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

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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:

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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.

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

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

On Leaving New York

Yesterday, I packed up two bags for the summer in North Dakota, and put the rest of my belongings in storage. I don’t know when I’ll come back to New York or if I’ll live there again. Now that I don’t have a full-time job, life could go many directions from here.

New York is a hard place to leave. I came here six and a half years ago from California when I was 22 years old. I had no connections, no friends and no job in this city, but knew there were great opportunities in journalism here, so I took a leap of faith and bought a one-way ticket to LaGuardia Airport. I still remember the cab drive from the airport and the giddiness I felt seeing the Manhattan skyline.

My life here has not always been easy. At times, the city feels like it’s beaten you down and you’ve lost – it’s usually after you’ve worked a 10 hour day, then the subway breaks down, it’s pouring rain, you have no umbrella, you’re lugging three bags of groceries and a laptop, your squishy wet shoes have given you blisters, the sidewalks are shoulder to shoulder with sweaty humans and a man, probably equally as stressed, yells at you to go f*** yourself. I’ve hated the city in these moments and longed for the mountains and calm smiles of where I grew up in Northern California.

But other times, when the sun hits the skyscrapers just right, and the New York Times editor you’ve been pitching calls you back, and at 2 a.m. the twists and turns of the endless night lead you to a rooftop house party with fireworks in the distance, and actor Benjamin Bratt in the corner, you want to open up your arms and let all the smells and crowds and grime and car alarms surround you as you breathe it in. I’ve experienced some of the highest and lowest points of my life here, and I wouldn’t give it back for anything.

Goodbye for now, New York, until we meet again one day.

New York sunset

The sunset from my rooftop in Brooklyn

 

A Team Grows in Brooklyn

I want to introduce a few new members of the growing Oil Men team. The two main members are Brad DeCecco and Ashley Panzera, who will be coming out to North Dakota for a couple weeks to help me cover what’s going on there. But there are a few others who have signed up to help. Here’s the whole crew:

Photographer/videographer: Brad DeCecco
Brad has been part of the project since the beginning and was the first person I told about my crazy idea to live in North Dakota to cover the oil boom. He also helped introduce me to the incredible FairStreet team who led our crowdfunding effort. Brad is one of the most talented photographers I know and has a whole host of awards and clients: he was awarded the PDN 30 Best Emerging Photographers for 2007 and the Jury Prize for Cinematography in the Communication Arts 2007, and he’s photographed for places like the Smithsonian, Washington Post Magazine, TIME, and Popular Mechanics. He’s also currently working on a documentary film about asbestos and has an upcoming photo book about the legal brothels in Nevada (check out a few of the photos here).

Documentary filmmaker: Ashley Panzera
I met Ashley when she answered a craigslist ad about an open room in my apartment and we never looked back. We spent our year living together sunbathing on the roof, shooting random documentaries (she and Brad did the shooting, I just starred in them – evidence here), and having endless chats about life and gender issues over wine. She’s is always finding interesting stories and documentaries to pursue. She’s worked on the film (A)sexuality: The Making of A Movement, which screened internationally, Pushing The Elephant (premiered at Human Rights Watch), and she’s now working on her directorial debut called Noise Runs about a radical newspaper in Haiti.

Research assistant: Catt Meyer
Catt will be helping me with research this summer as we dig into subjects like U.S. energy and oil production, fracking, and North Dakota politics. She currently lives in Lamar, Colorado, and recently graduated from the University of Northern Colorado last May with degrees in both mass communications and environmental and sustainability studies. She’s been a research assistant in a biology lab and an intern at the Colorado Springs Independent.

Editor: Bill Buck
Bill is my extremely cool cousin who’s also a writer and currently working on not one, but two books. The first is called Finding the Real City: A Guide to San Francisco that helps visitors and newbies find hidden gems in the city, and the second is a guide that explores America’s National Trails (there are so many more than the Appalachian and the PCT!). He’ll be heading out to North Dakota with me to help with the project and have a quiet (albeit cramped) space to work on his own books.

Drivers: Carolyn and Greg Briody
You might notice that I share a last name with these people, and that’s because they’re my parents (see the last post – they’ll be driving me out to North Dakota and pulling the trailer). They’re pretty awesome, and I’m excited they’re going on this adventure with me for a couple weeks. Both are retired teachers, and I credit them for my love of adventure and travel. Growing up, we traversed all over the world as a family, and they never cease to amaze me with their energy and up-for-anything spirit.

Assistant photographer: Will Christiansen
Will is not only a talented photographer (check out my author photo), but one of my best friends. I’ve known him since 6th grade, and we moved to New York together from California when we were 22 and spent lots of time eating pizza and watching NYC-themed shows and dreaming big. He’s now a successful video game animator in Seattle, working for 343 Industries on games like Halo. He’ll be taking off a week of work this summer to help take photos and video.

I’m lucky to have such a great crew and you’ll get to hear more from them once we’re in North Dakota. This is basically us: