North Dakota Journal, Part III

A ‘man camp’ in Williston, N.D.


Welcome to the third and final installment of this journal — these jottings on North Dakota. For the first two parts, go here and here.

Boom brings with it problems, in addition to blessings, and the biggest problem facing the Bakken is housing: There’s not enough of it, to keep up with the people. Sons of men have nowhere to lay their heads.

This problem is partly remedied by “man camps,” also known as “crew camps.” We’re talking about modular housing, not unlike military quarters in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thousands upon thousands of men stay in these facilities. Some of them sleep in shifts. Generally, the residents are prohibited from having guns, booze, or drugs. The women are few.

I visit a man camp just west of Tioga. It has I think the longest hallway I’ve ever seen. A man in charge gives me the precise length: 1,008 feet.

And the facility has 1,002 rooms in it — bedrooms. It has plenty of other rooms, including an Internet center.

Did I tell you how I was greeted in Tioga? It was late at night. Suddenly, something darted into the road, into our headlights: tumbleweed. Scared the hell out of me.

I meet a man who’s building a hotel in this area. His name is Ray Cody, and his permanent home is Telluride, Colo. He is a formidable man, with a formidable past: hockey player, speed skater. Trained with Eric Heiden.

And get this: Ray rollerbladed across the United States. Yes, you read that right.

That’s the kind of adventure I’ve always wanted to have. But chances are, I won’t be rollerblading even across W. 69th St. anytime soon.

By the way, I just looked up the bed and breakfast that Ray runs with his wife, Anita, in Telluride. (Anita hails from North Dakota.) Looks good.

I hear a line I like: “He was so poor back then, he couldn’t afford to pay attention.” (I.e., he could afford nothing.)

Here’s another line, pure North Dakotan: “Twenty-below keeps the riffraff away.”

They look you in the eye out here. It’s almost disconcerting. I’m not used to that firm-handshake, look-you-in-the-eye stuff. I feel like it’s 1952 or something (and I mean that in the most positive way).

On the street signs of Tioga (such as they are), there are so many Norwegian names, you might think you were in Lillehammer.

In my NR piece, I mention Kathy Neset, who is a very successful oil consultant here in the Bakken — almost a guru, I would say. She’s not from out here. She’s from New Jersey. As she was leaving, in the late 1970s, someone said to her, “You mean, people actually live in North Dakota?”

She went to Brown University, majoring in geology. When she arrived in North Dakota, she worked a range of jobs in the oil business. (Same as Lynn Helms, whom we met in yesterday’s installment.) Kathy even roughnecked.

This lady certainly doesn’t look the part of the Big Bad Oilman: She’s soft, poised, feminine, sweetly reasonable. I say to her, “Does anyone ever say to you, ‘What’s a nice girl like you doing in a business like this?’” “Back East they do,” she answers. Here in North Dakota, they know better.

In a February issue of NR, my colleague Kevin Williamson wrote a piece about oil and Pennsylvania: “The Truth about Fracking.” He observed,

Everybody here has a three-day beard and a hardhat and steel-toed work boots, but there’s a strong whiff of chess club and Science Olympiad in the air, young men who are no strangers to the pocket protector, who in adolescence discovered an unusual facility for fluid dynamics and now are beavering away at mind-clutchingly complex technical problems . . .

That is so true. As I say in my current piece — my piece in the current NR — you encounter a mixture of Poindexters and he-men in the oil patch. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell one group from the other.