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ROBB JEFFRIES: My first impression of the Oil Patch

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My first trip to Williston did not leave a good impression.

I have had family and friends move from different corners of the country to seek riches in the Bakken oil field, and nearly three years of begging me to visit finally made me cave. My inner journalist wanted to make the trip, too. Personal accounts of how insane life can be there — a camper’s propane tank exploded less than 50 feet from my dad’s makeshift home in a cargo van two years ago, incinerating the camper — and numerous feature articles from national news organizations had piqued my interest.

So, I set off. And, as a good journalist does, I observed. And took lots of notes.

My cellphone photos did not turn out, however. You can’t win them all.

Here are some things I observed that struck me the most:

There are more gas flares than trees

My dad now lives on the outskirts of town in a much more suitable home than the van he drove to Williston a few years ago. When I called him for directions, after getting a few normal landmarks like “turn left at the gas station” and “once you cross the bridge, turn right,” but the last step threw me through a loop.

“Once you pass the flare on the right side of the road — not the one on the left — you’ll turn down the next dirt road.”

Sure enough, as dozens of semi trucks flew past me at speeds likely not safe for an icy two-lane highway, I saw two different sites burning off excess natural gas. I was later told the amount of gas burned off in the Bakken could provide enough heat to keep the entire country warm for a few days.

In fact, the manmade structures used to harvest oil from the earth vastly outnumbered native vegetation. I imagine Williston to be somewhere between a normal town and the all-city planet of Coruscant in Star Wars.

Logistical issues aside, I was in awe of all that potential money going up in smoke.

The (not so) almighty dollar

Call me crazy, but despite all the stories of oilmen making money hand over fist in the Bakken and the corresponding inflation, I was not expecting to pay New York City prices for Williston-quality goods.

Everything there is uber-inflated because of the ridiculous pay those in the oil industry earn. “Economy” hotel rooms can cost north of $700 per week. My 15-year-old, four-bedroom apartment in downtown Grand Forks costs less per month than my friend’s two-bedroom apartment straight out of the 70s with black mold in every room. My dad refuses to move out of his (admittedly, pretty sweet) trailer into a home without wheels because rent would cost more than the mortgage payment he moved there to pay off in the first place.

Even the McDonald’s dollar menu items are all more than a buck.

I am lucky my visit was only for four days because I don’t think I could live there full-time on a journalist’s salary.

If you thought it was windy here…

Red River Valley residents know how quickly a day can turn from a sunny winter day into a ground blizzard thanks to our trademark wind. But, western North Dakota is on its own level.

One evening of my visit, I sat in the living room of my childhood friend’s apartment. Conversation became difficult as the night wore on, not because of us growing apart due to years of not living in the same city, but because the hurricane-force gusts of wind howling outside.

After venturing to the nearby gas station, I was forced to stop walking along the sidewalk because the wind was so strong. Not satisfied by my defeat, the wind intensified and began pushing me backwards along the icy walkway.

How rude. Whatever happened to North Dakota Nice?

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Robb Jeffries
Robb Jeffries is a Twin Cities-based journalist for Forum News Service. He is a graduate of the University of North Dakota. Reach him at rjeffries@forumcomm.com.
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