Men came to Williston, worked hard, and saved their homes from foreclosure back in Texas, Florida, or Oklahoma. The women stayed home with the kids – there just wasn't enough housing for the little ones. So mostly just manly men doing manly things. It all sounded so masculine.
And it was all because of the North Dakota crude coming out of the frozen ground at a rate of a half-million barrels a day. In 2010, for the first time in 13 years, the United States imported less than half its oil from foreign countries, and that's largely because of extraction in the Williston Basin, an area that stretches from west North Dakota to eastern Montana and up north to Saskatchewan. Little ol' Williston – preboom population 12,000 – had become the rump capital of an oil country.
I wanted to go there but couldn't find a hotel room. Too many workers, not enough beds. I contemplated camping in my car, like hundreds of other new arrivals. Then I saw a story in a magazine about Williston that included a sidebar on "The New-Age Waltons." It told the heartwarming story of Kathy Walton, the widow of a large-animal vet, who was taking workers into her farmhouse on the edge of town. I eventually tracked Walton down and gave her a call. She told me there was room for me, quickly adding that her prices had escalated to $90 a night with a shared bathroom.
I knew I was getting swindled, but agreed to it and spent the next few days reading dispatches from Williston. Past the chirpy good news being sprayed from CNN – strippers making three grand a night! – there were some problems. The highway medians, once cleaned by cherubic 4-H kids, were now filled with "trucker bombs," two-liter pop bottles filled with piss. Yuck. And then there was schoolteacher Sherry Arnold. Sherry lived 45 miles southwest of Williston in Sidney, Montana, and loved to play volleyball on the weekends. One morning, the mother of five went out for a jog and never came back. All the cops found was a running shoe by the side of the road. The trail led to Williston, where Lester Van Waters Jr. and Michael Keith Spell bought bologna and a shovel at the Williston Wal-Mart. Their big mistake was trying to return the shovel after allegedly burying Arnold. The boomtown had claimed its first innocent.
I drove into town on a Sunday afternoon, sandwiched between two 18-wheelers, to giant billboards pitching man camps and bumper stickers boasting about rockin' the bakken. It reminded me of Reno, without the girls or gambling or the lake.
As I looked for Kathy's house, my GPS took me on dirt roads to nowhere, a common occurrence in a town where the map changes weekly. Finally, I found it. In the circle drive were cars with Michigan, Utah, and Maine plates. A cute duck wandered by, looking miserable. Walton, a short woman with a crinkly smile, welcomed me in and handed me the house rules. There were many, among them the admonishment "A drunk, even once, will be evicted. The Sheriff WILL come." She then handed me a shot of brandy.
Walton showed me to my room. It overlooked a dug-up septic tank.
One of the basement dwellers came over to shake my hand while I unloaded my car. He drove a truck 80 hours a week delivering water to rigs. We started talking as the wind picked up, and he smoked a cigarette. He told me he had graduated from a service academy with a major in nukes.
I wanted to ask him how he ended up in North Dakota, but that sounded pushy. He told me anyway, as long as I didn't mention his name. After graduation, he gave the military the six years he owed them. Then he got married, had a kid, and started working at a nearby nuclear plant, making six figures. But then his wife left him and took their son. One night, he showed up at his ex's house, demanding to see his son. Things got out of hand. They shoved and screamed at each other. His ex called the cops. He was charged with violence in front of a child and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. He lost his nuclear plant clearance and lost his career. About a year ago, he drove 12 hours from his home to Williston, desperate to replace his lost income. Now, he sees his son once a month.
The nuke-guy-turned-truck-driver stubbed out his cigarette and shrugged. "This town is full of people with stories like that. You'll find them."