Greetings From Williston, North Dakota
Credit: Michael Christopher Brown
Picture a small town far off the interstate. Everyone knows your name. At red lights, you wave at folks. There are a couple of diners, some gas stations, and an Applebee's for special occasions.

Now force-feed 10,000 to 15,000 new people into that town's piehole. You're in modern-day Williston. On my first day, I pop into the McDonald's to order some McNuggets, and my number is 067. They're up to 991. Outside, the drive-in traffic backs into the road. It is 4 pm on a Sunday. I look around, and it's like Port Authority on Christmas Eve – families sit and wait patiently, their suitcases piled at their feet. I buy some supplies at the Wal-Mart, and it's retail Thunderdome. Tattooed guys are snatching microwaves off pallets. The toddler in front of me hurls fruit cocktail at me for the 45 minutes I wait to check out.

A few weeks ago, the Wal-Mart parking lot was a transient town of campers and trailers, with dudes getting mail delivered to 45 Wal-Mart Parking Lot, Williston, ND 58801. But they were forced out amid rumors of depravity. Some of the trailers have migrated to the parking lot of the community center, an arena built for hockey games and the annual appearance of the Shriner Circus' sadder-than-sad tigers. It was not built to serve as the only public shower facility for hundreds of filthy men fresh off oil rigs. The place smells like ass.

I stop by the community center to run on the treadmill on my second day – a mistake I'll never repeat after watching a bearded man wash out his underwear next to me in the showers. I dress quickly and overhear two young men talking about the place's skeeviness. Tony Daniels and Mike Orr have been in town for five days. They're from Myrtle Creek, a spit of a town off Interstate 5 in southern Oregon, leaving as the lumber industry folded around them. I ask them where they're staying. Tony's face breaks into a wide smile. With his scraggly beard, he looks like a baby mountain man.

"Follow us," he says. "We'll show you."

They hop on new-looking mountain bikes they've left unlocked in the parking lot. It's an interesting transportation choice in a place where workers commute 50 miles a day to faraway rigs. I get in my car and trail after them. Mike is in the lead. He's the one with the buzz cut and the crazy eyes. We head downtown, past the Amtrak station, where scores of pilgrims get off the train every day. We go another mile and then turn on to a dirt road for another half-mile or so until they dump the bikes. We tramp on foot for another hundred yards until we are up against a chain-link fence and some railroad tracks next to a flimsy tent. For some reason, Tony is still smiling.

"We came here with two other guys, but they gave up," says Daniels. "They headed back to Oregon with the car. Me and Mike had about 300 bucks so we went to Wal-Mart and bought two bikes and a tent."

It's about 40 degrees, but the next couple of days are going to get colder. I offer to buy them a meal, and we head back into town and find a table at a diner.

It turns out one of the other guys who split on Tony and Mike was Tony's dad. "He was doing OK," says Tony. "But his buddy was dragging him down. When they didn't get a job the first four days, his friend dragged him back to Oregon."

Tony is the oldest of three kids. His dad worked at the lumber mill, and his mom was a nurse until a pregnant woman threw her against a wall during a contraction; she's been bedridden ever since. Tony's parents divorced, and he took on the brunt of responsibility for raising his younger brother and sister. It wasn't until his senior year that he had time to play football. "I loved it," he says with a faraway look on his face. "I think about it a lot. I'd love to have one more season."

Mike's story is equally grim. As a teen, he split time between his dad in California and his mom in Oregon. He got kicked out of school after he laid out his Spanish teacher and put a knife to the throat of another student who Mike says threatened him first. Now 27, he has an ex, a six-year-old son, and a new bride to support. Mike had been in Williston less than 24 hours when he got into his first brawl – "the other guy started it, but I finished it." For years, Mike made a good wage lumberjacking in the Oregon forests. It wasn't easy work – on his chest is a tattoo memorializing a boss crushed by a falling boulder – but it was good money. But then the Canadians opened some supermills that could process wood cheaper and better than the Oregon mills, and then came the recession, and then the work was gone.

"And it's not coming back," says Mike, his eyes following our waitress's ass back to the counter. "But that's OK; just gotta get settled here and get my wife out here, and we'll be fine."

He shows me a picture of his wife.

"She's so hot. She's coming out right after we find a place to live. We've only been married for six months, and I miss her like crazy."

I asked him how he could leave his hot wife 1,400 miles away.

"Jobs. Fucking jobs. We want to work. I'll work here, save a lot of money, maybe 50 grand, and then go back home. I ain't afraid of hard work. This town better watch out."

I give them a ride back to their tent. Tony and Mike count up their money. After buying the bikes and the tent, they've got 90 bucks between them until God knows when. They jump out, and I tell them I'll check back in a couple of days, but they can't hear me. A train pulling 100 tanker cars full of oil blasts past us, heading east. I drive away, yanking a tick off my neck.