Outsiders, Outcasts, Hustlers: A Year Reporting on the Modern-Day Frontier

The drive north into the oilfield at night showed the faint slopes of buttes ringed in sepia and burnt orange, then a drapery of glittering lights, civilization rising. Semi-trucks blared past the traffic cones and half-built apartments and hotels. I passed a roadside bust of Theodore Roosevelt, a man camp that the feds would soon discover was part of a worldwide Ponzi scheme, and the Wild Bison truck stop. It was fall 2014; I was traveling up North Dakota’s Highway 85 after several months away. I had arranged through a friend's colleague to stay in a spare room at the Dakotaland trailer park, but now I could not find it on a map, nor by my friend’s vague directions to go north of the truck stop and turn right on an unmarked road. What road? The sky was black, the lights of new buildings long past me. Where was the tobacco shop and the post office, the Hi Way Lounge and Hard Ride Saloon and the Ragged Butte Inn? I knew I had gone too far when I hit Route 200, near the first drilling rig I had visited over the summer, and I turned around. Still the old landmarks did not materialize. I imagined that I was hallucinating, driving back and forth into the void, and finally spied a vague turnoff onto a dirt road. An 18-wheeler followed, lights blaring, and the road kicked up dust so thick that it briefly blinded me; ahead, finally, was Dakotaland. In the trailer was a foul-mouthed roughneck from Tuscaloosa who showed me to my room, which had been vacated by a rig worker who was carried out on a stretcher. In the clearness of morning, I saw that they’d built a massive bypass around the highway I used to know, in order to stop oil trucks from barreling through Watford City, population 1,700 before the oil rush. So the old route was gone—I always remembered this when considering how fast the oilfield changed, that one could be gone for less than four months and still lose her way on a road she’d traveled dozens of times before. People often compared the boom here to the California Gold Rush. In the 1840s, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley sent 24-year-old Bayard Taylor to cover it, prompting him to sail through the Isthmus of Panama to the West Coast and visit a series of mining towns for his book Eldorado: or, Adventures in the Path of Empire. Taylor could have been me observing North Dakota when he grasped the drastic changes that could happen in short order: “When I landed there, a little more than four months before, I found a scattering town of tents and canvas houses … Now, on my last visit, I saw around me an actual metropolis, displaying street after street of well-built edifices, filled with an active and enterprising people, and exhibiting every mark of commercial prosperity.” More than a century and a half later, the largest oil rush in modern U.S. history had transformed western North Dakota’s faded frontier into a crucible of breakneck capitalism. To chronicle such a rush one had to wed journalism and literature and history—to be a lone adventurer traveling to a remote outpost and capturing the greed, struggles and whimsies of the pioneers with nuance, depth and sporadic humor. It was a strange aspiration, perhaps, in the 21st century, where too much journalism is done in a coastal city in front of a computer. My idols, like Taylor, were mostly from bygone eras. Another inspiration was Joe McGinniss. He’d been struggling to match the success of his bestselling debut The Selling of the President in 1968 when the massive discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, set off a pipeline boom that drew hordes of laborers, industrialists and hustlers to the northern frontier. The young writer had followed his hit expose of the Nixon presidential campaign with a novel about a sportswriter and a memoir, both poorly received, and was looking for his next project. He boarded a ferry from Seattle to Alaska in late fall, making friends with a hard-drinking character named Eddie the Basque, and set out to try another genre. McGinniss spun tales of pioneers, gadflies, rangers, and indigenous people in Going to Extremes, writing with decidedly more of an offbeat, absurdist voice than John McPhee did in his own Alaskan account Coming into the Country. The Philadelphia Inquirer hailed McGinniss’s reporting as a grittier, harder-edged take on the topic than the denser, more measured McPhee’s—a portrait of the “‘real’ Alaska.” McGinniss was interested in writing an adventurous frontier story that explored the psychology and culture around the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, ignoring the geopolitics of oil in the seventies. The Bakken shale was the largest oil discovery since Prudhoe Bay, and I wanted to write a book about this brilliant new microcosm of American greed and striving. (During the year of this essay’s beginning, McGinness passed away from prostate cancer at age 71.) Unlike him and Taylor, I would not embark on a grand journey by sea—instead, I’d drive from my apartment in Minneapolis, stopping for gas near Fargo off Interstate 94, where there would invariably be some shifty-eyed man at the next pump over—probably just out on parole—and know, without saying a word, that he was bound for the oilfield six hours across the state. That look. Freedom, desperation, adventure, meth, money … Then I’d carry on, driving into long and green hollows of feral quiet that ran hundreds of miles. Get out in some smudge of a town like Harvey to fill the tank again—shiver in the eyes of stillness that beamed over that endless expanse—retreat to the car as if to escape forces that would pull a human interloper into the fissures of the earth. Remember this upon arriving at the western flank of the state, where trucks and rigs and men ran roughshod and nature was the trespasser. I was astonished, upon my first trip to the oil hub of Williston, when several people mentioned offhand that they had seen men drag a passed-out woman from the bushes into a van. “What did the police say?” I asked, and they shrugged. It hadn’t occurred to them to call the cops. A Scottish author’s observation of the fortune-seekers in San Francisco during the 1850s could very well have applied to those of the North Dakota oil rush. “The community was composed of isolated individuals, each quite regardless of the good opinion of his neighbors; and, the outside pressure of society being removed, men assumed their natural shape …” wrote J.D. Borthwick in Three Years in California. Then Taylor wrote—as was true in 2014, with oil topping $100 a barrel—that the cost of land, rents, and goods had steadily increased and “there would be before long a crash of speculation. Things, it appeared then, had reached the crisis, and it was pronounced impossible that they could remain stationary.” Some of the great frontier writers were just as interested in striking it rich as the workaday miners around them. Mark Twain grew “smitten with silver fever” in Nevada, but his efforts amounted to little. He and a friend lost their legal claim to a silver mine by not acting in time; then he lost money in mining stock investments. College dropout Jack London departed California for Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush, braving the White Horse Rapids and 40-below temperatures and roughing it in a cabin on the Stewart River. “I brought nothing back from the Klondike but my scurvy,” he lamented afterwards, with $4.50 worth of gold in his pocket. Being a woman without the brawn for a real oil job, I cashiered at the Wild Bison truck stop for a month at $14 an hour—double the minimum wage at the time but certainly not big oil money, just enough to pay my way reporting a magazine story—and set about documenting the people who came in. I met a Wild Bison customer who wore a low-hanging shirt that exposed an enormous tattoo across his chest that said murder. Another was a bounty hunter from south Texas. A regular was selling waste disposal services from rig to rig after his banking scandal drew the scrutiny of the Securities and Exchange Commission and New York Times. A twitchy hitchhiker with only $30 to his name washed in from Maine. Outsiders, outcasts, hustlers, Americans in extremis. Who else, after all, would be drawn to the frontier? McGinniss described white (and therefore, new) residents in one Alaska town thus: “They were unusual people, the whites of Barrow. They had to be: else why would they have been there? They had come seeking adventure, or high wages, or more frequently, escaping from problems outside. Recently divorced, in many cases. Needing a fresh start, someplace distant … to survive as a white in Barrow, you needed an unusual degree of psychological stability. But to have come to Barrow as a white, in the first place, you already had displayed an extraordinary absence of the same.” I spent about a year total in the oilfield, covering the transformation from raw frontier to civilization. I favored a more investigative approach than the travelogue popular with my predecessors, but above all was wary of the newspaper conventions that had locked me in for the past decade—fine for most stories, but a limitation on the expansive writing needed to capture the story at hand. Frontier writing also had to be written from the first person, though going gonzo was optional. The Southern writer Harry Crews went to cover the Alaskan pipeline boom for Playboy and woke up after a bender to discover a tattoo of a hinge on his arm, but no bounty of liquor or promise of literary infamy could have coaxed me into the tattoo parlor Skinful Pleasure in downtown Williston. Gonzo or not, I had to cultivate many sources during their own benders, as oilfield types were disproportionately heavy drinkers who would not suspend their habits to participate in my book. When I turned my back on one oilfield entrepreneur for a few minutes at a bar, he began insulting the bartender in a drunken rampage and was kicked out. He called me the next day to say he woke up with $600 missing, possibly at the strip club he went to afterwards. But frontier reporting had vastly changed in some respects. For one, the speculative nature of the old gold and oil rushes no longer existed—there was no mass starvation, and few impoverished, penniless miners. Oil companies knew where and how to extract crude with almost total precision. The technological advances of our modern fracking boom meant that an aspiring worker could get an oil job as long as he could pass a drug test, and if he could not, those were easy enough to fake. A Houston roughneck who lived next door to me in Dakotaland once got away with pouring Mountain Dew into a urine test cup to hide his penchant for marijuana. Also, newspapers—print overall, really—no longer played the role they did in hyping past gold and oil booms. Consider how in 1897, an extra edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer trumpeted the arrival of a steamer from Alaska loaded with more than a ton of solid gold: GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! Sixty-Eight Rich Men on the Steamer Portland. STACKS OF YELLOW METAL! The article celebrated the steamer’s cargo worth $700,000. Thousands rushed to see the boat dock. Newspapers around the country printed stories, spurring a stampede to Alaska by way of Seattle. In the 1970s, a New York Daily News article about the pipeline boom resulted in 6,576 letters and 1,370 phone calls to the pipeline company in one month, according to the Alaskan journalist Dermot Cole. But starting in 2011, it was the screen that propelled people all over America to the North Dakota oilfield. One viewer in Olympia, Washington, saw a news feature on the oil boom during a blur of Jersey Shore episodes. He struggled to find work after being laid off as a graphic artist and had been melting for weeks into a tattered couch in front of the TV, spending his unemployment checks on booze, pizza and ice cream. Gregg Thompson soon packed his belongings and rode the Amtrak 1,100 miles east, eventually finding a job at an oilfield Walmart. He also found a side hustle in filming YouTube videos about life in the oil patch, casting himself as a quirky citizen reporter expounding on everything from slumlords to tumbleweeds. Gregg had the edge because chronicles from out of state journalists were either sensational or generic—the reporters usually spent only a few days on the ground. It is amusing to contemplate how we would have imagined the Klondike Gold Rush or Trans-Alaska Pipeline construction had YouTube been around at the time—the medium is particularly suited to the individualist, unfiltered nature of a boomtown. What if Twain had been roaming Virginia City, Nevada, in the 1860s making online videos, instead of penning tall tales as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper? With my notebook and pen, even a laptop perched on the bar, I was too old-school—everybody wanted to be on camera. Even more strikingly, the persona of the swashbuckling male writer had faded. I’d look around the truck stops and bars and oil sites and wonder who the male successors to Taylor, Twain and McGinniss were, but female journalists like me now dominated immersive writing out there. Blaire Briody moved into an RV park one summer to report a book called The New Wild West, even going undercover as a day laborer. Laura Gottesdiener went undercover to work as a waitress at a strip club for a magazine piece; on her first night, one patron beat another to death with a pipe. Sierra Crane Murdoch filed thoughtful, longform dispatches about the oil boom’s effects on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. I waited for the article about a male author going undercover as a roustabout, or the book deal of a male adventurer’s oilfield bar-hopping, but it never came. (Men did documentaries instead.) And in reading the writing of my predecessors, I found no guidance for the annoyances I would face as a woman, such as being turned down by several landlords for a room because a woman was considered a liability in a patriarchal, gender-segregated society. I eventually spent the majority of my oilfield tenure living in a house of all women near Walmart. The speculative bubble that Taylor observed was just as true in North Dakota, and I was on the ground for the long, torturous spiraling of the Bakken’s fortunes as oil prices crashed and OPEC put the squeeze on the U.S. shale industry—the exodus of migrants, the misery, the homelessness, the dreams betrayed. Twain’s exaggerated musings on the California gold rush towns echoed in a later century. “And where are they now?” Twain asked of the old fortune-seekers. “Scattered to the ends of the earth—or prematurely aged and decrepit—or shot or stabbed in street affrays—or dead of disappointed hopes and broken hearts—all gone, or nearly all— victims devoted upon the altar of the golden calf—the noblest holocaust that ever wafted its sacrificial incense heavenward.” I read those words again and again while I was in North Dakota—they were my favorite lines in his book Roughing It—as he talked of this “most splendid population” that had converged on California and then dispersed. Many of the people who industrialized the North Dakota oilfield left for new adventures when the money dried up, bold and noble participants in one of the most fascinating capitalistic experiments of the American 21st century. As oil hit $27 a barrel in January 2016, a 13-year low, it was a wise time to flee the oilfield. When I mention life on the frontier nowadays, having moved to the Washington, D.C., area, some look at me oddly. North Dakota? What’s there? Several colleagues are baffled at why I went out at all; one called it a hellscape. An editor for a major publishing house said several years back that he liked everything about my book proposal but the topic, that I was “intrepid in the extreme in moving … to the shithole (sorry) that North Dakota has become as a result of that shale oil boom,” but it was too dispiriting to read about. Yet after finally publishing my own frontier book this spring, I am sure that the oilfield is where I found myself as a writer, a journalist, an adventurer, just as London concluded that he had found himself in the Klondike. (“You get your true perspective,” he said.) Something about a rush and a collapse, giddy hopes and despair, muddy boots and gritty prairies, has forged my path as a writer more than any of my news reporting jobs over the years. Twain was a failure as a silver miner, and Roughing It is not considered among his best-known books. But he published his books on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn over the next decade. Taylor established himself as a world traveling writer and diplomat. McGinniss went on to write some of his best-known work, including true-crime book Fatal Vision. The frontier is often just the beginning. Image: Flickr/Tim Evanson