Monday, December 12, 2011

So Where Are You Heading, Where Are Your From?

Good morning Minot, ND 

When you wake up on a train, you never really know where you are until you ask.

One of the non-negotiables in Amtrak’s dining car is community seating.  And when two people slide into the booth across from you the first questions usually are: so where are you heading, where are you from? With a cup of coffee to acclimate, you never know where the conversation will lead. 

This morning at breakfast we learned that a 3-bedroom house in Williston, ND, rents for $6000 per month. You’re wondering how this could be? Here are the two ex-Marines from Louisiana we breakfasted with who are working the oil fields in Williston along with tens of thousands of others.
They told us they liked the money, but that this new-oil town of originally 15,000 was a wreck, unable to accommodate the masses driven here by the enormous dollars being paid by Halliburton and other oil companies that now dominate the landscape. The oil’s always been there, but a new technology called directional drilling, along with fracking, made it a propitious time to exploit Williston.  
And exploit is just what the oil companies do, according to our most conversational breakfast mates. Limited housing available for the tens of thousands flocking here to earn what they can make nowhere else. People sleeping in tents, campers, and cars fill the Wal-Mart parking lot. Wal-Mart out of food because they can’t keep it stocked to meet demand.
One of the guys said anyone who cuts hair could make a million bucks.  But he also warned any woman who might take her scissors to what they called the Man Camps would be crazy. A very dangerous place for a woman to go alone. But fear not—our ex Marine on the left informed us you could buy not only a handgun, but also a kit to make it semi automatic…and finally a silencer. All legal here in ND. 
The Man Camps
A repeat of the gold rush, Art opined, and they agreed. City fathers enriched by oil money have little regard for the enormous changes wrought on the town itself. Oil chiefs pretty much get whatever they want. Clearly the people who make the most money are at the top of the food chain. But next in line comes guys like these: housing paid for, transport from their homes in Louisiana paid, working crazy long hours before returning home for a two-week sabbatical.
Williston, ND, from the train
Gazing out the window with me after we dropped off a bunch of people in Williston, our cabin attendant says there was a tiny town here just a couple years ago. Today, McDonalds reportedly pays $21 an hour just to keep staff,  WalMart about the same. When you can make $130,000 annually working the oil fields, even Williston cops are leaving their posts.
These two were openly disgusted by what the oil companies do to these small towns, and also by what they called the high rate of death on the rigs. They pointed to companies who put kids there without much training.  Death seems a high price to pay for accidentally lighting a smoke too close to a natural gas vent.
PS to Rob: you were right--no Sprint broadband connection out here.

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