Gender Relations in a Nearly All-Male Town

Betsy Wilkinson, a bartender in Williston, ND / Photo by Brad DeCecco

Betsy Wilkinson, a bartender in Williston, ND / Photo by Brad DeCecco

The oil boom has brought thousands of male workers to this part of North Dakota, which creates all sorts of interesting gender dynamics. I’m fascinated by the effects of mono-sex cultures, both male and female-driven, and being a woman in Williston has certainly been an interesting experience. On friend swears the ratio of single men to women is 79 to 1. I’d put it more at 10 to 1, but either way, it’s noticeably off-balance.

The phenomenon of thousands of men working long hours in a remote place, with many making six figures, has led to a growth of prostitution and a busy strip club scene. Once a small town cop, Watford City’s 28-year-old Police Chief Jesse Wellen has led multiple prostitution stings, and it’s not difficult to spot sex workers in the night clubs or by some of the local hotels. Domestic violence has also risen dramatically. “It’s a call we receive a lot,” says Wellen. “If you’re living in a camper, things tend to escalate because of the small environment and you have the whole family living there.”

Amber Kehoe, a 19-year-old who works at a nearby gas station, carries a knife on her hip at all times.

Dating can be a challenge for both genders. Betsy Wilkinson, a local bartender in Williston, refuses to date herself, but hears story after story about what it’s like for her friends. “Nobody is really themselves in Williston,” she says. “They could be the worst person in the world back home or they could be married with five kids. You can be whoever you want to be here.”

She also told me about the growing occurrence of the man camp “walk of shame.”  “Girls are like unicorns at a man camp,” she explains. “They get up and of course they’re, like, a hot mess, and it’s five or six in the morning and the dude’s going ‘Hey, you need to get out of here before anybody gets up.’ Well, everybody’s already up and having breakfast and they’re walking out carrying their bra, and as soon as one person sees them, the guys just all do that deer in the headlights.”

Of course, there’s also the pickup lines she hears. One guy offered to buy her a Harley if she went to dinner with him. “Most of the pickup lines are, ‘I’ll buy you anything you want, let’s go.’ I’m like, ‘sorry, I’m not a Williston girl, that does nothing for me, I earn my own money.’ It kind of throws guys off. They panic, because they don’t know what else to offer you. They usually just get deflated and walk away.”

The local strip club / Photo by Brad DeCecco

The local strip club / Photo by Brad DeCecco

What It’s Really Like to Work on an Oil Rig

Documentary filmmaker Ashley Panzera just arrived today, and Brad DeCecco leaves tomorrow, so for one night, the Oil Men team is on the town in Williston. The evening will likely involve strippers. More on that soon…

Brad DeCecco and I also spent five hours on an oil drilling rig yesterday. The rig was just across the border in Montana, and we donned hard hats, steel-toed boots and coveralls for our tour. The crew just had a major spill the day before – they had been using a high-pressure hose to pump toxic drilling mud into the ground when it suddenly exploded 40 feet up into the air, covering all the equipment, and almost taking out a few workers. One ducked for cover just in time. “Fifty pounds of pressure will kill you,” says Eric Olsen, a rig supervisor who gave us the tour, “and we had 3,000 pounds of pressure in the hose when it blew. If anybody had been close, it could’ve taken their head off.”

Olsen also said he’s heard about gruesome accidents when there’s a small leak in one of the high-pressure hoses. “It’s like a razor knife. You can walk across it and it’ll cut your leg off. And you won’t even know it’s leaking because it’s just a pinhole spray.”

Luckily no one had their leg or head taken off, but Brad and his camera were sprayed by bio diesel fuel at one point during the tour. We think him and his camera are fine, but we still can’t get the diesel smell off his camera.

Brothers Joe and Jonnie Boyles, and Jefferey Waldner / Photo by Brad DeCecco

Brothers Joe and Jonnie Boyles, and Jefferey Waldner / Photo by Brad DeCecco

Climbing onto the rig / Photo by Brad DeCecco

Climbing onto the rig / Photo by Brad DeCecco

The crew cleaning drilling mud off the rig / Photo by Brad DeCecco

The crew cleaning drilling mud off the rig / Photo by Brad DeCecco

Man Camp Poker Night

Last night, photographer Brad DeCecco and I were thrilled to be invited to poker night at a man camp nearby. There were five men playing (six including Brad) and one other woman, Cindy, who works on the oil rigs and is the only woman who lives at the camp. I’ve been spending a lot of time with her lately and you’ll hear a lot more about her soon.

Poker night involved a lot of guy talk, tobacco chew, beer drinking (one guy could rip open the entire lid of a Bud Light can with his teeth), mixed drinks consisting of whiskey and Mountain Dew in the empty Bud Light cans, and of course, no toilet paper or hand soap in the bathroom. But I came away winning $20 and one guy now calls me the Card Shark.

Here are some great quotes from the night, mainly from one guy named Curtis:

“Going to the strip club is like going to the candy store with no money.”

“1986 was the last time I read a book.”

“The closer to pay day it gets, the longer the hand lasts.”

One guy, Mana, beats me with a pair of 5s. I had also told him I was a 49ers fan earlier in the night. “Hey Blaire, you remember those two 5s?” he says. “I do. It was just like watching the 49ers play the Superbowl. They didn’t quite make it.”

The cards come out / Photo by Brad DeCecco

The cards come out / Photo by Brad DeCecco

Mana laughs and Curtis stands in the background / Photo by Brad DeCecco

Mana laughs and Curtis stands in the background / Photo by Brad DeCecco

One Family’s Journey to North Dakota

I first talked to Kristie and Doug Allard about six months ago when I was researching my trip to North Dakota, and their journey to North Dakota is one of the craziest stories of anyone I’ve met here.

In 2008, they were in the small town of Hermiston, Oregon, and Doug was working in construction and Kristie was employed as a blackjack dealer. But when the recession hit, everything changed. “I couldn’t get a job here in Oregon to save my life,” Doug told me. “I couldn’t even get a job at McDonald’s.” He was out of work for over a year and a half, and during this time Kristie became pregnant with their second child. Not wanting their family to live off welfare, they decided something had to change.

In May 2012, Kristie saw a special on Dateline about the oil boom and within weeks, they purchased an old 1970s trailer and a Ford pickup to pull it, packed up the two kids and all their belongings, and headed out to the North Dakota frontier.

They had just enough money for the gas and food to make it to North Dakota. Here’s how Doug told the story of their trip:

“We limped out there, nice and slow — it took us four days to drive there. The truck kept breaking down, we lost a tire on the trailer — it was just a nightmare trip.  And then we pull into town and I was like, yes!  Finally we made it!  I felt like I was a pioneer that just got off the Oregon Trail.

We headed out the next morning to go find an RV spot for the trailer, but we didn’t make maybe a half mile, and the truck’s engine blows up. Totally gone — it was beyond fixable.  We manage to get it off the road, but we didn’t know what to do. It’s right in the middle of rush hour and a cop stops by and says ‘you gotta move it or I’m gonna tow it.’ I couldn’t pay for a tow truck with the money I had in my pocket. Then this guy pulls up and says, ‘Hey do you need any help?’  I said do you want to buy a truck and a trailer for $500? I sold it right there. My wife and kids were in the car behind us, so I gave my wife $200 and told her to go back home. I had $300 and I grabbed my little tent and sleeping bag and two changes of clothes and literally that is all that I had.”

He slept in his tent by the river and started working part-time day labor jobs, but nothing stable. He lost his phone at one point, and Kristie became so worried about him, she packed up the two kids and drove 17 hours back to North Dakota to find him. Not wanting their family to live it a tent, they quickly found a trailer to live in for $1,200 a month with water and electricity (a luxury here — as Doug put it, “A lot of RV parks are like giant homeless camps except everybody has pockets full of money.”) But with Doug’s odd jobs, they were barely making enough to cover the high living costs. They stuck it out through most of the winter, but eventually gave up and went back to Oregon.

When I talked to them last February, they told me they were done with North Dakota, and had no plans to come back, but just last week, I found out they were headed this way. Doug’s been offered steady work as the maintenance manager at a man camp in Watford City, and the company is providing free housing for him and his family. My photographer friend Will and I went there to visit Kristie this week. Their place is small (about 120 square feet), but compared to everything they’ve been through, they’re ecstatic to have a roof over their heads. Here are a few photos Will snapped:

DSC_8045

Kristie and Doug’s 1-year-old daughter Emma plays in the dirt by their mobile home / Photo by Will Christiansen

3-year-old Xavier, with Kristie and Emma in the background / Photo by Will Christiansen

3-year-old Xavier, with Kristie and Emma in the background / Photo by Will Christiansen

Kristie and Emma Allard / Photo by Will Christiansen

Kristie and Emma Allard / Photo by Will Christiansen

Xavier and Emma walk through the trailer park where the family is staying / Photo by Will Christiansen

Xavier and Emma walk through the trailer park where the family is staying / Photo by Will Christiansen

A Place Where ‘Home’ Is Hard to Find

This past week, I’ve been busy working on a piece for The Fiscal Times about the homeless situation in Williston. Due to the boom and the thousands of Americans who have arrived to the area looking for a place to stay, housing costs have ballooned, with the average modest 2-bedroom apartment going from about $500 a month to $2,500 practically overnight.  The situation has created hardship for many people looking for opportunities here, forcing even those with decent-paying jobs to live in tents or cars. I had the pleasure of spending time with the Andreson family, who is living out of a tent in a campground. My photographer friend Will Christiansen took a few snapshots of their life.

19-year-old Billy and her 11-month-old daughter

19-year-old Billy and her 11-month-old daughter / Photo by Will Christiansen

Grandmother Heidi keeps the fire going

Grandmother Heidi keeps the fire going / Photo by Will Christiansen

The Dangers of the Oil Field

It’s been a busy week here in the oil patch. On Monday and Tuesday, I sat through an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) training class (required if I’m going to visit an oil rig) at the local college with 18 others (17 men and one woman) and learned all about the dangers of working in the oil field. Many of the statistics about manual labor jobs are shocking:

  • An average of 15 workers die every day from job injuries. There are over 4 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses that are reported, and of course, many that aren’t reported.
  • Slips, trips and falls account for 15 percent of accidental deaths on the job. According to our teacher Dave, slipping on ice could happen nine months out of the year in North Dakota. “I’ve seen snow every month except July,” he says.
  • One worker is electrified on the job every day.
  • Fires and explosions kill more than 200 and injure more than 5,000 workers each year.

One danger that few people know about is the frequent exposure oil workers have to the deadly gas called hydrogen sulfide (or H2S), that can accumulate in wells and tanks. The gas is particularly dangerous because it’s colorless, and while it has a rotten egg smell at low, safe levels, in high doses, it paralyses your sense of smell so you sense nothing moments before it kills you.

All oil workers are required to wear monitors that beep if they detect high levels of gas, and in class we had to practice strapping on masks and tanks of breathable air, which would be necessary if we were to ever work in an areas with high levels or rescue someone exposed to the gas. Being one of two girls in the class, my face was too small for the mask to function properly, and air wasn’t able to flow — meaning instant death for me if we were in a real life situation. According to our teacher, I’d be fitted properly if I was working near the gas, but still, maybe this is one reason why so few women work on the oil rigs?

As Dave told us towards the end of class: “This is not a video game. You can’t be like, oops, I died. Let me rewind and try something else. No, you’re dead.”

I give serious props to those workers who risk their lives every day to earn a paycheck.