The prairie wind rattles through the walls of the boardinghouse. It can't be morning already, can it? Please God, no. But it is. I head downstairs into a human warren, five beds carved and partitioned in a dark basement. The place smells of dead beers and putrefied sheets. An elderly Maine truck driver sits dazed in his not-so-tidy whities watching a Western after the night shift. Sausage links are unmanned in the microwave. I say hello. No response. He keeps staring, unblinking, at John Wayne. Maybe he's dead? Then, a fart. Nope, definitely alive. God bless.
I tiptoe through the piss on the bathroom floor and into the shower I share with five truckers and a possible drifter. I feel the fungus and filth eating through my toes. Is cholera still a thing? I splash on a stranger's Axe body wash, a liberty that is strictly against house rules, but my serotonin levels are crashing, and I'm hoping the aroma of youth will fire me up.
It's Day 18 in Williston, North Dakota, and like 10,000 other men, I'm stuck in a boomtown scrounging for a paycheck. I step outside and open the door to my Mobile Dirt Carrier. It was once an SUV but is now coated in insect corpses, mud, and petroleum. I put it in gear and jam it down a gutted dirt road, my organs restacking themselves as I rattle past a cement factory that was an empty field two weeks ago. I peel onto Highway 2 and head into town.
I drive past the Raymond Family Community Center, soon to be closed to oil workers because some of them have been crapping in the showers. A little further and there's the airport. Another Gulfstream glides into town, packed with execs visiting the most important oil field in modern American history. See the Wal-Mart on the left? The cops swear rumors of man-rape among the parking-lot transients is just filthy gossip, but the boardinghouse truck drivers say it happened – the victims just didn't want their names published; might hurt their job prospects. On the right, rows and rows of Quonset huts make up "man camps" housing thousands of workers, the lucky ones who don't have to sleep in their cars. Sixty bucks a day gets you three squares a day and a four-by-eight room.
There's been no rain so the truck dust rises and falls in sheets, coating your clothes, your mouth, your will to live. I take a right on West 57th. I keep going for 10 miles, the road dipping and winding past trailer homes and oil wells. A little boy with no pants chases a mangy dog near the road. I hit a cemetery and pop out into the dust and wind, the crumbling tombstones with født (born) and døde (died) marking the graves of the Norwegians who first tried to make life come out of the barren soil a century ago. People never learn.
I've gone too far. No, that's not a metaphor. Or maybe it is. I back up, and I see it – a little clearing in the mud. Piles of pipe, some trailer homes, jacked-up trucks, and an oil rig stretching some 10 stories into the sky. Universal Drilling Rig No. 1.
I park in the slop and notice someone behind me, a Williams County Sheriff truck. What do they want? I paid for that lap dance.
It turns out the cops are looking for the same guy I am. I follow a woman detective and a burly deputy into a trailer with a crooked sign out front reading 'Company Man.' Joe Martinez sits at a desk hunched over a computer with undulating graphs and curves. He spins around to greet his guests, his wandering eye darting from left to right. He asks the cops how he can help. Turns out one of his workers is wanted for theft. The cops give a name and Joe scrunches his brow.
"So many of them come and go," Joe says.
But then his face lights up. He remembers the guy.
"He and his buddies were good workers, but then on day six or seven they started saying it was too dangerous. I remember his buddy's cheek was quivering like crazy. I guess they were tweaking." Martinez laughs a sad laugh. "You get all sorts of people out here; they're good bullshitters."
Joe looks at the guy's file. His men typically work 14 12-hour days in a row and then have 14 days off, so the guy hasn't been officially terminated yet. Joe tells the deputy he'll offer the dude his job back to see if he'll return. Joe's been working rigs since he was 16 so nothing fazes him. But he's 44 and sick of the babysitting. The drug use got so crazy on his last rig he'd wake up at 2 am to patrol the trailers that housed his workers. One night, he looked through a window, and there were two workers snorting something at the kitchen table.
"I was like, 'Right in my camp? You have to have some big cojones.' I just took them all and drug-tested them. One guy had a bag of clean piss in his pants. He got to the drug place, he went and sat down, and it broke. He didn't even care; he proceeded with the drug test. I couldn't believe it."
The cops have their own war stories. A guy just overdosed in a man camp.
"It's not just meth anymore," the detective says. "We're starting to see the cool drugs up here now – cocaine and heroin." After a few minutes, the cops excuse themselves – they've got a lot on their plate. Joe shakes their hands as they head out.
"I'll call you if the guy comes back."
Joe Martinez sits down, rubs his eyes, and downs a Diet Pepsi in a single shot. Rig No. 1 is just a few days away from starting to drill, and there are problems: problems with the mud tanks, problems with his greenhorn crew. We make small talk about families left behind. Joe starts pointing out pictures of his three kids on the wall: His oldest, Braxton, is an all-state wrestler back home in Wyoming. He's about to get to his little girl when there's a light knock at the trailer door. In comes a man in coveralls and a helmet, slathered in oil and mud. He looks to be about 60. The man sits down in a heap.
"Joe, I started this business way too late, my body is just shot. Probably going to be leaving tomorrow."
"I started out today and yesterday with the Vicodin, just to get through it, and the hammering, it's tearing me up. I lied to myself. My mindset's there, my body just isn't there anymore."
"You gave it your best shot."
"I just can't do it. I don't have enough Vicodin, man. I had a toothache and stashed them off, but I don't have enough."
"I understand. You don't have to prove anything to anybody."
But the man does have to prove something. He pulls off his gloves and presents two shaking hands, swollen and distorted. Joe pats him on the back.
"Hey," Joe asks. "How old are you?"
The man laughs as he tries to pull his gloves back on. He looks like a ghost.
Joe shuts the door behind him.
"He's a good guy. You can make 80 grand per year easy, two weeks on, two weeks off. But the work isn't for everyone." He looks back up at his kids' pictures. "Where were we? Oh, yeah, my little girl. They're why I'm here."
The phone rings. Someone's screaming from the rig. The mud tanks are leaking. The home office in Denver is pissed. We step outside back into the mud, back into the noise, back into a facsimile of hell. A lucrative hell, but hell nonetheless. Welcome to Williston, North Dakota. Welcome to the boomtown.