Western North Dakota—at the epicenter of the Bakken oil rush—has become a new Wild West of sorts, where fortunes are made, sought and lost with alarming speed. Thousands have been drawn to the Bakken over the last seven years, including Maya Rao, a talented reporter who has cut her teeth at dailies and currently covers regional issues at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She first ventured there to write a short piece for The Awl last year about the overwhelming experience of “being a woman in a place where women could be in demand as much as the oil.” After her first visit to the region Rao felt there were larger stories still untold, and she returned this past summer, spending a month working as a cashier at a truck stop just south of Alexander. Her efforts culminated in “Searching for the Good Life in the Bakken Oil Fields,” an immersive 6,000-word piece published by The Atlantic last month. Rao spoke with us about her gutsy decision to pick up and spend a month in the Bakken, her experience as a female reporter in a decidedly male-centric environment and carving out space for longer form enterprise reporting at daily papers.
Can you tell me a little bit about your initial process? How did this story come into being? Did you always know it would end up at The Atlantic?
I had followed the oil boom for a while, but it wasn’t part of my beat at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, so I figured whatever I wrote would be on my own time. I got this idea that it would be an interesting story to try to find work in the Bakken for a month or so – the most amount of time I could get off from my job – because one big theme in the story of western North Dakota right now is what Americans do for work. I figured I would go up and see what I could do without the pressure of answering to any particular editor, since I didn’t know what I would find and was winging it, in a way. I went up at the start of June, and came back at the beginning of July, returning to my job and various family and social obligations. I panicked that the story was lost for good when I was in Manhattan for a few days in July and left my phone, which had all the recordings of my interviews, in a cab in Harlem one night. Somebody actually returned it the next day. I was done writing in mid-August, which is when I started pitching. I’m originally from the East Coast and knew that a publication in New York or D.C. would be as intrigued by this story as I was, since there’s been a lot of national interest in the Bakken.
There are many ways of covering the North Dakota oil boom. Stephen Rodrick suited up and moved to a “man camp” for a Men’s Journal story. Susan Elizabeth Shepard and Laura Gottesdiener wrote about their experiences working at strip clubs in Williston, North Dakota for Buzzfeed and Mother Jones, respectively. Is there something about the place that makes it particularly ripe for this kind of immersive reporting? How did you choose your cashier job?
So many mainstream stories have been done about the Bakken that I was attempting to do something more original and memorable, and I imagine that’s what the other reporters you mention had in mind. Over the years, I’ve been intrigued by articles talking about even simple retail jobs paying up to $17 an hour, and stores struggling with high turnover. There’s also been media coverage on the stresses that oilfield trucks are putting on local infrastructure. I felt that applying for a job at a truck stop would be a meaningful way to examine those issues up close. I initially applied to truck stops owned by corporate chains, but when I stopped at a friend’s house in Williston to talk about my project, his roommate mentioned a truck stop called the Wild Bison. I hadn’t even considered extending my search outside of Williston, and the Wild Bison was just south of a little town I had never heard of called Alexander. But I drove down the following morning and knew right away that it would be a great place to tell this sort of story: it was family-owned, sat along a key oilfield route, and I was able to get a job without many questions. That was important to me because I knew I couldn’t lie to anybody for this article.
At any point did you start to panic?
When I first went out there, my first week out there was so uneventful. That weekend I really started doubting if I had made the right decision. The truck stop had put me on a less busy cash register. I also began to worry about how I would juggle the ethics and logistics of writing an article, since I didn’t walk into the job announcing I was a reporter. I made an effort to get people’s numbers and talk to them outside of work hours, and also did a lot of reporting that had nothing to do with the truck stop but that I knew would help me understand the bigger picture. I spent a day going up and down Highway 85 – the road that the Wild Bison was on – just talking to people. I spent time with a drilling crew. It’s not in there, but it helped me understand the issues. It’s important to note too, that I went into this thinking if it didn’t work out [for publication], it was still something I wanted to do. I love learning about the American landscape – my hobby is taking road trips around the country – and I got a chance to do that just talking to my customers about the places they were from and what had brought them up here.
You render your fellow North Dakotans with a humanity that (unfortunately) isn’t always seen in this kind of piece. But you also have a great line in there, acknowledging that they might sound like the butt of some East Coast urbanite’s joke. Did you feel a certain pressure to avoid that kind of cliched depiction?
I came in thinking that if I’m going to work at this truck stop and they don’t know I’m a writer, I don’t want to take advantage of the situation. I didn’t want anyone to feel like they were tricked at all. Even interacting with my coworkers, I didn’t want to be in some position where they were confiding in me and
By the third week or so I was pretty open about what I was doing, telling my coworkers I was a writer interested in doing a story about life at a truck stop. With one truck driver, Aerosmith, I went over and over with him about it, saying ‘Are you sure you want your name in there?’ and making sure he realized this would actually be online. But he was fine with it; he showed it to a lot of his trucker friends.
I have spent most of my life in big metropolitan areas on the East Coast, like D.C. and Philly, and one reason I moved to Minneapolis in 2012 was to take on the challenge of reporting on a new area of the country and just getting outside that bubble. I’m aware that some people on the outside may think these people are on the fringes of society, but I went in thinking they were really brave and they were go-getters. I saw something in them that I wanted to be more of, and that Americans should be more of—going after something without excuse or complaint, going after something even if it’s difficult.
There’s a point in the piece where a co-worker warns you to be careful. Were you ever worried about your physical safety?
I just felt a familiarity with the area; maybe it sounds naïve. I’ve already done things like this so many times; as a reporter you’re always running into ridiculous situations, jumping in cars with people is part of capturing scenes and getting stories, and doing this I just felt I was in reporter mode. It seemed like she just felt sorry for me: ‘This poor girl doesn’t know what she’s getting into.’ She just saw me as a kind of quiet girl in a cashier’s uniform. She had a valid point, but I was careful about where I met people and I quickly distanced myself from any interviewees who seemed to misread my professional interest as something more personal. Not only am I an experienced solo traveler, but I’m willing to accept a certain level of risk to be a journalist. Women are obviously more vulnerable than men, but I wish that we could get past seeing women who do these kinds of things as foolish, brave or weird. Nobody would consider a man doing the same thing as remarkable.
I love the idea of “reporter mode,” almost like a second skin one can slip on, both protective in a way, and also an extra layer of awareness. Were you a Harriet the Spy kind of kid? Did you always know this was what you wanted to do?
I knew I wanted to be a journalist since elementary school, though at first it was initially just because I wanted to write for a living, not because I was passionate about news. I filled dozens of spiral-bound notebooks with hand-written novels between ages 9 and 12 – most of them were about a talking bear named Fuzzy who solved mysteries – and to this day I wistfully recall 1996 as one of my most productive years as a writer. I had no Internet, cable, or social life, so that explains a lot of it. Anyway, then I realized that creative writing was too isolated for me and became interested in the idea of writing for a clearer purpose – in a way that connected with the community. I was very fortunate to start my career off at a great newspaper in a great news town, The Press of Atlantic City, which offered a lot of opportunities to learn harder-edged reporting.
You started out at The Press of Atlantic City before moving on to The Philadelphia Inquirer and eventually the Minneapolis Star Tribune. It’s certainly been a shifting landscape at daily newspapers over the last ten years. Can you tell me a little more about this?
I’ve been a daily newspaper journalist for eight years. Of the newspapers I’ve worked at, only the Inquirer had significant financial difficulties, and that was also the paper that put the most emphasis on longform journalism, so it comes down to newsroom culture more than staffing levels sometimes. The Star Tribune also values good enterprise reporting, but they prefer stories to be more concise. Doing in-depth work for any daily newspaper has generally gotten tougher.
Working at a newspaper has a lot of benefits – you get to be part of a big team, with editors encouraging you to consider points you might not have thought of, and more experienced reporters offering their expertise. But as newsprint space has diminished, I’ve been excited to see that there are many opportunities to do in-depth journalism online. I don’t think print is the be-all, end-all, and some of the stories I’m proudest of, including this story about the Wild Bison, have only run on the web.
There’s a real sense of a certain kind of America in both this piece and your roadtrip story. Is there a specific America that you hope to capture in your work?
For most of my life, until I was 27, I lived roughly between Washington, D.C. and New York. It felt like the center of the universe. There’s a certain privilege to that – I received a great education, had exposure to people from diverse backgrounds, and had access to good professional opportunities. But I also had a great curiosity about the rest of the country and felt too removed. I wanted to tell stories about the kinds of people who usually wouldn’t receive attention, who are outside the big population centers. I am drawn to the ideas of self-reliance, resilience, no excuses and no pretenses – just triumphing over seeming limitations. The Great Plains and the American West, and the people who inhabit those places, really embody that for me and I hope to tell more of their stories.
Let’s return briefly to the topic of being a woman in the Bakken, which was the theme of your first dispatch from North Dakota and also certainly affected your experiences this time around.
My first piece in the oil field was kind of tongue-in-cheek. An acquaintance from when I first moved to Minneapolis in 2012 was talking about how his aunt in Williston could hardly go to the grocery store there without randy oil workers leering at her in the aisles and I just instantly thought, “That’s a story!” I wanted to go up anyway because I wanted to see all 50 states, and North Dakota was one of only about five left and within driving distance. After hearing some more snippets here and there about the guy-to-girl ratio I knew I had to see for myself. Most men up there are actually very respectful and are just keeping their heads down and working, but one thing I wasn’t prepared for was that when I exchanged numbers as part of my standard professional process in interviews, some men misread that and would continue calling even when I hadn’t answered the last four calls. It wasn’t that women were harassed everywhere they went or anything, but every woman I talked to had a horror story about a man hounding her at some point. One thing I’ve been really excited about, though, is the quality of reporting coming out of the Bakken by women. Female reporters have written about going undercover as a day laborer, a waitress, and in my case, a truck stop cashier – I’m actually really surprised that we haven’t seen more of this style of immersive reporting by men. While a male reporter would certainly blend in better, as a woman talking to men, I realized that one advantage I had was that people were less likely to feel threatened by me.
Postscript: I’m actually in the Bakken now to do some stories for the Star Tribune, and stopped in the Bison again – it’s the nearest place to the trailer park I’m crashing in to get a cup of coffee. I’ve been gone for less than four months and so much has changed. First of all, when I arrived at night, I didn’t even recognize Highway 85 anymore because while I was gone they had completed a bypass that takes you around Alexander’s main street. I also didn’t recognize any of the cashiers, and learned that Randy, the manager who hired me, had been let go by the new corporate management, TravelCenters of America. The previous owners had returned to Washington state. Fish, one of the worst offenders of truck-overloading, has since found a law-abiding job at Halliburton, while his trucking partner, Blackneck, left to be closer to his family. I saw Wayne, the homeless panhandler, at the same spot – he said he went to California, but it was taking a long time to get disability benefits and he was back visiting friends. Aerosmith is still trucking.
Note: This conversation was conducted by phone and over email, and has been condensed for length and clarity.
Photo: Katie G. Nelson Photography