Greetings From Williston, North Dakota

Mj 618_348_greetings from williston north dakota
Michael Christopher Brown

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 understand.”

“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.

“I’m 42.”

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.

I’d heard Williston was a magical place. A small town where the recession didn’t exist, where you could make six figures driving a truck, and where oil bubbles straight up from the Earth’s Bakken layer like water from an elementary school fountain. Or at least that’s what I saw on the news.

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.”

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.

It’s Easter Sunday, and I stumble into the New Hope Church service at Williston State College a few minutes late and still wearing a wrist bracelet from a desultory night in pursuit of leads at Williston’s number two strip club. I can’t believe my eyes. The gym is filled to the rafters with more than a thousand shiny people. I am seated next to a comely pregnant lady, who inches away from my field jacket reeking of cigarettes and Taco John’s tater tots. This is no small-town Easter thing. There is a full band rocking the Gospel and video screens flashing signs and verses. And gift bags! And doughnuts!

Pastor Mike Skor is running the show in jeans and a cowboy shirt with crosses on it. He looks like the spiritual adviser to the Flying Burrito Brothers. His wife is hot and sings with the voice of a naughty angel. There are touching moments, especially when a little girl walks across the stage with a sign reading ‘lost twin sister at birth,’ and then flips it over to reveal ‘i will see her again in heaven.’ The service ends after an hour, and I feel like I’ve just experienced the best performance of ‘Godspell’ north of Denver. Nothing can harsh my spiritual buzz, not even meeting a guy from Minneapolis who tells me during the post-church reception that he is coming off heroin while sleeping in the community-center parking lot.

I meet with Pastor Mike in his office a few days later. He has a laid-back California Christian feel to him. Turns out I’m right – he moved to Williston from Sacramento last year. There was no way in hell Williston was getting a Pastor Mike five years ago. But now he sees endless possibilities.

“Usually, you have to travel thousands of miles to do missionary work,” says Pastor Mike. “Here, I don’t have to leave my office. There are people showing up in our parking lot almost every morning looking for guidance and a meal and a place to stay. There’s a real opportunity to do good.”

You may ask yourself – as I often did over a vodka tonic – how did we get here? The oil in the Williston Basin has always been here, with the first Williston oil boom hitting in the 1950s, but how to get the good stuff out of the ground has always been a problem. For decades, oil companies did strictly vertical drilling, burrowing straight down into the Dakota soil until oil was hit and then sucking up what they hoped was a big pool of crude. But Williston wells had a tendency to gush initially and then dry up long before anyone saw a profit. This went on for a half-century, oil pilgrims coming to Williston flush and leaving with their pockets emptied.

Things didn’t begin to change until the new millennium. In 1999, a possibly crazy geologist named Leigh Price wrote a paper for the United States Geological Service claiming that there were 400 billion barrels of oil in the Williston Basin, an exponential jump from earlier estimates. Price’s reasoning was simple: He didn’t think the oil was cached in a series of oil reservoirs but was spread across the Williston Basin in the middle Bakken layer about 10,000 feet under the Earth’s surface. This would explain why so many Williston wells started so promisingly before petering out.

The USGS thought Price was nuts and refused to endorse his paper. It was only after oil prospectors began going through his research after his death in 2000 that the whispers began to spread. Technology caught up with Price’s theory, proved him right, and oil companies began to see opportunity. Thanks to computers and minicameras mounted on the end of drills that helped keep you drilling right in the sweet spot, vertical drilling had begun to complement horizontal drilling. You still started your well by going straight down, but now once you hit the middle Bakken, you could bend your pipe, lay it horizontally for miles, and suck up the oil more efficiently.

Here’s an analogy. Think of horizontal drilling as a dog sticking his long tongue into a peanut butter jar, sucking up every last speck of peanut butter.

America’s the dog.

He really could pick any of them: The crew-cut dude threatening to fuck up the bouncer. The stone-drunk guy who wanders up to his shoulder, invading his space as he questions another man. But Williams County Deputy Kevin Simmons goes for Goatee Guy. He’s the one in shorts and flip-flops who keeps screaming “Police brutality!” because he has to stand in the rain.

It’s Friday night in North Dakota, and I’m riding with Simmons as he patrols an area larger than Rhode Island in his Chevy Silverado. He’s part of the reinforcements hired to fight the crime wave that comes when you double a county’s population with 10,000 drunk 27-year-old men thousands of miles away from their women and common sense. Arrests went up from 832 in 2008 to 1,886 in 2011.

Newbies like Simmons are sent out on the prairie solo, the nearest backup sometimes 30 minutes away. “I like it,” says Simmons, a 28-year-old with a crew cut and a soft voice. “Some people hate being alone and all the empty spaces, but I love it.” We stop in a gas station for Lunchables, chase a drunk walking along the highway, and then head into Ray, a town of 600 now doubled in size due to the expansion of the Hess refinery.

That’s where we meet Goatee Guy. Simmons handcuffs him and puts him in the back of his truck. Goatee Guy is displeased.

“Fucking Barney Fife cracker! You’re arresting me because I’m a Mexican. Goddamn racist!”

Simmons sighs and puts the truck into gear. We stop gently at a stop sign. Goatee Guy slams his skull against the plexiglass. I look back, and he has a giant smile on his face, slurping up the blood running into his mouth.

“Fucking police brutality! You guys are fucked! I’m an oil roughneck, motherfucker.”

Simmons slips the Silverado onto Highway 2. It’s a good 40-minute drive back to the county jail, and Goatee Guy continues his running commentary.

“This is Rodney King all over! Country-ass motherfuckers! You’re brutalizing me because I’m a Mexican!”

Simmons glances back to make sure his prisoner is still breathing.

“What bothers me is I’ve got family here,” says Simmons. “Some of the people come here and trash whatever they see. Not everyone, but some of them do. And that’s tough to watch.”

We head over to the jail. Goatee Guy finally winds down and makes an admission.

“I’m actually not Mexican. I’m Italian! My people are from Sicily! They will fuck you up!”

He laughs the saddest laugh. At the jail, Simmons checks him in. He’s got a roach in his cigarette pack, so that’s another charge added to drunk-and-disorderly conduct and obstruction of justice. On his phone is a picture of his baby daughter wearing sunglasses shaped like giant pot leaves. Simmons sighs. “Some of these guys aren’t so smart.”

Simmons spends the next two hours doing paperwork while our new friend is sawing wood in his cell. I peek in. Even a creep can look pretty good when he’s asleep.

Things have gone south at the boardinghouse. The truckers are not enthused that there’s a journalist in the house. It’s not that surprising. All the guys are running from something or someone and they don’t want the world to know their whereabouts. I understand. If I lived in Williston, I wouldn’t want anyone to know either.

Kathy Walton is constantly pulling me by the ear to some free dinner or high school choral presentation. I think she senses my story might not be another Williston-is-awesome story, and this gets her up in my grill even more. Don’t I want to come to the Moose Lodge? Meet some truckers who owe their lives to Williston? How about the board meeting about the new bypass? I turn her down, and she pouts. I feel bad – she’s having a rough time. She just went on a date with a guy she met on the Internet, and after some sightseeing, he got handsy. It’s another blow to her Williston-as-utopia worldview.

And then there’s Rex, her wonder dog. I come home one day and my room reeks of urine. It takes me 30 minutes to find the culprit: My fleece is soaked in piss. Rex plays dumb. A few days later, we all sit down for the weekly group dinner Kathy has with “the boys.” Usually, it’s some kind of goulash, but tonight it is succulent duck. I am on my third helping when she drops a bombshell.

“Are you enjoying Charlie?” Kathy asks.

“Charlie, you mean from the front yard?”


I’m being fed a pet. Later, Kathy tries to backtrack and says she was just joking, but I don’t see Charlie around any more.

I start taking most of my meals at the El Rancho Motel, one of the local almost-hot spots. The walls are covered with framed newspaper articles heralding booms that went bust. The patrons are a cross section of prosperity and doom. An old rancher couple eat in silence; there’s not much to talk about except for the truck traffic. Many of the ranchers sold off the mineral rights when times were tough and don’t make a dollar from the rigs on their land. Then there’s the shiny lawyer couple just back from their Arizona vacation home – they own millions of dollars in mineral rights. But here, everyone is equal, slaves to the El Rancho buffet. One day over a BLT and gravy, I overhear two French-speaking guys moaning about their inability to get an espresso. The guy with the three-day beard is pissed.

“What, no espresso-maker in the hotel? How is that possible?”

The waitress shrugs her shoulders and walks away.

I sidle up to the French guys. New oil guys from Montreal? Geologists from Lyon? The beardy guy just laughs.

“Oh, no, no. We’re from Paris Match.”

Of course they are.

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.

I hit a two-foot-deep pothole one ­morning, leaving Rancho de Kathy, and the driver’s-side visor smashes me in the eye. Good times. Tony and Mike have scored jobs at Napa Auto Parts making $15 an hour, with promises of tons of time-and-a-half overtime. It’s not the oil job they dreamed about, but it’s a start. They just have to make it a few more days until their first payday. Then, Tony says, they’ll try and save a few bucks so Mike’s hot wife can drive her car out from Oregon.

I pop into Napa to see if Tony or Mike wants to make $20 and fix my visor. Mike does the job in about four minutes and has a big smile on his face.

“We found a place to live.”

In Williston, this is big news. I ask him if it’s nearby. Mike jerks his hand and points behind the store.

“It’s just out back.”

The next night, I drive around back – Mike wasn’t lying. They are living in a trailer in the parking lot behind the Napa. Tony opens the door and invites me in for a beer.

“A woman at Napa sold it to us,” says Mike with pride. “Cost me $5,000, but I can pay it off over 12 months.”

I don’t know what to say. There are a few problems: There is no water hookup so they will have to keep showering at the nasty community center. And they had talked about breaking free of Oregon and now they were de facto indentured servants riding their bikes to a public shower across town. Was this really progress?

To celebrate, I’ve promised the boys a night at Heartbreakers, Williston’s second-best strip club. We pay $10 to get in. We’re 1,200 miles from the ocean, but most of the white guys are wearing O’Neill T-shirts and sideway caps. They sit at the rail and make it rain. Alas, the talent does not match Williston’s newly exalted status. An emaciated middle-aged blonde grinds a chunky brunette as Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” plays. This cannot be unseen.

I turn to Mike and Tony, but they’re gone. I wander outside and find Tony trying to stop Mike from punching a wall or someone’s face. I ask what happened.

“Mike’s wife just texted him she’s not coming out.”

Mike breaks out of Tony’s grip. “I just want to punch someone. It’ll make me feel better. Spend the night in jail, I don’t give a fuck.”

Tony tells him it’s not a good idea.

“I don’t have any bail money.”

Mike says he’s going to walk the two miles back to the trailer, but this is a bad idea. We give him a ride, and he starts apologizing.

“Sorry, guys. She’s just being a bitch. But I ain’t going back.”

Once we get Mike situated, we head back to the club, flashing our bracelets so we don’t have to pay another $10. Tony gets a text from Mike.

“He’s OK. He’s watching Transformers.”

A topless blonde sidles up to Tony. He tells her he doesn’t have any money, but she keeps talking. Tara’s from Wisconsin and has the words confidence and attitude tattooed in parallel letters on her back. But Tony zeroes in on the Fight Club tattoo on her arm. They both love the movie and trade lines. Tara’s been in town less than a week and has already spent a night in jail.

“The cops said I was weaving. I said the fuck I was.”

Tara’s staying eight miles outside of town in a trailer without a shower. There’s light in Tony’s eyes so I slip him a 20, and they go off for a dance. Tony emerges with a smile.

“I gave her my number. She’s totally into me!”

The club closes in five minutes, but men are still streaming in, paying $10 for 90 seconds of pleasure. We stumble outside. To our left, one dude is shoving another guy’s face into the concrete. A full beer can flies through the air and explodes against a car. Tony doesn’t notice any of it.

“I’d never been to a strip club until last week. I came here with my dad. That girl’s totally going to call me.”

We jump into my car, and Tony grins and stares out the window and up at the stars in the North Dakota sky. “I love Williston.”

The night before i leave, Kathy Walton leaves me a bill for $1,800 on my pillow. In a shocking coincidence, she makes my bed for the first time. She tries to roust the truckers from the basement to pose for a picture before I go. Only two or three trickle upstairs. The nuke guy is one of them. Weeks later, I research his service-academy past, and there’s no record of anyone with his name graduating from his alma mater. Apparently, reinvention is part of the boomtown experience as well.

I pop into El Rancho for breakfast before heading back out to see Joe one last time. I order some eggs and hit the bathroom. There’s a guy in the next stall, mud caked on his boots. He’s on the phone.

“Mac, I can’t make it to work. My car broke down. I called you. Did I leave a message? No, but Mac, I swear I called. Yeah, I’ll be there tomorrow. Thanks, Mac.”

I hold off flushing so as not to interrupt this gilded symphony of horseshit. But then I hear another noise, the unmistakable sound of something being snorted off an arm. I flush and try to get the hell out of there. Too late, my new friend is popping out of his stall.

He’s not wearing a shirt and smells awful. He gives me a high-five and slips his shirt back on. It’s probably the drugs, but I’d like to think he’s psyched for a day off the rig. Last I see he is sashaying down the street in his oil-drenched jeans. And that seemed like a good place to leave it. I call Joe and make my excuses. It’s time to get gone. I drive 90 mph until I hit the Montana line. Goodbye, boomtown.

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