In the Land of Oil and Money

In the Land of Oil and Money

By Bill Don­ahue

In North Dakota, the siren call of the shale has swelled the Bakken oil fields with work­ers and rigs. Expe­ri­enc­ing an unprece­dented demand for goods and ser­vices, the town of Willis­ton has become a haven for for­tune hunters who left their old lives behind to find their share of the Amer­i­can Dream.

It was dark when I got there, and cold out­side, with nary a tree to offer reprieve from the harsh mid­night wind rip­ping across the dry plains of west­ern North Dakota. I had nowhere to stay. All the motels in Willis­ton were booked for the next year on account of the oil boom, which had just brought roughly twenty thou­sand new­com­ers to a once-modest town of twelve thousand.

I only had the name of a man camp with me as I drove four hours north from the air­port in Bis­marck. There was sup­pos­edly a sin­gle bed wait­ing for me for ninety dol­lars a night amid a war­ren of pre­fab homes oth­er­wise rented by oil work­ers. But the hote­lier, an old rancher-cum-entrepreneur, was a bit squir­rely to deal with, eschew­ing credit cards and play­ing it close to the vest each time I pressed him to reveal the phys­i­cal where­abouts of his estab­lish­ment. “Just call me when you get here,” he kept say­ing as I wended my way up through the bad­lands. In the dark, on the bar­ren plains fif­teen miles or so west of Willis­ton, I was sim­ply unable to find the place. So now, need­ing shel­ter, I phoned another one of the myr­iad entre­pre­neurs who had flocked to the Willis­ton area since 2008 hop­ing for a slice of the $2 bil­lion that the oil indus­try is now pour­ing into west­ern North Dakota every month, thanks to the Bakken for­ma­tion, a shale-rich bed of rock that also under­lies east­ern Mon­tana and south­ern Saskatchewan, har­bor­ing at least four bil­lion bar­rels of crude.

Mike Teague, 57, isn’t a hotel guy. No, back home in Spokane, Wash­ing­ton he ran a video com­pany, Sub­ur­ban White Guys Pro­duc­tions, and broke even, more or less, mak­ing films about four-wheeling—that is, guys mash­ing over sage­brush and up cliffs in pick-up trucks with gar­gan­tuan black tires. In 2010, he launched another busi­ness, try­ing to sell insur­ance via instant mes­sage. He went broke, his wife left him, and then in his mis­ery, he googled the word “boom­town.” He learned about North Dakota. He left inside of a month.

Teague had visions of a multi-tentacled empire in Willis­ton that would cost him roughly half a mil­lion dol­lars to build. When I met him, he was ready to buy a two-thousand-square-foot pre­fab home in which he planned to live, rent out nine bed­rooms, and also house his fledg­ling pro­duc­tion firm, Vision First Media, which would do video and photo pro­mo­tion, most of it online, for Williston-area oil field ser­vice companies—pipe sup­pli­ers, say. The house would be set on a thirteen-acre lot that Teague had picked just out­side of town. The prop­erty would oth­er­wise be devoted to a park­ing lot rented to oil-field trucks, as well as an eco-friendly truck wash using recy­cled water. Teague was try­ing to land a $300,000 bank loan when we met and mean­while sav­ing up the cash he earned by dri­ving a grader, lev­el­ing the earth on which con­crete well­heads would sit. In 2011, he worked 340 days and made $130,000. But still he was liv­ing in a crowded RV with his Vision First lieu­tenant, thirty-year-old Seth Wolther, a heavy-metal singer and erst­while Vegas strip-club man­ager who calls Teague “Coach.” The two men have their rig parked in a wheat field, hard by three sil­ver grain silos. Quar­ters are cramped, but the booth seats by the kitchen table fold down into a bed. Gra­ciously, Teague availed this berth to me. “It’s all yours,” he yelped over the phone.

When I arrived, I found a ruddy gray-haired fel­low wear­ing noth­ing but a blue ter­rycloth bathrobe as he hunched over a tum­bler of Black Vel­vet whiskey. Teague’s two cats, Pretty Girl and Lover Boy, scram­bled away as he rose to pump my hand with great, blowsy gusto. “Wel­come to the Wild West,” he exclaimed. “Can I fix you a drink?”

The next morn­ing, I beheld the may­hem in Willis­ton. On the main strip, High­way 2, every third vehi­cle was, it seemed, a brand new Ford F350 affixed with a trailer to bring gear to the oil rigs. There were eighteen-wheelers headed that direc­tion too. The sound of large, labor­ing engines was every­where, and the bumper stick­ers were men­ac­ing. “Don’t Tread on Me” and “This truck pro­tected by Smith & Wes­son,” they warned. There was dust swirling about—it had been a dry winter—and on the sides of the road, at McDonald’s and Sub­way and Wild­cat Pizze­ria, job seek­ers filled the booths, soli­tary men peer­ing hope­fully into their lap­tops as they com­mis­er­ated. They were émi­grés, all of them, from weaker economies. “There was noth­ing in Mobile,” I heard one fel­low say, “so I came up on the train.”

The Wal­mart park­ing lot, which had been a de facto camp­ground for months, was off lim­its for sleep­ing now, but still trail­ers and RVs were every­where. I talked to one weary sixty-year-old Willis­ton local who told me that he began rent­ing out fif­teen trailer spaces in his yard after strangers knocked on his door. “And now I’m a social worker and a psy­chol­o­gist for these peo­ple,” he said as we sat before his large-screen TV, sur­rounded by campers wait­ing to use the shower inside his house. “I’m work­ing 24/7 to give them a safe haven.”

At the south end of High­way 2, down­town Willis­ton was a lit­tle scuffed by the onslaught. There was the odd bro­ken win­dow, and sand­wich wrap­pers swirled about. Still, down­town shone like a pearl inside the crust of an oys­ter. There is no Star­bucks there, and the ancient busi­nesses, many of them with their own proud neon signs, bespeak a stolid small-town idyll. There is Gaffaney’s Sta­tion­ary, Conlin’s Fur­ni­ture, Pierce Steak House, and Sportsman’s Lounge. The mar­quis at the Grand The­atre, which is still show­ing movies, reads “The Screen Talks”.

Until recently, Willis­ton was qui­etly dying, like the Texan small town in The Last Pic­ture Show. But then in 2007, engi­neers dis­cov­ered a new method for shak­ing petro­leum out of the Bakken. Steal­ing a page from nat­ural gas prospec­tors, who had been hydrofrack­ing inten­sively for a decade, they began frac­tur­ing sub­ter­ranean rock by gush­ing vast quan­ti­ties of sand– and chemical-laden water into their wells. North Dakota oil prospect­ing had once been a mat­ter of wild­cat­ting and strik­ing pay dirt about 20 per­cent of the time. Sud­denly the hit rate leapt to 95 per­cent, and Willis­ton exploded with pil­grims seek­ing their for­tune. Launch­ing a hydrofrack­ing busi­ness costs mil­lions of dol­lars, and large oil-field operators—in North Dakota, these include Hess and Halliburton—need small-timers to haul water and pipe. The sup­port work­ers need ameni­ties: restau­rants, hotels, houses, gas sta­tions, and con­ve­nience stores.

The upward thrust of Williston’s econ­omy car­ries an almost pher­e­monal power on the streets of the town. Peo­ple in Willis­ton were giddy and bug-eyed, manic with exu­ber­ance. At Mon­dak Motor Sports, for instance, man­ager Josh Krin­gen told me that rev­enues were up 200 per­cent since Jan­u­ary, when Mon­dak relo­cated from Mon­tana. “We’ve got nineteen-year-old kids here mak­ing $100,000 a year on their first job,” Krin­gen said. “They’ll come in here and buy a $12,000 ATV on an impulse.”

At the Willis­ton Mixed Mar­tial Arts & Self Defense Cen­ter, owner and instruc­tor Bran­don “The Loose Can­non” Ander­son aims to tap the same mar­ket. A reign­ing light-heavyweight champ in Mon­tana, twenty-seven-year-old Ander­son told me he had just set­tled into a cav­ernous twenty-five-thousand-square-foot space once home to a fur­ni­ture store. His only sign was a hand-painted sand­wich board perched by the road­side. He didn’t have an actual cage for cage fight­ing yet. The struc­ture, bought and paid for, was being retro­fit­ted in Mon­tana. Still, Ander­son envi­sioned a daz­zling future. “There are hardly any women in Willis­ton,” he rea­soned. “Guys are not get­ting laid. They’re fight­ing in bars, and we’re going to chan­nel that energy. This is going to be the fourth largest Mixed Mar­tial Arts gym in the nation. We’re gonna do it!”

Behind all bravado, of course, is the specter of fail­ure. Willis­ton has boomed on oil before, most recently in the early eight­ies; back then, things fiz­zled almost overnight. In early Decem­ber 1985, OPEC decided to flood the world mar­ket with oil. Prices dropped, and prospect­ing in Willis­ton sud­denly wasn’t worth­while. “I didn’t see it com­ing,” said Ardean Aafedt, a Willis­ton oil investor who owned a local hotel at the time. “We were booked solid, and then a cou­ple years later we sold an empty build­ing.” Some forty or fifty other busi­nesses skipped town, ced­ing their build­ings to the City of Willis­ton and leav­ing the city on the hook for $25 mil­lion in unpaid sewer and water setup fees.
 This boom doesn’t seem poised to end in a repeat fiasco. The price of oil isn’t likely to decline, given China’s and India’s grow­ing con­sumer bases, and the multi­na­tion­als work­ing in the Bakken seem to have deep con­fi­dence in the rock’s poten­tial. Six of them have pro­posed to build multi-billion-dollar pipelines link­ing North Dakota’s oil patches to proces­sors in Okla­homa and Texas. Williston-area boost­ers believe drilling will per­sist on the Bakken for ten years, at least.

Still, there is no guar­an­tee that frack­ing will stay legal. The Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency is look­ing closely at the prac­tice as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, among oth­ers, clamor for a nation­wide ban. In Decem­ber 2011, the EPA found that, in frack­ing for nat­ural gas, prospec­tors had pol­luted drink­ing water beneath Pavil­lion, Wyoming. That same month, Youngstown, Ohio suf­fered two small earth­quakes after gas frack­ers pumped waste­water deep into under­ground sand­stone. Cincin­nati just banned frack­ing. Myr­iad other cities—among them, Detroit, Albany, and Berke­ley, California—have like­wise passed anti-fracking laws, as has the state of New Jersey.

North Dakota won’t likely fol­low suit, but the EPA could clamp down and stymie Williston-area drilling by, for instance, set­ting strin­gent rules about how well oper­a­tors must dis­pose of their chem­i­cal waste.

Even if frack­ing stays legal, entre­pre­neurs in North Dakota will still face an expiration-date prob­lem: Williston’s pop­u­la­tion boom won’t last for­ever. Some­time over the next decade or so, drilling will stop on the Bakken. Pumps will con­tinue suck­ing up oil, but run­ning a well will require only one per­son, as opposed to the 120 needed for drilling. In other words, the con­sumer base will sharply diminish.

I’m not say­ing it’s gam­bling, invest­ing in Willis­ton,” said Mark Schill, a North Dakota-based econ­o­mist who writes about com­mu­nity devel­op­ment for the web pub­li­ca­tion New Geog­ra­phy. “The place is thriv­ing. But you bet­ter do your home­work before you go there. And you’re tak­ing some risks, start­ing a busi­ness there. Every­thing costs more in Williston—labor and land and materials—and things are shift­ing so rapidly, it’s just hard to tell what will happen.”

Luck­ily, Mike Teague enjoys life on the edge. His clos­est friends are all in their thir­ties, and he bonded with them a lit­tle over a decade ago when Seth Wolther’s brother, Jason, was the lead singer for a Spokane cover band called Party Cen­tral. “I met Jason,” recalls Teague, who has been a heavy equip­ment oper­a­tor since high school, “and I had this epiphany that I was going to get into the video business.”

So Sub­ur­ban White Guys was born. The boxes on the videos warned, “Dan­ger­ous and often stu­pid auto­mo­tive insan­ity con­tained inside.” The road trips to shoots were leg­endary. On one occa­sion, Wolther remem­bers, “Coach was stand­ing on the break­fast bar in his under­wear, play­ing Rock Gui­tar at three in the morn­ing as we lis­tened to REO Speedwagon.”

Even­tu­ally, Teague had a sec­ond epiphany: insur­ance. Sold via Face­book. He set up a war room in his base­ment, and with two of his Party Cen­tral chums, he began refin­ing his scheme. “We were on fire,” he remem­bers. “I was doing research to see what sales words would work and what reli­gions were more likely to buy insur­ance. I was giv­ing those guys per­sonal busi­ness coach­ing. We were work­ing eigh­teen hours a day. I was going to be filthy rich if it worked.”

It didn’t work. His wife, ignored for months, left him. “Basi­cally,” he says, “she fired me.”

Now, in the RV, Teague was tuned into his cats. “This one’s a huntress,” he said of Pretty Girl, “and the other one”—he ges­tured at Lover Boy—”he’s my attack cat. These cats can kill three mice in an hour. Even when I’m sleep­ing, I can hear them crunch­ing on skulls.”

Teague had a girl­friend back in Spokane; she was thirty-five and a “pro­fes­sional stu­dent,” as he put it. Teague was help­ing to pay her tuition. But the rela­tion­ship was tumul­tuous. After a fight, Teague dis­patched Wolther to the woman’s home to repo a Jeep that he’d given her. Later, he gave the Jeep back.

By his shav­ing mir­ror, on a slip of green memo paper, Teague had writ­ten a note to him­self: “I do not seek women’s approvel.” There was another note that read, “Don’t for­get u r beau­ti­ful!” and also one very out­dated Play­boy, a 1995 issue fea­tur­ing Nancy Sina­tra cel­e­brat­ing her fifti­eth birth­day au naturel.

With me, Teague was guile­less and sweet in his rough-and-tumble way. When I asked him, “What if the oil boom here goes bust?” he cupped his palms to his tem­ples, as though he was being attacked from all sides, and whim­pered, “I’m fucked.”

Teague planned to buy the land for his new home and busi­ness ven­ture from the same farmer who was rent­ing him RV space. The price was not yet set, though it would be some­where around $70,000, Teague told me. He didn’t have a writ­ten con­tract, but he was con­fi­dent that the farmer, whom he con­sid­ered a friend, would cede him the flat­test and most eas­ily devel­opable land on his spread. He planned to do the grad­ing work him­self with a machine bor­rowed from his cur­rent employer, Hexco con­struc­tion. “It should be real easy,” he told me.

Coach has com­mon sense,” Wolther added. “You get that work­ing with dirt.”

Wolther him­self had migrated to North Dakota just a week before, after he’d failed to meet rent, free­lanc­ing as a gofer for rock bands. He was liv­ing in the RV gratis, but he nonethe­less car­ried him­self with swag­ger­ing con­fi­dence. He had led his metal band, From Sword to Sun­rise, on tour through­out the lower forty-eight, and he had seen things. He had savoir faire. “Bill,” he con­fided to me at one point, “you meet a lot of beau­ti­ful women out on the road.”

Later, Wolther mocked me with thes­pian flour­ish. “I am a writer,” he declaimed. “I must sit in the Sub­way sand­wich shop all alone! I must cre­ate with my pen!” When we stopped by the Willis­ton Cham­ber of Com­merce one day to con­nect to the Wi-Fi, he was show­ily grate­ful. “Thank you, ladies,” he said with a lilt.

Wolther arrived in Willis­ton to become Vision First’s sales guy, and he met suc­cess almost immediately—with the Cham­ber ladies. In exchange for a mem­ber­ship, they enlisted him to shoot pro­mo­tional pho­tos. “And then,” Wolther told me even­tu­ally, over drinks, “I was like, ‘Okay, the last time I shot a photo was, like, in high school.’” He and Teague bought a cam­era for $1000 and went on a prac­tice photo shoot. They drove north toward the Cana­dian bor­der, work­ing through a twenty-pack and a fifth of Jame­son as Wolther pho­tographed the oil rigs lin­ing the straight, des­o­late gravel roads. He got sev­eral shots of Teague hang­ing out the car door at high speed. “That was the tuto­r­ial,” Wolther told me.

A week or so later, the Willis­ton office of Burling­ton North­ern, the freight com­pany, hired Wolther and his cam­era for a day, at $200 an hour.
One after­noon, I met with the edi­tor of the Willis­ton Her­ald, Jacob Brooks, and asked him if there were any new busi­nesses in town that gave him a warm feel­ing. Brooks gazed sky­ward for a sec­ond, think­ing, and then talked instead about Alpha­bet Junc­tion, a beloved school sup­plies store that had just shut down, unable to pay its rent, in a town where com­mer­cial real estate val­ues have tripled in recent years. Later, Brooks ran an edi­to­r­ial beseech­ing read­ers to iden­tify a sin­gle “feel-good busi­ness that has sur­faced recently…something that makes you say ‘Hey, this is really good for the com­mu­nity!’ If it’s out there,” he wrote, “I’ll do a whole story on this busi­ness.” Brooks got a sin­gle online response, from a joker who nom­i­nated Heart­break­ers, a Willis­ton strip bar. “Tech­ni­cally,” the joker quipped, “that should be in your cat­e­gory of ‘feel-good’ shouldn’t it?”

The sit­u­a­tion wasn’t that bleak, though, for I found a hand­ful of entre­pre­neurs bring­ing con­science and care to the boom. Among them was devel­oper Earl West­ereng, a Har­vard grad who’s been liv­ing back in his native North Dakota for five decades now. West­ereng, seventy-two, waxed his­tor­i­cal when we met, not­ing that North Dakotans had a long tra­di­tion of look­ing out for one another. “We’ve got the Bank of North Dakota,” he said. “Nowhere else has a state bank. And we’ve got North Dakota Mill and Elevator.”

But esprit de corps is a tricky thing in a boom­town. “It used to be that if I found some­one drunk and freez­ing on my doorstep, I’d take him in and give him a hot shower,” West­ereng said. “But now?” His voice trailed off, but then he added that he would soon turn Williston’s grand, aban­doned junior high school into forty-four afford­able hous­ing units for senior cit­i­zens dis­placed by Williston’s sky­rock­et­ing rents. The build­ing was once Westereng’s prop­erty. He recently sold it to Williston’s Lutheran Social Ser­vices in hopes that this agency could guide the $8.5 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion in ways that he couldn’t. “If you’re a pri­vate devel­oper here,” he said, exag­ger­at­ing only slightly, “the banks want you to just throw up a build­ing with thirty-six units and rent out each one for $2,500 a month, so you can pay back your loan in three years. I’m not going to do that.”

Around the cor­ner from the junior high, Joel Lun­deen, a forty-eight-year-old trans­plant from South Car­olina, had just bought the vacant Elk’s Lodge, a mag­nif­i­cent and gabled Tudor manse built in 1913. The wealthy inven­tor of Xclaim laun­dry deter­gent sheets, Lun­deen was con­vert­ing the old club into a hotel, The Willis­ton, envi­sion­ing a “bou­tique expe­ri­ence, where you can walk in and feel the his­tory of the place.” His daugh­ter, a fash­ion designer, was dec­o­rat­ing the nine rooms, and his son was lead­ing the con­struc­tion crews. Both of Lundeen’s grand­chil­dren were onsite as well, crawl­ing about on the crim­son rug by the bar.

Mean­while, an inde­pen­dent garbage man, Will Cham­ley, was going green after his busi­ness, Cham­ley Pipe and Sal­vage, got a shock last sum­mer. “The land­fill called us to tell us our trash was radioac­tive,” says Cham­ley, an amply built man who wore blue denim over­alls when we met at a café. “We’d just dumped off a load of fil­ter socks from a rig, and we went and checked it, and sure enough, those socks were hot.”

The sand that frack­ers use, Cham­ley learned, con­tains small amounts of radioac­tive min­er­als, enabling the drillers to trace where a rock is crack­ing. After drilling, the radioac­tive water is run through filters.

We started check­ing the dump­sters with Geiger coun­ters and, yup, they were sneak­ing those hot socks into the dumpsters—they were there in about one out of every sev­enty dump­sters.” Cham­ley began call­ing vio­la­tors, ask­ing them to stay legal. “A week later we’d call back and they’d say, ‘That radioac­tive stuff’s all gone now.’ It was scary—we didn’t know where they’d put it.”

Even­tu­ally, Cham­ley dis­cov­ered that his clients were sneak­ing garbage bags full of hot socks into com­peti­tors’ dump­sters, or just tak­ing them to the Willis­ton dump. “I live two miles from the land­fill,” he said. “My water well is only twenty-eight feet deep, and I have to drink the water here for the rest of my life.”

A few months ago, Cham­ley con­nected with Emer­ald Ser­vices, a Seattle-based waste man­age­ment firm, to pro­pose that they jointly build North Dakota’s first haz­ardous mate­r­ial facil­ity in Willis­ton. Together, Cham­ley and Emer­ald are now search­ing for $6 mil­lion in financ­ing. “The place should be up and run­ning next year,” Cham­ley told me, “There’ll be a big con­crete floor, and we’ll just dump on that and sort. That way, if there’s any of those hot socks in there, we’ll know. And then we’ll haul them to the haz­ardous waste facil­ity in Colorado.”

Step­ping out­side into the grind­ing noise of the traf­fic in Willis­ton, I could feel a sick, rapa­cious hunger in the air. But the truth is that most of the peo­ple I talked to were decent and ami­able and not quite at ease with the fra­cas around them. At a diner called Lonnie’s Road­house, I met Shelly Wright and Danny Dugan, a fifty­ish cou­ple who are the impre­sar­ios behind Doin’ It Right Truck­ing, which hauls sand and gravel to the oil fields. They had migrated to Willis­ton from Idaho fif­teen months before amid finan­cial trou­bles. Back home in Hay­den Lake, Doin’ It Right’s work­load was so thin that Wright had to put the title to her pick up truck into hock. They arrived in Willis­ton in Jan­u­ary 2011 and spent that first win­ter, one of the cold­est in North Dakota his­tory, liv­ing in the cab of their eighteen-wheeler in Lonnie’s park­ing lot and sleep­ing, along with Wright’s ten-year-old daugh­ter, Kayla, on a mat­tress behind the cockpit.

We ate bologna sand­wiches from Wal­mart, and we used the free shower at the com­mu­nity cen­ter,” says Wright. When nature called, they relied on the restrooms at Lonnie’s, where they were park­ing their truck for a hun­dred dol­lars a month. One night, when Wright ven­tured out in a snow­storm at around 2:30 a.m., she got lost on the fifty-yard hike back to the rig and was out in the cold for forty-five minutes.

A siege men­tal­ity pre­vailed. “Wal­mart couldn’t keep the shelves stocked, it was so crowded here,” Dugan remem­bers, “and for three days after one bliz­zard, the power shut down all over Willis­ton. You couldn’t get gas. You couldn’t get a loaf of bread. We wor­ried that the truck would freeze up and that we’d lose our heat and die.”

With life so unsta­ble, Wright kept her daugh­ter Kayla at her side and home­schooled her in the truck. “She was a girl of the trucks,” remem­bers Dugan. “All the guys at the rigs gave her candy.”

Still, stress lev­els were high. Once, when Wright and Dugan went to Hollen Auto Body, just across High­way 2 from Lonnie’s, they got in a spat over a repair esti­mate with the owner, Mark Hollen. It was not a wise move. As Dugan tells it, Hollen got angry. He shouted, “You’re not from here, so get the fuck out of here!” He shoved Dugan three times, bend­ing his eye­glasses. Mean­while, Hollen’s wife and co-owner, Sheila, went after Wright. She pushed Wright to the ground, accord­ing to a police report, and Wright bruised her hip and twisted her ankle. When the case went to court, only Mark Hollen faced charges.

A dis­or­derly con­duct con­vic­tion seemed likely, so he settled.

I kept telling Danny I wanted to leave North Dakota and go home,” Wright says. “Every­thing in this town is chaotic.” But almost from the start, Doin’ It Right was flooded with work. They hauled a dozen or so loads of gravel a day their first win­ter, mostly to well pads under con­struc­tion. And when their first pay­checks finally came in—truckers are paid on sixty– or ninety-day terms, generally—they were for large five-figure sums.

All around them, other truck­ers were going crazy with their money—partying, going to strip bars. But there was no way Wright was going to let that hap­pen. Instead, she bor­rowed sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars to buy equip­ment. Doin’ It Right now makes pay­ments on seven eighteen-wheelers, most of which are dri­ven by sub­con­trac­tors. “I’d say we have three-quarters of a mil­lion dol­lars’ worth of iron set­ting out in that park­ing lot right now,” Dugan told me as we ate lunch at Lonnie’s. “Or she does. On paper, every­thing is hers because of my bad credit and my divorce.”

Dugan’s eyes sparkled for a sec­ond and he quipped, “She’s so rich, I should just marry her right now.” But then he set­tled back into his default demeanor, dire and aggrieved, and admit­ted that they were still cash-poor. “You got a hell of an over­head, run­ning trucks,” he said. “If we don’t bring in $120,000 a month, we’re done. We’re upside down.”

We fin­ished eat­ing and walked out­side. Dugan lamented that the hourly rates paid to Willis­ton truck­ers had dropped over the past year, from $130 to $105, on account of com­pe­ti­tion. “Half of that money is gone right away, for fuel,” he said. “We’re hardly mak­ing any­thing.” It was Easter week­end when we met, and all seven of Doin’ It Right’s trucks were idle. Even­tu­ally, I asked Dugan why he and Wright didn’t take Kayla away for a lit­tle vaca­tion. “We can’t afford to get out of town,” he said, “and you never know—we might get called for a job.”

Over the course of my five-day visit, I talked to very few peo­ple who were eager to stay in Willis­ton amid the throes of the oil boom. Mike Teague had hopes of leav­ing in a few years to retire in Costa Rica. When I went out for break­fast with Seth Wolther one morn­ing, he inti­mated that he felt a bit guilty, being there on the oil patch. “To be hon­est with you,” he said, “the karma of mak­ing money off oil may be detri­men­tal. When you frack, it destroys the earth.”

Wolther sug­gested that the bad karma shaped Williston’s social dynam­ics. “Peo­ple here are dis­con­nected from one another,” he said. A dis­tracted wait­ress came around to take our order, and after she left, he said, “See? No con­nec­tion. I’ve gotta have human inter­ac­tion, bro.” His plan was to keep liv­ing with his girl­friend in Spokane and com­mute into Willis­ton periodically.

In fact, the vast major­ity of Williston’s boom work­force seems unlikely to set­tle down there for good. As Mark Schill, the econ­o­mist, sees it, “Right now, there’s a Dead­wood men­tal­ity there. It’s almost inhospitable.”

The city fathers of Willis­ton are try­ing to stop the town’s drift toward chaos. The Willis­ton coun­cil has banned tent camp­ing, and the Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment Office is cur­rently on a cam­paign to bring five thou­sand new homes to town over the next year. Bumper stick­ers read, “Build Baby Build!” Mean­while, Williston’s mayor, Ward Koeser, is nego­ti­at­ing with sev­eral chain restaurants—Chili’s, for instance—in hopes of improv­ing local eat­ing options.

Will Willis­ton spruce up and thrive? Or is it just another dusty Wild West ghost town in the mak­ing? For now, all that’s clear is that hordes of peo­ple are there, try­ing to get rich, often in rather mer­ce­nary fashion.

On my last night in town, over drinks at a night­club called DK’s Lounge, Seth Wolther told me that he was chang­ing Vision First’s busi­ness model, hav­ing just read a biog­ra­phy of Al Capone. “From now on,” he said, “we’re going by gang­ster rules.”

That’s right,” said Teague, who wore a proud pater­nal grin as he lis­tened to Wolther. “Gang­ster rules.”

The way things are around here,” said Wolther, “you have to be a dick to get your way in busi­ness. You have to be assertive.” He related how he’d done just that recently, cold-calling a Willis­ton com­pany to pitch Vision First’s web­site design ser­vices. As Wolther told it, the chief of mar­ket­ing brushed him off, so he took his cam­paign upstairs, to her super­vi­sor. “Lis­ten, dude,” he said he told this gen­tle­man, “your mar­ket­ing lady has no idea of what’s going on—no fuck­ing clue. I’m gonna meet with you. When’s that gonna happen?”

The tac­tic would prove eerily effec­tive: Over the next three months, Vision First would gross over $18,000, land­ing a con­tract with Gran­ite Peaks Devel­op­ment, among oth­ers. Mike Teague, mean­while, would con­vince his farmer friend to give him the choice piece of land he wanted, and he would also secure a bank loan. He plans to break ground in September.

Still, that night at DK’s, I wasn’t up for a primer in gang­ster man­age­ment. I was tired, so I went back to the RV early, and alone. When my two roomies got in a half hour later, at mid­night, they jumped onto my bed. “Bill!” they cried, wrestling me as I leapt up. “The writer!” I believe they were intent on giv­ing me a noo­gie, but I fought back, and soon they relented. We slipped, all three of us, into our sep­a­rate beds.

Good night,” said Wolther, into the darkness.

Good night, John Boy,” said Teague.

Out­side between the grain silos, the wind whined away. 

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