I'd heard Williston was a magical place.
July 19, 2012 10:36 AM   Subscribe

Greetings From Williston, North Dakota

In recession-strapped America, Williston, North Dakota, may be some kind of paradise: a town where oil jobs are plentiful, lap dances are cheap, and desperate - possibly meth-addicted - men can change their luck. On the loose in the new Wild West.
posted by Windigo (31 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Had to stop reading due to the barrage of purple prose (how exactly do sheets putrify?) and misspellings (it's "tightie" whities, not "tidy"). I'm sure the conditions are pretty rough, but sheesh!
posted by Larry Duke at 10:48 AM on July 19, 2012

When we moved out of Williston in the mid-80's (certain proof of a benevolent god, that), my parents sold the house I grew up in for something like $40k. My brother was passing through last summer and decided to drive by the house. The current owner mentioned in passing that she was considering a $500k offer but thought she could hold out for $750k.

Total insanity.

Do you know what's really priceless, though? The look on my father's face when he found out.
posted by R. Schlock at 10:54 AM on July 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

I just drove through Williston a couple weeks ago and it's amazing how things have changed in 5 years. It used to have the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, but now there are these "man camps" with hundreds of trailers every few miles. I even saw ones with two story high double-wide trailers.

Oil wells were about every mile. All the gas gets flared so the landscape is dotted with these flames that you can see for miles.

There's a truck stop that I remember stopping at that was nearly empty the first time I visited a few years ago. Now it's always busy and you can buy oil hose (~$40 per foot) and couplings (~$200) in the back. There are always multiple oil trucks in the lot.

From what I've heard from locals the biggest problem is sewage. A lot of the little towns in the area have had to stop the influx of people trying to rent space for trailers because of this.
posted by All Out of Lulz at 10:59 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The "Bakken Boom" has generated some wariness here in Montana, with increased crime (or at least perception of same) on the Montana side of the border...as well as hopes and a few fears that a similar boom will happen along the Rocky Mountain Front. And in Helena a few weeks ago (hundreds of miles from Williston), a taco joint was advertising for management jobs at their ND location.
posted by davidmsc at 11:02 AM on July 19, 2012

Back in 2008 I rode the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico with two friends and my soon-to-be husband, each of us on a motorcycle. I was the only woman in the group. One night we had to stop (daylight/fatigue/weather) in some one-horse town south of Pinedale somewhere in the Jonah Field. The motel was shoddy, overpriced and packed. After checking in, we trooped over to the bar & grill for supper. We sat quietly in a corner eating our cheeseburgers watching the scene.

With the exception of one or two young women who seemed to be in play, I was the only woman there. The clientele was young roughnecks drinking their paychecks. There was a lot of macho posturing and near-fights, but we finished our meal in peace and escaped to our rooms.

I'm pretty fearless in general. I lived through the Koch years in New York, I survived Freaknik when I lived in Sweet Auburn (Atlanta), I've been in or near riots and protests and disturbances of all sorts. I have never felt so implicitly threatened for my physical safety as I did that night in the gas field. The place felt completely lawless.
posted by workerant at 11:06 AM on July 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

Larry Duke: “(it's 'tightie' whities, not 'tidy')”

I'm pretty sure "not-so-tidy whities" was a weak joke.
posted by koeselitz at 11:12 AM on July 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Oddly on the front page of washpost (either yesterday or today, can't tell from the on-line link)
posted by k5.user at 11:12 AM on July 19, 2012

Oh, rigpigs; so pumped to be making the big money - because you're so tuff - but too dumb not to piss it away, realize cost of living is eating it all up, or realize you're going to be fucking crippled before retirement. God bless 'em.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:13 AM on July 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Had to stop reading due to the barrage of purple prose (how exactly do sheets putrify?) and misspellings (it's "tightie" whities, not "tidy"). I'm sure the conditions are pretty rough, but sheesh!

I hope to never, ever empathize with this point of view and if I ever do I hope I never proudly post about it.

Its a good story with an on-the-ground viewpoint that we don't often get. I can handle some ticks in the writing to get it.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 11:18 AM on July 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

"Lap dances are cheap, and desperate."
posted by moammargaret at 11:19 AM on July 19, 2012

Sixty bucks a day gets you three squares a day and a four-by-eight room.

Makes San Francisco sound cheap.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:26 AM on July 19, 2012

My cousin (A) works out there. He's gotten three promotions in the last year. He makes good money and has a few years of experience out there, now. He says that, aside from the exorbitant housing prices, keeping workers is the hardest part.

He says that he just lost one of his best workers at the end of June because the guy's wife had had enough. Too many days away from home.

Another cousin (B), who always seems to have a hard time getting a good job, worked out there for a while this past winter. But he has two kids under the age of 10 who live in the Twin Cities with his wife. The hardest thing for him was getting on that bus or train to leave for a week or two at a time. Not getting to see his wife and kids and friends and family. Missing out on the kids growing up.

Cousin A doesn't have a wife and kids right now, but if it happens, what then? Williston is no place for a family. Not right now, anyway. Where do the kids go to school? Where does the spouse work?

(The lack of extracurricular activities in the dead of winter is another hard part, but he grew up on a farm and knows how to entertain himself.)
posted by jillithd at 11:34 AM on July 19, 2012

I read this a few days ago. It's fascinating and depressing. And what Senor Cardage said. Although obvious carelessness or ignorance in writing or editing will always make me twitch a little.
posted by rtha at 11:34 AM on July 19, 2012

I think he made up the guys from Paris Match who were mad they couldn't get espresso.

I suspect he made up a lot more.
posted by spitbull at 11:40 AM on July 19, 2012

I suspect he made up a lot more.

I dunno. The stuff about the tent city in the parking lot of Jukt Micronics was too richly textured to be just made up.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 11:48 AM on July 19, 2012

I was in Williston a few months ago for a day. The oil boom is kind of a big thing in the region and I'd heard the stories but when I got an invitation to go road tripping I only heard the part about driving through the badlands and didn't even consider that Williston was the destination, or that she was inviting me along because under no circumstances was she going there alone.

It was a singularly depressing sort of place to visit. There were small oil wells within the city limits in some of the little towns we passed on the approach, and then you're in sight of Williston and you can see new shanty housing being actively built on the outskirts. My friend had a technical repair job to do in the city for a cellphone store so we never even saw the low rent side of town, but we did still have to stop for gas on the way out. I was dressed in a vintage coat with a fur collar and I had bright blue hair; I'm used to sticking out wherever I go but I really don't think I've ever felt quite so dangerously out of place before, even though it was the middle of the day in the neutral territory of a gas station. Every man in there was uniformly grizzled to all hell, they were downtrodden and covered in muck, and it was just so painfully obvious that I was intruding in a world where people like me didn't exist.

I'll also add that I ran into an old friend of mine recently who spent some time working on an ambulance in Williston. Apparently some of his coworkers had served as combat medics in Iraq and found Williston to be a more disturbing environment to endure due to the constant rate at which they encountered patients with traumatic limb injuries or who were in other sorts of crippling accidents. He also had a similar sort of bar story to workerant's, where he was doing a tape recorded interview with a rig worker in a bar about the rates of male on male rape in Williston, and then during the middle of the interview there were gunshots fired upstairs somewhere above the bar, and the only way he got his superior to believe that part of it was to play the recording back for him. I sort of wish I had more than brief snippets and second hand hearsay to post, but then again anything more would mean spending some actual time in Williston which isn't something I'm inclined to do on a lark.
posted by CheshireCat at 11:56 AM on July 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

I hope to never, ever empathize with this point of view

posted by herbplarfegan at 12:00 PM on July 19, 2012

For a less sensationalized, but about as brutal, look at the Bakken, check out Black Gold Boom, a project by North Dakota Public Radio. The "McGregor: It's a Huge Change" story covers well how the townies are dealing with the change, at one point resulting in a showdown between a pistol and a sledgehammer over the dumping of fracking water on a country road.

Disclaimers: I write for the same public radio station, and at my dayjob my clients range from several Bakken-area governments to..well, with NDAs and all I can't say.
posted by AzraelBrown at 12:11 PM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

From what I've heard from locals the biggest problem is sewage.

Nah, there's plenty of places to dump it. The one news report I saw adopted a reassuring tone when explaining it was just human waste.
posted by AzraelBrown at 12:35 PM on July 19, 2012

I live, let's say, within a 50 miles radius of Williston. I even spent time working in the office of one of the bigger oil companies. My family homesteaded in this country so we've been here quite a while and everyone is in shock. We've seen booms before but nothing prepared us for this one.

ND roads used to be pristine but now they're all beat to hell. The paved roads are full of sink holes/pot holes/washouts. The road to the family farm has been broken right down to the base. You could run a grader for a mile on the old township road and maybe pull up a couple yards of gravel. And no township in this state has the kind of money to fix that ($200K a mile). The counties don't either and the state legislature has yet to really address what we need, even though this state is so awash in cash we could finance a presidential campaign. And don't get me started on the trash in our ditches from the truckers. That yellow fluid in those bottles ain't Gatorade.

Fire/police/EMT are overwhelmed. Too many truck accidents from too many inexperienced drivers that are driven to the brink and then beyond, too many using drugs to stay awake on the roads or on the rigs, and too many are just lowlife assholes that could give a good goddamn about any rules of the road. A cousin of mine trains drivers for a huge trucking company here and he says "we're gone from scraping the bottom of the barrel to picking up the slugs underneath the barrel." Many argue that crime is rampant but law enforcement claims that it is just matching the ridiculous increase in population. Williston has doubled in population in a few years and it's the same with every small town in these oil counties. Not to mention the explosion in the population of exotic dancers and prostitutes.

On one hand I feel sorry for a lot of these workers. We see people dragging themselves into this area with the last dime they've got. Two weeks ago I saw a busted-up Jeep with Ohio plates on Main St in Williston and on the rear window they had painted: Williston or Bust. And when these folks get their first job in years they will find that local landlords or mancamps will gouge them for an enormous part of that paycheck. I feel their pain. But there's a lot of these "rigpigs" that truly are the scum of the earth. Workerant and Cheshirecat are absolutely right - it is very dangerous to be a woman in these booms and that is a first for this part of the world. This used to be a town where a woman could take a walk or run at midnight but those days are long gone. Now she's barely safe in a gas station

Families that managed to cling to their mineral interests (and not all of them did) are doing OK. The oil companies have a million ways to fuck you over but the laws on the books in this state are actually on the mineral owners' favor. But those who have wells are very quiet with their cash. Part of it goes to that Scandinavian/Germanic disdain for the ostentatious display of wealth but the rest is just good common sense. You might be getting an extra $1000-$8000 a month but you sure don't show it. Too much jealousy from those that didn't get the dead dinosaur bonus cash and there's a lot of new blood that just wants to rip you off. And yes, I lock every door in the house. There was a time when my dad would actually have to search before he could find a key to this place.

If anyone has questions, I'll check back. This used to be a great place to live a quiet life but nothing is quiet in western ND anymore.
posted by Ber at 1:16 PM on July 19, 2012 [25 favorites]

It sure sounds like it's changed since I ate a quiet lunch in a diner there in 1985. :(
posted by aught at 1:44 PM on July 19, 2012

And don't get me started on the trash in our ditches from the truckers. That yellow fluid in those bottles ain't Gatorade.

That peculiarly grotty detail - "trucker bombs" i.e. discarded pee-filled soda bottles -is mentioned in the feature too.

If you do check back - what did you think of the article?

I found it compelling yet infuriatingly affected at times & I also wondered whether the writer was getting into Hunter S. Thompson territory & giving us some fiction with his facts.
OTOH, it's a pretty gripping read...so I wondered if you thought it was mainly accurate?
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:55 PM on July 19, 2012

Sad to say, other than the exotic dancers that I have seen on the local news being far better looking than he described, there is a lot in the article that is accurate, if poorly written. I suspect some sensationalism in his writing but it was refreshing to read just because local media, especially the newspaper and TV out of Williston, have blinders on. Meth was flushed with a vengeance over a decade ago and now it's back.

The INS is running itself ragged now because of a flush of illegals - before the quietest job in the world was guarding the ND/Sask border.

Before we came back to ND, we used to live in the Twin Cites. When we were in St. Paul and because our cash was minimal, we'd go to Wal-Hell in the Midtown neighborhood of SP. And it was inner-city hell. I saw a fight break out between two women the first time I walked in there. And while the Wal-Mart in Williston has yet to entertain on that level, it is far worse. The store brings in workers from other parts of the country and houses them behind the store because they can't staff it. Good luck buying a frozen pizza, the oil workers buy them at such a rate that the freezers are consistently empty. I've never seen a 45 minute wait at the cashiers but I've certainly seen close to 30 minutes. And the prices are sky-high. Some merchants refuse to charge a "Bakken premium" but many do and WalMart will tack on up to 15% in Williston. And they'll get it.

Most locals with brains, common sense, and the spare time would rather drive 90-130 miles east on Highway 2 to Minot. Or even further to Bismarck. Or west to Billings. We're going to Billings next month and when I walk in through those Costco doors I will drop to my knees and kiss the floor. And it will be a sight cleaner than the Williston WalMart.
posted by Ber at 2:19 PM on July 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm a member of the North Dakota Library Association and we hold a conference in some area of the state once per year. Normally, the conference rotates between the four quadrants of North Dakota (typically that means Grand Forks; Fargo or a city nearby; Bismarck; and either Minot or Williston). The oil boom has kind of put a monkey wrench to that plan, as I don't foresee us being able to book a space in the western quadrant for some time given the price increases.

Last year, our conference was in Minot (unofficial city motto: 'Why not Minot?'). Though Minot is 125 miles from Williston, it's suffering quite a bit from oil patch overflow. Our conference hotel, for example, had sold away rooms booked three years earlier at a conference block rate (pre-boom) to oil patch people who could and would pay three time what we paid and commute to the patch (again, that's about 125 miles each way).

It didn't help that Minot had just suffered through a massive flood the month before (so there were also flood remediation people competing for hotel rooms), but my goodness was that town in horrible, shitty condition. The roads were a mess and that's a big surprise given how much North Dakota puts into roads (another unofficial motto: "North Dakota's four seasons are winter, winter, mud, and construction").

Even Bismarck, which is 230 miles away from Williston, is experiencing an upswing in home prices from the oil boom. While I'm sure part of it is lobbyists for the various oil companies (Bismarck being the state capitol), some of it is oil patch overflow again.

I can echo what Ber is saying in regards to companies getting workers in, in the specific case of Menard's (a home improvement store)--I was taking Amtrak home from the Cities a couple weeks ago and got to talking with a man whose son works in the central office for Menard's. When a Minnesota store closed for re-modeling, Menard's flew in workers from that store on a rotational basis to work in the oil patch. I don't know all the details, but I do know that the pay differential in the oil patch is something fierce: even Minot had McDonald's advertising $20/hr just to get workers.

Way over here on the far eastern side of the state, it's quiet. We do get the news, though, passed on by family members or folks who got oil patch jobs: there aren't enough schools in the oil patch area (amazing, I know, given the 'women aren't safe, families aren't welcome' rhetoric but entire families do pack up and come), there aren't enough roads, there aren't enough services and there surely aren't enough homes.

It's quiet as ever on this end of the state, so people kind of look at the boom with a raised eyebrow and a muttered prayer of gratitude that we aren't there. We're not seeing the boom money but we're also not seeing the boom violence. Could be worse.
posted by librarylis at 2:28 PM on July 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

So, on top of shattering bedrock and poisoning groundwater in order to dump more CO2 in the atmosphere and wreck what's left of the biosphere and human civiliation for the next 1000 years; this "boom" is making life suck for North Dakotans right now. Oh, and it's also probably a ponzi scheme anyway.

Bourbon-'o-clock seems to come earlier and earlier these days...
posted by eurypteris at 2:44 PM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Comments like yours Ber (and the one from librarylis) are basically why I joined metafilter. Thank you.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 3:38 PM on July 19, 2012

...the state legislature has yet to really address what we need, even though this state is so awash in cash we could finance a presidential campaign.

The oil company and the pols will stuff their pockets full, but you'll never see anything to assist the poor slubs working. There's no infrastructure or concern for the environment, and not likely to be, because this is a boom--get in, get rich, get out.
posted by BlueHorse at 6:09 PM on July 19, 2012

Hess already donated $25 million to "education in ND". Except the check didn't go to the state ed department, it went to the Republican governor to distribute as he sees fit (too many Democrats in the state ed). Gov. Dalrymple has rolled over for the oil companies like a middle-aged stripper trying for an extra buck. He's the one exec in the state that could slow the rush but he claims he can do nothing to slow things down. Guess who rubberstamps the drilling permits? The guy with $25 million.

Two other things and I'll leave this alone. First: drugs. The big three oil companies in this area (Hess, Brigham - which is now owned by Statoil in Norway, and Continental) are extremely rigorous about drug-testing. That tale about snorting off the table at a rig did definitely not happen at one owned or leased by those three. They've bounced entire crews for far less and when they have you pee in the cup, it's overseen by medical people that have seen every trick in the book.

Last winter was extremely mild and there are now a large amount of people in this area that have not seen a real ND winter. This is the coldest corner of a state that prides itself on its soul-crushing winters and how its natives ride them out. If we get a mother-fucker like the one we had two years ago, I truly feel sorry of the out-of-state folks. They aren't going to know what hit them.
posted by Ber at 7:19 PM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

the state legislature has yet to really address what we need,

I know the oil boom has been around longer than a year, but the North Dakota legislature runs on a biennial schedule, only meeting in odd-numbered years unless special sessions are called. One could debate the necessity of a special session immediately, but when a measure to completely eliminate property taxes in the state actually made it to a vote and got 24% support, there's an awful lot of "fuck all y'all, I got mine" going around. These negative reports about drugs and violence and foreigners and outsiders don't help; it adds to the idea that "the Bakken is full of horrible people who are nothing but trouble so why should we help them?" -- when it's far more complex than that. The Oil Trust was set up to plan for the future by setting aside state oil-related revenues for the distant future, the earliest is 2017 to access the billions that will be in there by that time, but the otherwise poor economy and shortsightedness of their attempt at farsightedness means they might have to take from the future to get things in order now. Homeless shelters, mental health services, schools, public health programs, sanitary sewers, food stamps, medicare -- it's all programs that are being cut everywhere else in the interest of 'austerity', and nobody wants to be the first to step up and say that the state needs to be spending a lot more money on all these people that nobody has anything good to say about.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:44 PM on July 19, 2012

Why not Minot?
This is a great slogan!! (Minot is one of those French names that is not pronounced in the French way, vis-a-vis North Dakota. Minot, ND is my-knot, not me-know.)
posted by whatzit at 3:14 AM on July 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is also a little hamlet between Minot and Williston named Palermo. We sadly pronounce it PAL-err-mow.
posted by Ber at 5:07 AM on July 20, 2012

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