Boomtown Left Town Shell-Shocked
Boomtown Left Town Shell-Shocked
Little Ricky / John R. Hall
Little Ricky / John R. Hall

In 2016 I found myself on the bust side of North Dakota’s oil boom. That was the beginning of the down-and-out years for the oil industry within the Roughrider State. Eventually, through an illness and misplaced trust and other critical errors in judgment, I too was down-and-out. So I sold my lots in the North Dakotan life I had made for myself and drove away.

Looking back, I’m equally as happy that I experienced the Bakken oil boom as I am ecstatic that I am no longer in North Dakota. It’s friggin’ cold up there—minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit is not an unusual occurrence; nor is minus 45 degrees when the windchill is factored. No thank you! I’m sure you’re thinking. And I couldn’t agree more with you.

From the driver’s seat of a semitruck in 2010, I observed North Dakota’s oil boom. From that vantage point, I hung on for dear life while watching the boom expand and cannibalize the small communities that dotted the sparsely occupied prairie that surrounded the freshly plowed dirt roads and drilling surfaces within the oil fields. The environments I experienced, which were created by the economic boom that sprang up and flew forth from the Bakken Shale Formation, were reminiscent of stories told to me as a child of the Wild West days before law and order was forced upon the frontier.

Surviving North Dakota’s oil boom was not a simple task. There was constant danger. The roadways and communities were inadequately policed. The towns’ and counties’ infrastructures were incapable of meeting the demands of their rapidly expanding populations, borders, and environments. Tiny, crumbling two-lane roads were constantly crammed with semitrucks. Family cars and school buses carrying children had to dodge oversize loads of oil-field equipment while navigating North Dakota’s extreme weather patterns.

Around the clock, twenty-four hours per day, oil-field personnel were working in excess of ninety-hour workweeks. They were exhausted while being frenetically shuttled back and forth from drilling locations to frac locations to production locations and to all points between. Fatigue reigned supreme. Instability was a constant companion. The initial workforce that was hastily assembled was insufficiently staffed. Oil exploration and production companies were securing additional drilling rights as fast as they could. That required an even larger workforce. The attrition rate was enormous. Every company was continuously trying to expand their ranks while at the same time replenish them. The cry for new blood was unrelenting. Employers could not be picky. Employment-qualification requirements were continually being lowered. Eventually, gainful employment could be secured by proving that a pulse was present. Finally, a corpse could get hired with one caveat—no rigor mortis, because the carcass would have to be bendable enough to assume the proper position for the job. This is not levity. This is factual. Okay, the corpse reference was a bit of levity, but just barely.

As North Dakota’s oil boom and economy rapidly expanded and filled with unseemly people, it seemed to me that the gates of Hades had been ripped away from their hinges and tossed to the ground by oil companies desperately seeking employees, allowing the inhabitants of Hell to escape and stomp upon the iron mesh that had held them captive. Then, in unison, the demons marched off toward Watford City, North Dakota, and other nearby boomtowns.

Remaining alive throughout a twelve-hour or longer shift in the loosely regulated oil fields, then surviving the drive back to civilization and sleeping quarters over the death-filled roadways of an ill-prepared oil-boom environment, was reason enough for daily celebration, but only fools would let their guard down once off the asphalt. With little downtime between shifts for the men working the oil fields, there was no time to waste for those who frequented the smattering of bars containing liquid relief. When drinking and fatigue are combined inside of an oil-field bar filled mostly with male patrons, the result is a volatile, combustible, unstable mass of humanity. Fueled by bottom-shelf alcohol and raging testosterone, its flashpoint was frequently ignited when the often-spoken-about but rarely seen, yet greatly desired, female appeared within eyesight of the oil-field drinking men. If you have ever watched the nature channel and been amused or shocked by the behaviors of the male species attempting to attract a female, then you would have been entertained beyond belief while simultaneously being psychologically damaged for life by witnessing the actions of oil-field men jockeying for position in hopes of garnering the attention of an elusive oil-field female.

I knew my chances of surviving North Dakota’s oil boom would be exponentially increased by avoiding boozing it up in established drinking holes wherein the mating game usually went awry. The chances of my demise occurring in oil’s boomtowns decreased substantially further when I took a cue from Catholicism’s priests and vowed celibacy while I tended to the oil fields of North Dakota.

Upon my arrival in oil country, a battle cry of sorts had already been established. It was being sold on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and everything else. “Rockin’ the Bakken.” It has a nice cadence, and it soon became a ubiquitous chant among the workforce assembled to extract what “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” referred to as a “bubblin’ crude. Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea.”

The next think I knew “two thousand millionaires per year”1 were being created in North Dakota, and none of them had a vested interest in my survival. Many local mineral owners were receiving monthly royalties of $50,000 to $60,000—with some of them receiving $100,0002 and higher. I still wonder why they did not use a portion of that manna to organize and lobby for rapid changes to the infrastructure and demand an immediate increase in law enforcement personnel and first responders to assist in securing their communities for themselves and for their lifelong neighbors. Money, like politics, makes strange bedfellows—either of which can blind people, rendering family, friends, and neighbors obsolete.

After all, with that kind of windfall occurring it was time for Admiral David Farragut’s words to reign supreme. His words soon became the daily unspoken order throughout the oil boomtowns: Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.3 And that’s exactly what the oil companies operating within the great oil-boom days of North Dakota did while ignoring the damage being done to the communities they had commandeered.

By any means necessary, any means at all, oil was being pumped to the surface and hauled off to be injected into Americans’ unquenchable veins. With oil reaching $129.994 per barrel, getting it to market by any means available justified the end . . . which is where dollars were flowing into the coffers of the oil companies and into the pockets of all who helped them with their endeavor. There was so much cash carelessly tossed about by the oil machinery that thieves easily thrived and flourished; embezzlement became a cottage industry.

To put some perspective on the effect an oil boom and bust has on communities and their economies, I’ll share what an old-timer of the oil fields shared with me. He was an oil-field salty dog if ever there was one. His years of experience led him to this mathematical equation: for each oil rig drilling a well, there will be on average twenty-five hundred deliveries made during the drilling phase. Those deliveries range from the first semitruck carrying a bulldozer to clear the land to the final small trailer towed by all sorts of vehicles coming to retrieve the last portable toilet when the drilling phase is complete. On average, a drilling rig can drill a Bakken shale well within thirty days; that’s one a month, or twelve in a year.

According to the North Dakota Industrial Commission, Department of Mineral Resources, Oil and Gas Division, on May 29, 2012, there were 218 rigs drilling for oil.5

So 218 active oil-drilling rigs multiplied by 12 (each rig drilling a well a month), equals 2,216 wells drilled per year. The average number of deliveries made during the drilling phase is 2,500. Multiplying 2,500 (which represents the number of deliveries made per well drilled) by the total number of drilled wells (which based on this paradigm is 2,216) equals 5,540,000.

Think about that number: 5.5 million deliveries per year in an environment where two-lane country roads were the norm. Then consider that just a few years before that nearly unfathomable amount of deliveries, there was basically no oil exploration in the rural, sparsely populated countryside. Before the oil boom, when driving across the agrarian North Dakota prairies, small communities with minimal infrastructure and no surplus housing were found. Meeting the demands created by the oil boom was an insurmountable task for local government officials.

In addition to wrapping your head around 5.5 million deliveries, consider all the peripheral services required to support that amount of oil-field vehicle traffic. The stores, gas stations, man camps, hotels, restaurants, bars—they, too, were hiring anyone they could. After a person was employed in a service industry, usually on day two of employment, they were promoted to fill the vacancy created by other employees leaving for an oil-field job. It was a vicious, unrelenting cycle.

It was like a bomb went off when the boom arrived. Communities expanded to their breaking points; some exploded while others imploded. When the bust came, all the communities rapidly contracted, leaving them traumatized from the growing pains—and facing financial ruin from the bust.

In January 2016 the price of oil written on the proverbial wall was $36.41. That price was nearly $100.00 per barrel less than it was just two years before. Drilling rigs’ derricks began to fall faster than falling stars, and once on the ground they went straight into cold-stacked mode (an oil-field term meaning torn apart and stored). The rigs continued to rapidly fall into cold-stacked mode until only twenty-some rigs remained standing and drilling.

With twenty-some rigs drilling for oil, only six hundred thousand deliveries were needed per year. When 5.5 million deliveries per year is rapidly reduced to 600K deliveries per year, that reduction in activity delivers a death blow to an economy. Case in point, the owner of an oil-field construction company where I had been hired to deploy a new computer network closed his shop on a moment’s notice—right after spending over 100K—and hightailed it back to Oklahoma.

His departure reminded me of what a friend, Wade Garman, a North Dakotan and one of my oil-field mentors who hails from a homestead family, had told me back in 2010 when I mentioned that North Dakota has some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets that I had ever seen (and I have lived on California’s coastlines and Hawaii’s beaches). Wade said to me that the most beautiful sight in North Dakota is when a full moon is rising over the horizon, silhouetting a Texan oilman carrying an Oklahoman under each arm while all three are headed south . . . away from North Dakota.

With the bust, I saw that scene daily. Watford City, North Dakota—Boomtown USA—had exploded from a population of fourteen hundred in 2010 to thousands upon thousands upon thousands upon thousands, ad infinitum, in a matter of eighteen or so months. It continued to grow exponentially until the bust. After the rush, after the wave that grew so high in search of black gold crested and crashed, Watford City tried to return to something resembling its preboom self.

The wave rolled back in less than a seventh of the time it took to rise. The decrease in activity exposed the damage the boom had done to the community of Watford City: to its townsfolk, to its politeness, to its politics, to its families, to its children, to its beauty, to its very heart and soul. Irreparable damage had been done. I knew then and there that Mayberry with snow (a nickname I referred to Watford City by) would never be the same—and neither would I.

Watford City and its inhabitants, preboom, were living lives in much the same way that Spalding Gray recounted in his 1985 book and subsequent 1987 Obie Award–winning film of the same name: Swimming to Cambodia. In both formats, Spalding describes a conversation he had had with Roland Joffé, the director of The Killing Fields, about the innocence of the Cambodian culture before the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge came calling. Watford City was much like the Cambodian era Roland had shared with Spalding before the oil boom rose up from the depths of Hades and encompassed it. Watford City was essentially naive. Spalding recounted the conversation he had had with Roland through the following passage:

“. . . about what an incredible country Cambodia was before it was colonized, that it had a strain of Buddhism so permissive and so sensual that the Cambodians seemed to have done away with unnecessary guilt . . . Ninety percent of the Cambodians owned their land—it was dirty land, it was earth, but it was clean. Earth dirt. Clean dirt. And they were so happy. The Cambodians knew how to have fun. They knew how to have a good time being born; how to have a good time growing up; a good time going through puberty; a good time falling in love and staying in love; a good time getting married and having children; a good time raising children; and a good time growing old and dying. They even knew how to have a good time on New Year’s Eve. I couldn’t believe it. The only thing, according to Roland, was that they had lost touch with evil. Because it was such a beautiful, gentle land, they’d lost touch with evil. The situation was something like that of the Tantric colonies on the East Coast of India. They were so open down there that the Huns just came in and ate them up like chocolate-covered-cherries. And the same thing was happening to Cambodia.”

And the same thing happened to Watford City, North Dakota. Unfathomable evil came to a town that had not afore experienced its existence. Sure, they had seen evil on TV. They had read about it in the newspapers. They had heard about it on the radio, and even a few had witnessed evil from afar while on holiday, safely tucked away in tourists’ enclaves. They knew evil was out there, but it was far away from their protected prairie lives. Along with the oil boom, evil people came to town. They came by the hordes and they consumed Watford City. Gone was the ability to leave your car running and unlocked in winter while you ran into a building. Gone was the ability to let children run freely. Gone was the ability to leave your house unlocked. Gone was the hand wave, an acknowledgment of each other that everyone gave when driving or when walking down Main Street preboom. Gone was the handshake way of doing business. Gone was the trust within us. Gone was Watford City of yore, to return no more.

Wade Garman, my friend, has a small physical stature but one of the biggest hearts I encountered in the oil fields. He radiated warmth with each smile. I was extremely lucky to have had him and Brad Anderson “break me out” in the oil fields.

In 2010, when I mentioned to Wade how great it must be to have an economic boom while our nation was still waiting for recovery from 2008’s economic collapse, he said that We were doing just fine, John. We were paying our bills and raising our children. Sure, there’ll be more money, lots of it now, but the beauty of the land will be gone. There will be oil derricks, pumpjacks, and storage tank batteries all over the place. We won’t feel close to our neighbors anymore. Our property taxes and insurance and groceries will cost more. Our schools and hospitals and jails will be full. Our children will not be able to run around anymore. The safety of our families will be in jeopardy.

When Wade shared that interconnection of an economic boom and the cost to a community with me, it was 2010, and there were no registered sex offenders in town. At the height of the boom, I remember looking online at the sex offender registry and counting dozens upon dozens upon dozens of registered sex offenders living in Watford City. It’s strange where one stumbles upon prophecy . . . that one came from Wade Garman while I was being trained on how to survive disposing of brine water laden with H2S gas, both by-products of oil production.

Unlike a bite from a king cobra or a black mamba, H2S gas takes your life in one breath. At one time, I was responsible for twenty-five H2S gas–producing wells, on which I performed tasks alone. To paraphrase Sergeant Barnes from Platoon: When you’re working on H2S gas–producing wells alone, you better keep your shit wired at all times, or you’re guaranteed a trip out of the oil field—in a body bag! Many oil-field workers were zipped away, gone forever, tagged and bagged.

Looking back after the boom, I was grateful that I had survived the Bakken oil fields, H2S gas and all, but I wondered if Watford City could survive the boom and bust too. Many families did not; they were torn apart by greed. Many workers did not; they were killed in the name of profit. People I knew were slaughtered on the roads, in the oil fields, in the bars—and they were even shot dead right out on Main Street of Boomtown USA.

One night three teens were killed. One of the dead teens was the son of my friend, Shawn Garman. His son, Tanner Garman, was killed along with his two friends when the vehicle they were riding in was struck by a semitruck in a small community named Ray, North Dakota. In Ray, the high school’s tiny graduating classes of 2014 to 2016 lost seven of its children to the activity created by the oil boom. They were killed and are gone forever.

Early one crisp March morning, two teenagers, Hank Allen, seventeen, and eighteen-year-old Austin McCaulley, both from Watford City, were killed by a semitruck just a few miles from their homes. A third Watford City teen, Fenton Matthew, seventeen, was critically injured in the same wreck. That tragedy triggered a lifelong resident of Watford City, a first responder who was dispatched to that terrible, heartrending scene that day, to retire. He was emotionally spent. He was quoted in the McKenzie County Farmer as saying that these eyes have seen too much. I will never escape the faraway, stunned, shattered, downhearted look in the eyes of Watford City’s townsfolk, which lasted for weeks following that devastating incident.

The daily carnage on the two-lane roadways from traffic flows inconceivable in 2009 was unrelenting from 2010 to 2014 (the so-called good years), before the bad years arrived, known as the bust. During the boom years, rarely did a week go by without being filled with dreaded news of oil-field-related deaths.

Remembering the constant death during the time I spent working in North Dakota’s “great” oil boom leaves me with only one thought: boomtown left a town shell-shocked.

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Copyright © 2019 – Hunting For Thompson / Hallesque – All Rights Reserved

[1] “Bruce Gjovig, head of the [University of North Dakota] Center for Innovation Foundation in Grand Forks, estimated that the boom was creating two thousand millionaires per year in North Dakota. The average income in Mountrail County has more than doubled since the boom started, to $52,027 in 2010, putting it into the top 100 richest counties in the United States” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Dakota_oil_boom).

[2] “By 2012, income from oil royalties was reportedly paying many local mineral owners $50,000 to $60,000 per month, and some more than $100,000 per month” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Dakota_oil_boom).

[3] “He [Admiral Farragut] is remembered for his order at the Battle of Mobile Bay usually paraphrased as ‘Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead’ in U.S. Navy tradition” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Farragut).

[4] Source: https://www.macrotrends.net/1369/crude-oil-price-history-chart.

[5] Data obtained via phone call with North Dakota’s Oil and Gas Division.

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John R. Hall is a James Copley Scholarship for Journalism recipient. John studied journalism, psychology, communications & drama at City College, San Diego, California. John has largely traveled through life as a single and childless rolling stone, collecting little moss. He has been employed in numerous industries: first as a KFC dishwasher, then a Red Lion busboy, followed by soda jerking for Dairy Queen. All of that occurred before Uncle Sam whispered in his ear and he donned the olive drab green as a soldier in the U.S. Army. After that non Yankee Doodle Dandy duty was over, he attempted a career in entertainment, performing comedy and magic. When those opportunities disappeared, John reappeared in the transportation industry as a taxi and truck driver. He's been a barkeep, a hotel manager, a street performer, a professional student, a business manager, a dispatcher, an oil field professional, and an IT/IS professional; He's even been a procurer of substances. John developed and maintains both HuntingForThompson.com and HALLESQUE.com. All of this basically makes him an omnipotent . . . (in his own mind, which, as he says: "Is all that counts").