sign at the only sizable stop I’d seen in more than 20 miles: the Wild Bison Travel Center off Roughneck Road, just before the highway sharply curved east.
Inside the truck stop, the counters displayed barbecue lighters resembling single-shot bolt action rifles and CDs with song titles like “Oilfield Trash With Oilfield Cash.” A red barrel of 5-Hour Energy Shots advertised: No crash later. Sugar free. Four calories. Feel it in minutes.
The manager, a jovial man named Randy Roth, glanced at my application, where I had listed a few newspaper reporting jobs, and asked me if I was any good with computers. (Like everyone else in this story, Randy later became aware that I was writing an article and allowed me to use his real name.)
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Can you work a cash register?” he said.
I told him about my teenage stint as a Target cashier during the summer of 2002, and he hired me at $14 an hour. That was exactly twice what Target had paid me.
Randy had spent 13 years running a Pilot truck stop in central Montana, and he later told me he’d upheld high standards there. But it was so hard for stores in the Bakken to find and keep retail workers that he had to hire nearly everyone who walked in. People would stay for just a couple of weeks or months until they found higher-paying jobs, so businesses had to pay even the least-skilled workers double the minimum wage just to stay open.
“Hey, I have a question for you,” Randy said on my first day of work, after copying my driver’s license and filing my employment papers.
I looked up, expecting an inquiry about my skills or job history.
“You a Vikings fan?”
By the time I came to North Dakota in June, I’d read stories by journalists from around the globe about how advances in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in the Bakken shale transformed a barren land into a mecca for ordinary men who wanted to work extraordinarily hard. But for all the impressive reportage about the oil boom, no mainstream journalist had done what struck me as the most potentially illuminating thing of all in a story that was, in many ways, about the sacrifices Americans endure to find decent work.
Go to work.
Now I was part of the labor force I was writing about, standing behind the register in a yellow polo shirt with the Wild Bison logo stitched on the front, typing in orders for $900 in diesel fuel and scrambling to get the truckers their Copenhagen wintergreen longcuts.
The men arrived in trucks loaded with sand and scoria, oil and water, their boots brown with dust and hands black with filth. It took 2,300 truckloads to service every oil well drilled through production here, so the men filed in at every hour. They loaded up on energy drinks, candy bars, cheeseburgers, beef jerky, and frozen meals (“I ain’t got nobody to cook for me,” as one derrickman explained). Everybody was in a hurry; the oilfield demanded it. Run the pipes. Run the water. Run the tools. North Dakota was now second in oil production only to Texas.
“There’s a reason it pays as much as it does,” said a man who trucked crude oil, standing bleary-eyed at my register. “It’s not hard work, just dangerous … We don’t know half the stuff that we’re breathing in … The fumes off the oil, there’s times it’s actually brought me to my knees.”
Standing there in their Carhartt uniforms and Sturgis motorcycle rally gear, the men told me this trucking job was going to pay off their mortgages. They told me the eco-friendly liberals needed to respect oilmen because they risked their lives so everyone else could drive a car. Some lived in the back of a truck in the Bison parking lot, but officially speaking, their addresses were in dying towns in West Virginia and Mississippi and Washington.
The wind blew so hard over the Bison that it sometimes hurt to breathe while walking through the parking lot; it could take two tries to open the door, where the heads of elk shot by the owners on a Northwest hunting trip were mounted on either side. Dust tracked in on the workers’ boots and swept through with the gales. The displays of Twizzlers and Starburst and chocolate candy bars, power chargers and bottles of coolant—they all needed regular wipe-downs. The camping fuel cans were so covered in dust that it looked like someone had already taken them to the woods.
It was overcast and cold some afternoons, but by 9 at night the sun blazed through the window so hard we squinted as we rang up the lines. (Up here, 300 miles north of Rapid City, the sun didn’t set until 10 p.m.) Steady rain washed out county roads, causing the sheriff’s office to set up long detours that cost the men thousands of dollars.
The forces shaped by men could be just as punishing as the forces of nature. A successful truck driver could make between $70,000 and $150,000, but he usually had to work 80 hours or more to get it.Inexperienced, exhausted drivers sped around with heavy loads, kicking up showers of rocks. Permits for overweight and oversized trucks in the oil-producing counties had more than tripled in the last four years. Many people considered Highway 85 dangerous and tried to avoid it—the talk among the drivers suggested that they operated with little oversight.
In the truckers’ lounge one day, two of the regulars, Blackneck and Fish, regaled the other men about how they had talked their way past a patrolman just over the border in Montana.
“I’m glad we didn’t get weighed. We’d be in jail!” said Blackneck, cursing. His nickname was short for black redneck, the phrase he used to described himself; he had traveled here after work prospects at his West Virginia coal mine withered. Blackneck had the height and build of a loan shark’s enforcer. Fish had screws in his ears and a topless image of his wife tattooed on his leg. He’d decided to become a truck driver here because he thought it had to pay better than his old job maneuvering bomb-sniffing dogs in the Middle East for only $50,000 a year.
“We were pulled over because he’s black,” Fish, who was white, joked to the other truckers.
Then he admitted that wasn’t why at all: They just had a janky old truck. The trooper had kicked the tires, telling them their PSI was too low. The gauge was broken so he couldn’t see it was overweight.
“We’re not going to run legal because we’re not going to make no money,” said Fish. Then he added defensively, “It’s not like we’re drug dealers or anything.”
Because everyone, including the cashiers, made so much money, the Bison had to charge a lot. It was the same everywhere you went in western North Dakota.
“What the fuck?” demanded one woman when I rang her gallon of milk for $6.59.
In the lounge, a trucker from Michigan ranted to the other men that “you hear all these people complaining about the minimum wage. I’m like, ‘If you give a state a $15 minimum wage, it’s going to be the same problem you got out here. You got all of us that are making over $100,000, all your prices and everything went up. The more money you make, the more they take.”
The other cashiers who worked the 2 to 10 p.m. shift with me were mostly women who had followed their men or families to North Dakota, or grown up here—the friendly pregnant woman who tried to balance her hours with a boyfriend’s truck-driving schedule, the pimply faced kid from Bemidji, Minnesota, who scowled at me from across the room. There was also a fry cook who made specials like livers and gizzards for $8.99. He’d lost his leg in a coal-drilling accident; then a flying rock had nearly taken his head off while he was driving a hotshot truck delivering tools to the oil sites.
There was hardly anywhere to live where we were, just south of the 200-person town of Alexander, so some employees slept at the Tumbleweed RV park down the street and showered at the Bison. I stayed with an oilman whom I’d met through a buddy in uptown Minneapolis. He’d hardly been east of the Mississippi, though he was well-acquainted with the inside of a jailhouse, a frat house, and a tattoo parlor. Now he worked as a floor hand on a workover rig by day and read Ayn Rand by night.
Everybody had a job. Everybody except for one man. He rolled up to the parking lot in a wheelchair nearly every day, holding a cardboard sign that read: “Needs work help if u can?” It doubled as a shield against the diesel exhaust that the trucks heaved as they drove in and out.
Wayne Williams had scrapped metal and sold shrimp in Baton Rouge when he came across a National Geographic article about Watford and rode a Greyhound bus north. He sold buttons at the fairground for a day and tried his hand at other work, but he wasn’t a steady job sort of fellow. Wayne said he slept for a while in the park by the Kum and Go gas station, but a guy in charge “ran me out of there and said if he caught me there he’d call the po-po on me.”
Wayne had been wheelchair-bound since one night in January of this year, when the temperature fell below zero and he sought shelter in a dumpster. By the time he’d arranged some slabs of wood to hoist himself out, the frost had ravaged his legs. Doctors in a Minot hospital had amputated them.
The event had horrified community leaders and the members of Wayne’s church, but he was still struggling on the streets. A maintenance man at the Tumbleweed had told Wayne he could try his luck panhandling at the Bison.
“But this place is hiring,” I said, pointing at the tall sign along the highway that advertised: Now hiring.
“Oh, it is?” Wayne replied.
Tins of Copenhagen straight were red, and the brand’s wintergreen long-cuts were green—I was forced to learn all the varieties of chew quickly, even though I had never previously known Copenhagen as anything other than the capital of Denmark. Tobacco was just as integral to the regional economy as the trucks. One customer put me on the phone with his boss to give a corporate credit-card number for an order that included three packs of Camel Turkish Royales.
Platter of chili cheese fries, $6.99—beep. Monster 24-ounce energy drink, $4.09— beep. Five-gallon diesel can, $20.99—beep. The ring-ups all ran together. I gave a man a $20 instead of a $10 and handed a prostitute the wrong brand of menthols. My coworkers reprimanded me for hanging keys to showers that had not yet been wiped down on the “clean” hook instead of the “dirty” one, which led to some customers walking into filthy stalls.
Something was always going wrong on 85, and when a line was cut outside—possibly from the road work—the cashier next to me warned the mob of restless men that the credit-card machines were “moving slower than a turtle going through molasses.” The machines were so faulty that I sent one trucker, Michael Fisher, out to his pump three times before he could get his diesel. Then I forgot to swipe his Bison Bucks loyalty card, which meant he was going to lose out on our special: a free shower with a 50-gallon fuel-up or more. He frowned politely.
On my break a few evenings later, I walked to the back of the store and saw Michael playing dominoes with two other truckers. They called him Aerosmith because of his supposed resemblance to the rock band’s lead singer, Steven Tyler.
His friend Rick tried to goad him into singing an Aerosmith song. “‘I could stay awake just to hear you breathing,’” Rick drawled. “Come on, man.” But Aerosmith demurred, instead offering to sing something by Lynyrd Skynyrd. None of us took him up on that.
They all slept in their trucks at the Bison and hauled scoria, dirt, and gravel, which paid less than some other truck-driving jobs but generally had easier hours. Aerosmith had come up from northwest Arkansas, where he claimed his uncle had hosted a fish fry for Bill Clinton when he ran for attorney general in 1976. He used to truck meat for Tyson all over the Southeast, and hoped this job would soon start to pay better. Sure, he’d made enough to keep the electric on and pay the mortgage—to get by.
“But I’m not a get-by kind of guy,” said Aerosmith, who was 52 and divorced with a teenage daughter. “There’s guys pushing a shopping cart up and down the road—they’re getting by. I want to get ahead. I want to be successful, I want to have things, and most things cost money. Money is important in life.”
It might sound like the butt of some East Coast urbanite’s joke: a guy named Blackneck and a one-legged fry cook and a man called Aerosmith who didn’t really look like anyone from Aerosmith trying to make it big on the Great Plains. Yet they represented an enduring American ideal: going where the opportunity was and working hard, no matter how miserable it got. No excuses. No government programs. Just sweat and hustle.
Companies could exploit this pioneering spirit. Some men said they’d come out here on a promise that they’d make twice as much as they ended up making, or that a firm would pay for their housing, only to wind up sleeping in their trucks through winter. When the oil boom began, everyone was desperate for truckers and they paid them well. Now, there was a glut of trucks, and wages had dropped. A lot of other players wanted their cut.
“By the time it gets to the guy actually doing the work, not much money,” Aerosmith explained as we waited for a call from his boss one morning. He was exhausted from driving until 2 in the morning, and now it looked too wet to make a planned run to Fairview. “They’re all going to make a profit,” he said, referring to the trucking companies. He wanted them to make a profit, just as long as he got his, too.
So far, he had seen a lot of idyllic prairie scenes worthy of a postcard, even if the rocks flying on 85 had pelted his windshield so hard they spawned rippling circles. It looked like someone shot the thing up in a drive-by. But as a man who normally prided himself on following the rules, Aerosmith had initially been bothered by the North Dakota Way. Unlike Tyson, his current employer did not ask him to keep a log book to show how many hours he drove, when he stopped and fueled, and how much he slept. His employer did not ask him to take a drug test. Hell, nobody asked anyone much of anything.
Now he was in on it, too. If the job paid by the hour, Aerosmith drove slow and filled the truck according to government weight limits. When it paid by the ton, he told the loaders to fill the truck up as high as they could, like a snow cone. “Don’t worry about the mule, just load up the wagon,” he’d say, before driving away with the illegally sized load. Every dollar counted.
He finally called the boss just before 8 a.m. “What’s the plan?”
The boss man confirmed what he had already suspected: The roads were all shutting down.
Another day sitting around the Bison without pay.
The phone rang again, but was only his mama. She reminded him not to eat that greasy truck stop food.
“A can of Great Northern beans is better for you than a hamburger,” Mama told him.
Not far from the Wild Bison is the spot where Lewis and Clark crossed the Missouri River on their westward journey towards the Pacific Ocean. The Kysar family came from the opposite direction, moving east from a small town in Washington State after the housing crisis ripped into their custom cabinetry business. They bought a small gas station in Alexander in 2011, then began looking at farmland a few miles south and decided to build the Bison.
“It was all timing,” recalled Derek Kysar, who had eight children. “You couldn’t touch it now.” The third-oldest Kysar boy, Jackson, was the official owner of the Bison at only 21 years old. He’d worked with his dad and his brothers to build the roads in and out of the site, the storm drains, and the cabinetry inside, before opening the Bison in August 2013. By the time I arrived the following summer, it had about 50 employees. They rang up $1 million in sales during just one week I was there, mostly for diesel.
The Kysars were honest Christians who wanted to do business right—they didn’t sell alcohol or lotto tickets, and they tried to keep the riffraff out. They shied away from publicity and hesitated before agreeing to be interviewed. Reflecting on their success, Derek said, “I don’t know, maybe we were stupid. We were stupid but it worked.”
The Bison had a monopoly of sorts along this stretch of 85, but other businessmen had taken notice. One night, a charismatic engineer, George Miles, came up to my register abuzz about his new construction project behind Abe Lincoln’s head.
His client, New York developer Kenny Hartog, was having the RV park there moved back and had begun sketching out plans for a $10 million truck stop that had already drawn interest from national chains. George said it would be bigger than ours, with three times our parking spaces for trucks.
I gave George his tin of Grizzly mint long-cut.
“So are you going to steal business from us?” I asked.
“Probably,” he said. “There’s plenty to go around.”
He said the state had just taken the land where Abe sat as part of the road-widening project, and they were telling the owners to get rid of the bust or they’d bulldoze it. George didn’t care for Abe. He’d lobbied his boss to replace the presidential head with a replica of the Statue of Liberty—they could call the new truck stop the Liberty Travel Center—but that was a no-go. George said Kenny also shot down his idea to put six cannons out there. How about putting in a statue of Teddy Roosevelt, who had owned two ranches in North Dakota and maintained a strong legacy there? George thought it might be too cliché.
I mentioned our conversation to Derek later, but he didn’t seem worried. The word among the other employees was that the Kysars were trying to sell the store to a corporate chain. They had seen guys from Pilot walking around.
Randy, the manager, wished he could own the truck stop one day, too, but he knew he couldn’t compete with the companies lining up for the Bison. He had more immediate matters to attend to, anyway. Since his arrival in February, he estimated at least 20 people had quit.
After I was hired, Randy raised the starting wage to $14.50 an hour to keep new employees (though it was still not enough to match the $17 wage offered by many retailers in Williston and Watford). One of those workers always came at least 30 minutes early to shower and started the overnight shift with wet hair. Just a week and a half into his cashier job, he landed a promising interview for a job running heavy machinery.
Then a couple of boys from Oregon rolled in. Anthony had worked on a North Dakota drilling crew a few years back but skipped town after a guy at the company started ratting everyone out for getting high on the job. He’d blown all his money and now owed back taxes and thousands on a payday loan. His friend Tyler had tired of working at Subway. Both were desperate. The third week in June, they’d pointed their car east and hadn’t stopped driving until they hit the Walmart parking lot in Williston at 2 a.m.
It was unlikely that Randy knew any of this when he asked, “Can you start at 2?”
We periodically served men of ill repute. One came up to my register with “murder” tattooed across his chest, and refused to look at me when I asked who he had killed. After I asked another trucker, whose face was as wrinkled as parched desert, what he did—wanting to know what he hauled—he said, “I do meth, I do peyote, a little Mary Jane.”
So it wasn’t surprising when a fellow cashier grew alarmed upon learning I’d been riding around with truckers for a story. “Just girl to girl, me being from here and knowing how bad it is, people go missing here,” she told me in a hushed voice. “There’s women trafficking. It’s real. And just because the people come in here and we see them every day, we don’t know what kind of people they are.” She left me with this: “Carry a gun.”
I ignored the warning and met up again with Aerosmith, who had landed a trucking gig outside of Williston that week. He’d just returned from an assignment taking gravel to an oil pad, and he was sitting in the Love’s truck stop parking lot nearby, waiting for the supervisor to come and sign him out. Ali, another man who worked for Aerosmith’s company, pulled up in a belly dump and complained that they weren’t going to get another load that day.
“You got to be an optimist,” said Aerosmith.
Ali saw me and introduced himself as a registered Socialist from Wisconsin. I asked him the logical question: If North Dakota’s migrants were America’s big doers, then why would he want the people sitting it out back home to share in their profits? Instead of offering a counterargument, Ali grumbled that the corporations just took and took, snatching a cut of his truck-driving revenue. Back in Wisconsin things were even worse, he said: “Those cops are sucking the blood out of our economy with their pensions!”
Aerosmith told Ali he was waiting for a call from Phillips and Jordan, the company that owned the gravel pit.
“Screw them,” said Ali.
“No, no. We should be good to them, at least make an effort, I think,” said Aerosmith.
A dusty Chevy Silverado pulled up just after 3. After mocking the driver under his breath for being gay, Ali hopped out of the truck and pasted on a smile for the man, who moved his glasses atop his balding head to review their paperwork. Ali’s was sloppy, so the boss ordered him to fill it out right—like Aerosmith had done. After he left, Ali ripped up the sloppy version of his papers and flung them between their two trucks, electric with rage.
“The man we just did business with there?” said Aerosmith. “It’s good to be nice to him.”
“Why?” Ali demanded.
“’Cause he works the tickets to your advantage,” said Aerosmith.
“I don’t give a shit.”
“You should,” said Aerosmith. “I do give a shit. We got a good $700 out of it, for seven hours.”
Ali was wary of rednecks and good old boys; he was never going to be one of them, with his foreign accent and penchant for Bill Maher. He had come here five years ago, starting in directional boring for Hess. He said he was sick of being the only black guy in the company. “It was all, ‘White power! White power!’” he said.
“You’re not black,” I said.
“Who you gonna tell it to?” said Ali, who was Turkish American.
He told me what other oil workers had said to him: “You motherfuckers, you kill our soldiers over there and then you come here.” They mistook him for an Iraqi. His response: “Excuse me, ignorant backwoods redneck motherfucker, have you ever been outside of your country?”
He continued his rant. “Ask [an oil worker] what book he read the last time, what was it?” Ali demanded. “Does he know anything about Tolstoy? Or Dostoevsky?”
I was accustomed to working the gas desk at the Bison by myself, until they put one of the Oregon kids on the next register over. Tyler and I were just getting to know one another one day when a hitchhiker from Maine interrupted to ask if we had a casino in the back—they had them at the gas stations in Montana, where somebody had accidentally dropped him off earlier, and he needed to make some money now.
Tyler and Anthony—who worked at a separate counter at the Bison—weren’t so different from the hitchhiker themselves. They had been camping at Fort Buford for a couple days when some authorities booted them out for leaving a pellet gun and a bunch of beer cans lying around. So they’d snuck over to the other side of the historic site. That’s where they ran into a man who claimed he was a big- shot real estate developer from Arizona. He’d invited the boys to his place nearby, where they got cleaned up. But then the man made them an offer that would be unfit to print.
An elderly janitor at the Bison took pity on Tyler and Anthony and invited them to stay at the bunk beds in his trailer. All three went out to party at the Hi Way Lounge, and Tyler continued drinking while he drove them back. The next day, Anthony woke up as as hungover as a fraternity pledge. I saw him in the Bison parking lot that afternoon. Tyler stepped out of the car, ready for work, but Anthony was sprawled across the passenger’s seat. He told Tyler to tell work that he was too sick to come in that day.
When we walked back out eight hours later, he was still there, sobering up. The car was packed to the ceiling with sleeping bags, propane cooking gear, clothes, and 24-packs of wood fire starters. The back ledge held a roll of toilet paper and toothpaste, both nearly done, and a study Bible. An enormous Wild Bison jug rattled around the front, along with a red sleeping bag and a crushed energy-drink can.
I learned at the Four Mile Bar that night that Anthony had an in with a casing crew and was on his way out. Tyler wasn’t going to last much longer either (he’d soon leave for a job with Anthony’s old drilling company).
“You want to be like the guys coming in, dirty, sweaty, their hands are black, faces have dirt on them, 16 hours a day?” I asked.
“Yeah, that would be amazing,” said Tyler.
He hadn’t cared for his community college courses in accounting, and Anthony knew he wasn’t ever going to do a desk job. He wanted to feel tired at the end of the day, like he’d accomplished something.
“I can’t not be working, not doing something,” he said. “I can’t sit all day and not be pushing myself.”
The following evening, Anthony threw a Fourth of July popper near a huddle of truckers smoking outside, then behind the cash register. He only had a couple days left at the Bison now, and he didn’t care about the truck stop at all. Our 22-year-old supervisor pleaded with him to behave when he said he was going to blow one up in the toilet next.
That was my last day at the truck stop. With people like Anthony on their way out after a week, my own month-long stay was a decent achievement. Aside from the Oregon guys, I counted at least seven other departures during my time there: the teenage dropout from Nebraska who cleaned bathrooms at night, a trio of young supervisors who wanted to start anew in Texas, the truck driver named Freak who dropped a night job stocking coolers after just a few days, the cashier who left to operate heavy machinery after a few weeks, and a 23-year-old mother who abruptly quit.
Big changes were coming with the management, too.
As I prepared to return to Minneapolis, the Kysars closed the sale of the Bison to TravelCenters of America. “We are ready to go home,” Derek told me. “That was kind of our plan. We’re ready to go home.”
The Bison’s appeal had always been that it was not corporate, like the other truck stops in the region, the Love’s and Pilot north of Williston and the Cenex in Watford. The Kysars had even used 67-year-old pump jacks Derek found in a Montana field to construct of an indoor balcony that looked out onto the floor. He would affably amble through the store, showing me photos of the family’s idyllic life camping and fishing in Washington. The staff knew the customers.
But you couldn’t fault them for making the deal. Derek had described coming here as a survival strategy, and they had done more than just survive—they had become an American success story.
Wayne, the homeless man, had also decided to flee the Bison, for very different reasons. His panhandling attempts had not been lucrative. Hardly anyone stopped. He got a business card once, from a lady who told him to call her and she’d help him find something, but then his phone got shut off. He heard they were nice to homeless people in California, so he bought a bus ticket and said he was going to buy a tent and live in the woods. I saw him out the window when I began my shift the day he was scheduled to leave. When I checked a few hours later he was gone, and then I never saw him again.
I still think of those drives home from the Bison after my shift ended, when I passed the oil rigs lit up in the night. They could look ugly during the day, but in the dark they glistened like emerald castles lighting up the empty passage back. So many Americans had been lured out here, thinking they would be the lucky ones who’d make it. If you timed it right, like the Kysars, you could strike it rich. If you worked hard, like Aerosmith, you could get ahead. The jobs were so abundant that even the Oregon kids were able to stumble from one to another. But for a lot of people, it was good money more than it was a good life. And for some, it was neither.
Maya Rao is a staff writer for The Minneapolis Star-Tribune.