Greetings From Williston, North Dakota
Credit: Michael Christopher Brown
The big oil companies in Williston have hiring agencies that put together their crews. They have day and night company men who work 12 hours on and 12 hours off. They have specialized crews that clear land and build their rigs. Everyone is a specialist.

Joe Martinez doesn't work for any of those guys. His boss is Jack Grynberg, a Denver oilman who's been in the business for a half-century. He sued British Petroleum, British Gas, and a slew of oil companies who, Grynberg claims, screwed him out of his share of the oil he says he discovered in Kazakhstan. There are rumors that Grynberg made millions from his lawsuits, but if he did, you don't see it at Universal Rig No. 1.

Grynberg doesn't believe in hiring agencies, so it falls to Joe. So far, Martinez has supervised the clearing of the land, hired a crew, and supervised the building of the rig. Most days, he subsists on three hours of sleep and frozen burritos his girlfriend made him last time he was home. He doesn't have a degree – a must in the tech-filled modern oil business – so he's always getting screwed. "I'm not getting paid enough," he gripes. "A lot of my workers make $5,000 a month working just two weeks."

I don't have the heart to tell him most company men in Williston make three times what he does.

A few days later, Joe is trying to sleep when things go to hell. Behind his trailer is a slightly nicer trailer, housing the eggheads from Payzone Directional Drilling Services, a company being paid $15,000 a day to supervise the horizontal drilling. The Payzone guys sit at computers and watch a camera mounted on a 30-foot turbine that steers the drill. Last night, the eggheads did all sorts of mathematical equations and programmed the turbine to take a hard left at 10,000 feet across the middle Bakken. Numbers are punched into a computer, and everyone takes a break. The Payzone guys watch a movie on cable and check their email.

But something gets fucked up. The pipe turns the wrong way and drills in exactly the wrong direction. If the pipe keeps drilling, it's going to end up on someone else's property or miss the oil zone completely. A Payzone guy wakes up Joe. He tells him the entire pipe has to be pulled out of the ground so they can figure out what went wrong.

Joe is not happy. "Who fucked this up?"

Nobody knows. What we do know is that for Joe's crew, the next 14 hours are going to suck. Every joint of the pipe has to be filled with viscous oil-based drilling mud – the K-Y of drilling lubricant – before it is dropped in the ground. One of the Payzone guys describes it to me as "the Chernobyl of drilling fluid, the most chemical-­laden goop known to man." Now, it all has to come back up. When the pipe gets pulled out of the ground, the toxic K-Y is going to fly ­everywhere.

Joe tells his crew what they have to do. They look at him like he has told them to start digging their own graves. And in a way he has. If the shit gets on your skin, you break out in lesions and whiteheads.

Every piece of pipe the crew pulls out has to be broken off from the next pipe with giant tongs. The first pipe is lifted high up out of the ground. Joe's crew breaks the connections, and a giant shit grenade goes off in 3D. Sludge rains down on their helmets, splattering their goggles. Joe's crew stares hard at the Payzone Drilling guys, who cower inside the doghouse, the one covered area on the rig. One of the Payzone guys whispers he's afraid the crew is going to sneak into his trailer at night and squeeze their whiteheads on his pillow. I'm not sure if he's joking.

Happily, one member of Joe's crew is turning his frown upside down. He frenetically licks the brown ooze as it nears his mouth. The Payzone guys stand and gape.

After hours of shit grenades, the last bit of pipe holding the mud motor is pulled out of the ground. Everyone gathers around. It turns out that the mud motor wasn't properly torqued back in Utah where it was built. When the pipe was supposed to go left, it buckled inward and went right.

It's not Payzone's fault after all. There will be no popping of whiteheads. The crew goes to strip off their chem-stained gear. The Payzone kids slink off. Joe Martinez just shrugs his shoulders and heads back to the trailer. He's the one who has to break the news to Jack Grynberg. That won't go well. He won't sleep much over the next 24 hours.

Joe is right. He is not getting paid enough.