Visitors from the West

My adorable aunt who lives in Oregon came to visit us in Williston yesterday (see photo evidence below!) She brought us goodies from home (aka Trader Joe’s), and much-needed break from the craziness of Williston. We took her to the train station this morning. As we waited 2 hours for Amtrak to arrive, we saw at least two cargo trains filled with crude oil roll by, and I learned a few things about the train system here. The oil industry is relying heavily on trains these days  (yet another similarity to the Wild West). Train shipments account for about 75 percent of the crude oil being transported out of the area (nearly 800,000 barrels every day, as of April), up from 39 percent last year. No wonder we’ve been seeing so many oil-filled trains.

We also saw many travelers — men going home for their time off, and moms and kids visiting their fathers and husbands. A typical oil field schedule is in blocks — three weeks on, one week off, and many men don’t bring their families with them to North Dakota. The distance from home is a common complaint among men here, and it can strain marriages and family life.

I’ve always loved hanging out at airports and stations to watch the arrivals, and this one was particularly touching as I could guess the background stories for many people there. After the train arrived, two little girls bolted towards their dad, their tiny pink backpacks bouncing as they ran, as their father kneeled down to hug them.

My aunt Sue

My aunt Sue

The train station

The train station

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Living in an Oil Town

Signs of the oil boom are everywhere you look in Williston. Literally. Here are some of the signs I’ve been seeing:

There are “No Camping” notices at the parks and “No Overnight Parking” signs at Walmart to try and prevent people from sleeping in cars or tents around town (though according to one source, there aren’t enough police around to enforce any of this).

There are “No Camping” notices at the parks and “No Overnight Parking” signs at Walmart to try and prevent people from sleeping in cars or tents around town (though according to one source, there aren’t enough police around to enforce this).

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 “No Oilfield or Muddy Clothing in this Machine!” signs at the laundry mat.

At the laundry mat.

A “Rotary Rig guide” is posted on the wall at the local library.

A “Rotary Rig guide” is posted on the wall at the local library.

An oil rig teeter totter at the playground.

An oil rig teeter totter at the playground.

Flyers at the coffee shop to “winterize your RV.”

Flyers at the coffee shop to “winterize your RV.”

Yesterday, my cousin and I drove an hour and 45 minutes to meet with a farming couple, and I counted 64 oil rigs on our drive. In nearby Stanley, ND, which is much smaller than Williston, we saw signs for “oil wrestling” at a local bar (obviously I need to go for research), and a notice at City Hall that Stanley’s sewage system is overwhelmed by the boom, and residents with sump pumps must discharge the water outside, not into the sewage system. Sump pump grey water is something you probably don’t want in your backyard.

It’s hard to imagine what this area looked like before the boom.

We Made It!

We have officially arrived in Williston, ND! After driving across the border into North Dakota from Montana yesterday, we immediately saw a difference: semi trucks on every road, trains carrying hundreds of oil barrels, construction zones to expand the two-lane roads, signs like “Know what’s below. Call before you dig” and “Flame-Resistant Work Clothes Sold Here.” Montana had a few rusted oil rigs, but there are shiny new rigs and natural gas flares everywhere you look in this part of North Dakota.

We’re staying at a campground for the first couple nights 30 miles outside of Williston before we’ll move to a trailer park closer to town. My initial impression of Williston is it’s bigger than I expected, food isn’t nearly as expensive as everyone told me, and while it’s certainly industrial with trucks, massive rectangular buildings, and supply stores, it feels kind of, well, normal. I saw families at the grocery store and though there are lots of men around, I’ve seen plenty of women as well.

I’m looking forward to getting started on my long list of interviews and exploring the area more. Thank you again to everyone who helped get us here!

After driving 1,500 miles over 5 days, we arrive to North Dakota!

After driving 1,500 miles over 5 days, we arrive to North Dakota!

Natural gas flares on the way into town

Natural gas flares on the way into town

A few oil rigs

A few oil rigs

Trailer livin' with my cousin Bill, who will be helping with the project for a few weeks.

Trailer livin’ with my cousin Bill, who will be helping with the project for a few weeks.

And We’re Off

We left my parents’ home in Mt. Shasta, CA today to start the long, five-day drive to North Dakota. We’ll be passing through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana before we arrive, with quick stops at the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park.

Packing for North Dakota was tough. It’s hard to know what I’ll need to bring to live for two and half months. From what I can tell, supplies in Williston are limited and everything – from milk to pillows – are double or triple the price. My mother, a talented seamstress, has been busy sewing curtains and digging through her closet for extra blankets and sheets for the trailer.

My aunt and uncle stopped by Trader Joe’s in the Bay Area to pick up food supplies for the summer, and it was a challenge to know what to put on their list (how many boxes of mac and cheese will I eat in 2.5 months??) My aunt told me the story about the men traveling to the Yukon Territory during the 1898 Klondike gold rush who each needed to bring one year’s worth of food and supplies. According to Yukon Gold by Charlotte Jones, that included hauling some 200 pounds of bacon, 400 pound of flour, 100 pounds of sugar, 50 pounds dried onions, 15 pounds of salt, and 60 boxes of matches, which dealers would sell to miners at inflated prices.

I don’t have quite that much, but I do have six liters of Trader Joe’s box wine.

The trailer is hooked up and ready to go

The trailer hooked up and ready to go

Road trip planning

Road trip planning