WILLISTON – Two hundred and fifty miles upriver from the protesters at Standing Rock is a major source of the oil intended to flow through the Dakota Access Pipeline. Williston, once called “America’s Boom Town”, sits along the Amtrak Empire line and on top of the Bakken Formation, a geological phenomenon that holds a sea of oil and natural gas under several layers of earth and rock.
Driving north on I-94 from Bismark, one passes through the Little Missouri National Grasslands. The sign reads: “ Land of Many Uses”, a motto this park shares with several others in the National Park Service. Indeed, the United States sits on many miles of land not just to conserve “incomparable landscapes” but also “rich natural resources”. These grasslands sit on top of a portion of the Bakken Formation untapped by oil companies. With 432,286,156 barrels of oil sucked out of the North Dakota soil in 2015, the state certainly has a lot of natural resources.
However, because of the crash in oil prices, Williston – once hailing itself as America’s Boom Town – is undergoing a bust phase. While locals claim that these cycles are regular, the numbers from Williams County don’t lie. The last boom was the most spectacular. Money poured into Williston, along with a large glut of young men who were so desperate to get their hands on single women that there were stories of them offering up to $7,000 for women to serve them beer naked.
This in mind, I book a hotel room that’s behind a front desk. While this is a national franchise, the road up to its 224 room complex is unpaved, despite the years of boom already enjoyed by Williston. No matter for most of the people who stayed there. Except for the car I arrived in, every car in the lot was a truck or SUV with large tires. Men stand out front smoking cigarettes before brushing off their boots in hotel-provided brush scrapers.
Please help us keep these rooms clean, says a slip of paper on my bed. Remove your muddy boots in the mud room.
The beer in the hotel bar is cheap, but closes at ten. There aren’t so many people there anyway. The front desk clerk tells me room occupancy is at 20%. There is a cafeteria instead of a restaurant. It’s a lot like Iraqi Kurdistan in that alcohol and cigarettes are generally cheaper than food.
It’s also like Iraq in that a glut of out-of-towners resulted in skyrocketing rent. As high as $3,500 for a one-bedroom, some people tell me. But most of all, it reminds me of Iraq because there has been a clearing-out of sorts. As oil prices plummeted, people packed up and left. No more stories of people pitching tents to look for work.
At night, the now-empty man camps are illuminated by fields of flare stacks. The roads outside of a few square miles are unlit for hours. Minot is a two hour drive from here, Bismark three and a half. The temperatures regularly sink to below 0F (-18C) in the wintertime and there’s only one movie theater. At the height of the boom, there were two strip clubs that seemed to generate a lot of trouble, but they have been shut down, converted into an empty gay bar and sports bar. Main Street is empty except for two drunk guys on the sidewalk looking forlorn.
A historian at the Williston Frontier Museum, who we’ll call Larry, has to drive across town in the rain to open the museum for me. He doesn’t mind, though, as he tells me only about 100 people visit each year. The rain is coming down so hard that each building he shows me is leaking water. All of them were moved here on trucks from their original positions elsewhere in town to form a sort of ersatz village a short way from the Walmart.
Williston’s history is much as other small towns in the region. The Native Americans watched as homesteaders came, then the Empire railroad line, then the army, then the oil. It was a small town with little diversity, a sort of stoic, Luthran simplicity. “There wasn’t a black family here
“Things aren’t as they used to be,” he admits. “The young people working in the oil fields nowadays, they don’t watch each other’s backs. If they have a moment to spare, they’re looking down at their cell phones instead of keeping an eye on the guy next to them.”
Larry shows me the different buildings, all dripping from the ceiling. There’s a church, a one-room schoolhouse, a country store, and even a judge’s house that’s been outfitted with porcelain figurines and tacky glass lamps. Larry says the furnishings are the estate of a gay man who died 25 years ago. He had a boyfriend in Minot and was locally beloved.
He describes a small town, agriculturally oriented, drawn in by a cycle of booms and busts. He tells me about his teenage years, when the boys used to drive across state lines to drink underage, about bars that straddled timezones so patrons could move across the room and keep drinking for an extra hour after last call. He tells me about friends who died driving drunk on those roads.
He tells me about the cameras they’ve had to install at the museum to keep an eye on vandals, and older men stalking teenage girls who show up to play Pokemon Go after hours. “There’s a gym here,” he says, admitting he doesn’t know that much about the game.
Larry is frustrated with all the journalists that come through and write about Willison to make it sound terrifying, bizarre. He was born here, and grew up here. Sure, he left for about a decade, but he likes it here and wishes other people would give it a chance, too.
In true small-town style, he invites me to dinner with his friend Bill, who also happens to be tax collector for Williston. We go to a Turkish restaurant, which they tell me is new and adds a welcome flavor to the sparse offerings in town.
They’re happy that so many people have come from all over the world, offering a welcome influx to the local culture and diversity, but worry that the residents have become accustomed to burning through money whenever it hits their pocket.
“When oil hits, people go dumb,” says Bill. “Just ask the state of North Dakota. They spend money and then they create programs that all the sudden they have to fund and they don’t know how because oil has left.”
He says that’s how they got a $70m high school and a $76m recreational center for a city of about 27,000 people. But the roads are terrible and the gluten-free era bodes poorly for Williston’s agricultural sector which depends mainly on knee-high wheat. The use of genetically modified seeds, Bill tells me, means the wheat is shorter and more packed with gluten. Meanwhile, foreclosures are on the rise. They’re going to chew up this small town and spit it out when they’re through with it.
When you’re out in Williston, the wide open plains stretching off into every direction induces a kind of claustrophobia in some people. There are overdoses here – as there are everywhere else in the United States – on fentanyl, pills, heroin and other drugs, such as alcohol. There are eight addiction centers in town, but only one movie theater. I’m told of seven overdoses in one week from a “bad batch”. Thankfully, Bill tells me, the fatalities were few as paramedics have all started carrying Narcan, a drug that immediately reverses the effects of opiates.
“It’s escapism,” I hear. “It’s boredom.”
There are other ways to escape the boredom of life in Williston. For instance, when I ask people to tell me about the biggest problems in the United States, they seem geographically far away in their thinking.
A mother of three who tends bar tells me it’s Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem.
A trucker at the oil fields tells me it’s transgenderism.
Another worker says it’s the fact that the “Indians” are lying about their sacred burial grounds being desecrated for the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Nobody thinks that the presidential candidates running for office are legitimate or represents their interests.
The major problems with the United States are things they see on television, not the ocean of oil under their feet being spewed into the stratosphere. Not the bleakness of their day-to-day, the repetition of their schedules. Not the reasons they came all the way out here in the far corner of North Dakota for a job.
One man at the bar approaches with a smile. He’s used to working overseas. He was just working with USAID in Central Africa, in fact, and has come here with a delegation to do research on bees or something. The bar is empty except for the two of us, and the view outside the window is pitch black as far as the eye can see. He says Williston reminds him a lot of an Iraqi oil town, too.