Life on the Oil Frontier

What it was like living in one of America’s most patriarchal societies.

Maya Rao |The Great American Outpost| Public Affairs | April 2018 | 9 minutes (2,428 words)

The house is squat and tan, near a 24-hour Walmart and a small truck stop along a busy road where diesel pickups groan and belch black exhaust. My new landlord leads me to the sparsely furnished basement, where a room costs $600 a month; the window by the bed is level with the gravel parking lot. About a half-dozen other women are renting rooms in this oasis of one of America’s most patriarchal societies: the North Dakota oilfield.

“It’s not like you’re in prison,” says the landlord, explaining that we are not to have any guests over. “But we don’t let it be the Wild West and let people get crazy.” Somebody’s oil worker boyfriend might trash the place; indeed, the last round of roughnecks already have. Men in other camps and housing developments are also forbidden from having women over, in an effort to keep out prostitutes. Gender segregation is de rigueur in a region where the oil industry is about 80 percent male. There are plenty of women around, but they’ve often followed a boyfriend or husband to the oilfield and taken jobs cashiering, tending bar or working as office administrators.

The landlord owns a cleaning company, and the house was originally purchased to lodge some of the cleaning staff, though it has open rooms for tenants like me. Some clients hire him after other cleaning firms send out women who lean over their mops to reveal undergarments, signaling they are available for extra services. But the landlord assures me that his operation is nothing of the sort. A billboard at the corner features a rotation of advertisements:

West Prairie Estates – new home auction
Holiday season special Golden China super buffet (lunch $6; dinner $8)
Dewatering containers filter sock solutions SPILL-CLEAN-UP
Little Caesars $5 classic TURN LEFT NOW

It’s spring 2015 and I’ve spent the last few years traveling back and forth from Minneapolis to the North Dakota oilfield in order to write a narrative nonfiction book about the largest oil rush in modern U.S. history, and the implosion that follows. Like most people out here, I’ve found myself living in a myriad of makeshift circumstances: crashing in spare rooms and on couches in a farmhouse, a camper, a few apartments and a trailer park called Dakotaland where a roughneck from Tuscaloosa gets stoned every night with our Houston neighbor and educates me about the intricacies of workover rigs. My housemates have been all men — more out of necessity than preference — until I decide to go on Craigslist and sign a proper lease. By the time I show up to the basement room near Walmart, several people have dismissed my inquiries upon learning that I’m a woman. “We don’t want to discriminate, but we can’t put anyone in a compromising situation,” says one landlord. So the basement room by Walmart in Williston, the largest town in the oilfield, is my only choice. It is too expensive to live alone — even as OPEC’s oil price war against the American shale industry makes overleveraged apartment owners desperate for tenants.

All of this unfolds as political and business leaders push to bring more women and families to the oilfield. The enormous expansion of apartments, restaurants, a high-end recreation center and shops — even a jewelry store! — is supposed to induce men to bring their wives and children. One of the most common reasons a man says he’s leaving the oilfield is that his wife hates living here, or that she refuses to move up at all.

Masculinity is embedded in the very language of the oil industry: oil men, land men, man camps.

For all the technological marvels of this great fracking boom, gender mores occasionally date to the nineteenth century. A substantial minority believes that the male represents the wild; the female, domesticity. A man bumming around here after losing his leg in a rig accident in Wyoming questions why a woman would work here anyway, if she could get a job in an office. The dirty, difficult nature of the jobs here is better suited for men, he believes: let men civilize the frontier and women follow. Masculinity is embedded in the very language of the oil industry: oil men, land men, man camps. (Man camp interests adamantly demand that people use the phrase “crew camps” instead, as it is a less alienating term.)

One of the top leaders in the North Dakota oil business, Kathy Neset, owns a company that provides geological services to rigs. She got her start in the late seventies — now she recruits many women for the job, and even provides childcare at the office. (She recently considered running as a Republican challenger against U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat.) I ask her what it was like coming up when the field was even more male-dominated than it is now, and she says, “How I look at it is, sometimes you have to go a little further, a little harder, a little bit, you know, bigger and better, to get to the same places as the guys might be in this field. But I’m okay with that.” Most women I know refuse to be seen as victims. One entrepreneur tells me that she will not play the single mother card — she has four children — and that Williston has made a man out of her. This town, she says proudly, weeds out the weak.

Many women, in any case, cannot chase oilfield dreams: a lot of men come here to pay off child support debts, leaving struggling single mothers across America. Some oil workers owe so much back child support that it’s a felony. Men unyoked from their families, reeling from broken bonds, are the norm: some contrite and faithfully sending child support checks, others blowing all their money on meth, pickups and good times. This prevalence of absentee fathers begins to grate on me. At Champs Place, a squat bar near my new house advertising casino liquor, a man overhears me speaking ill of men abandoning their families and becomes enraged because, like plenty of men here, he claims that his ex-wife won’t let him see his children anymore. The custody battle was bitter. I instantly regret my offense and apologize, eager to avoid an altercation, but he continues railing at me. I can see him trembling in anger, wanting to raise a fist, and resisting the impulse — we are in a crowd, after all. If I was a man he surely would have punched me in the face. I learn to speak more carefully from then on, finding that broaching such matters in a place where so many men are alienated from the traditional structures of life stirs an inordinate anger and sadness.


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I gradually become acquainted with my housemates. One of the women upstairs, Kate, dropped out of college in Michigan and is out here to pay off $20,000 in student loans. She’s got a $30 an hour job checking oil tanks for a company owned by ExxonMobil. As Kate and I chat at the picnic table in the backyard, a new stranger walks by with a load of boxes — she’s moving into the room next to mine. Barbara, as she introduces herself, came to the oil patch after fleeing an abusive, crack-dealing boyfriend. “He’d done ten years in federal,” she says after moving her things in. When she tried to escape him, he threatened to cut her neck with a butcher knife. Barbara’s sunny demeanor briefly recedes as she recalls those days; she sighs, covering the top of her coffee cup with her hand, nails painted hot pink.

Barbara escaped several times to an abused women’s shelter, where she logged onto the computer to look for a job. She read about the explosion of high-paying jobs in North Dakota. Barbara negotiated with her boyfriend to find her an old vehicle, manipulating him with assurances that he could later meet her out there for work. She sold her jewelry at the pawn shop and her food stamps on the street for a discount in cash. Barbara departed at sunrise, singing to Katy Perry and running the string of tolls from Ohio to Illinois.

By the time she reached Fargo, still six hours east of the oilfield, a man at a truck stop there warned here against going to the Bakken, saying the men were dangerous. But she had just escaped a violent, ex-con boyfriend — could oilfield men be any worse? Her first night in the oilfield, a man offered to let her sleep in his hotel room but then began hassling her for sexual favors. When she refused, deciding to sleep in her car at Walmart, he told her he had money — a line common among newly flush oil workers. (“They can be the ugliest thing out here but [men say] me man-you woman-me have man money and you’re just supposed to bow down!” a female friend complains. This calms down by the time I do most of my reporting here, but at one time, men in the Bakken are famous for propositioning women in front of their own husbands.) Barbara reached in her pocket for the fifteen cents she had left. “I got money, too. And I have self-respect and pride and dignity.”

She started making $1,500 a week working at a company that cleaned trailers on drilling rigs. Being a cleaning woman in the Bakken didn’t have the low-class stigma it had in other places — the oilfield was a filthy place and everyone made enough money to pay other people a grand sum to clean up their messes. But Barbara wanted to be her own boss. She told her employer she was leaving and took mops, buckets and cleaning supplies on her way out. Barbara convinced a few company men to transfer their business to her. Some said they were too clean to hire a maid. “I like dirty men,” she’d joke. “If you’re clean I don’t have no work.”

As often happens around here, Barbara disappears without warning in a month. Her coffee pot is gone; her room is empty. A blonde, portly South Carolina woman named J. from Walmart takes her place. She cooks a lot and is generous with her food, inquiring about my well-being like a big sister. J. is irritated that men at Walmart ask her out after mentioning their wife and children.

She lived a different lifestyle years ago, she tells me, but when I inquire further she says she doesn’t want to say it out loud. A few months later, she suggests I take my printer off the kitchen table and put it back in my room because a shifty new housemate had arrived. “I think she’s on meth,” she whispers. But I never see this junkie, and she, too, quickly vanishes.

I’m glad for a new companion on the lower floor, but wonder for several weeks where Barbara has disappeared. I find my answer during an interview with a fracking supervisor at a small office off Highway 85. I excuse myself to go to the bathroom and run in to Barbara in the hallway, working a vacuum cleaner. She gets paid one grand a month to clean the place. She says something about not liking our house and moving in with a boyfriend.

They give me a line I hear all the time, one that always seems vaguely unsettling: ‘You’re lucky we’re nice guys.’

Meanwhile, my South Carolina housemate invites me to join her and the other Walmart workers at DK’s Lounge & Casino, the rowdiest bar in town. Among her colleagues is a 21-year-old man who drinks so much that the Walmart crowd carries him off the dance floor at closing time; he staggers out and collapses on the sidewalk outside as onlookers rush to give him water. “I’m afraid for this guy,” J. says.

The ambulance rolls up just before one in the morning, as the temperature drops to near zero.

“Back it up, let’s go,” a cop says. “Okay, guys, give us some room!”

I’m shivering; I don’t have a ride. Two unknown men approach me.

“Wanna ride?” they ask.

I agree, given that I live a mile up the heavily-policed main road, and quickly excuse myself as they start to take hits of weed while idling in front of my house. I bump into them around town later and they give me a line I hear all the time, one that always seems vaguely unsettling: “You’re lucky we’re nice guys.”

Despite the revolving cast of housemates, life at our house unfolds without incident. But the house of mostly men next door draws a front-page ruckus. One Saturday I walk out the back door and see that police cars have their place surrounded. “Everybody get the hell out!” a cop shouts as he herds the occupants through a side door. Police have come to arrest a man from Washington State on warrants for drug and theft charges; while searching his room they find meth, prescription pills, and the keys to a stolen pickup. Cops also spy a box by the front door with cylinders wrapped in electrical tape and what appear to be wires coming out; they fear he’s trying to build a bomb with fireworks and smoke grenades.

As a mass of law enforcement cars block the street off all afternoon, some of the inhabitants seek solace down the street at Champs Place. One of them is still sitting in his plaid bathrobe and flip-flops; he and a housemate are running up a bar tab on credit because the police hadn’t given them time to grab their wallets. “The amount of police, it would make you think somebody got shot or killed,” says one of them, a Florida migrant named James Williams, as Metallica blasts from the jukebox. Indeed, because police cars have also blocked off the area in front of my house, too, I receive quizzical texts from acquaintances who want to know: what’s the cleaning lady house been busted for?

***

I move out the following month, in January 2016, as oil prices sink to $27 a barrel on the West Texas Intermediate and an exodus of people return to their home states. As the price of oil rebounds well into the sixties this year, I hear by all accounts that the North Dakota oilfield has straightened out. It is a civilized place these days, teeming with women and children. A North Carolina-bred truck driver who is the focus of my book finally moves his wife to the oilfield, giving up his lifestyle of sleeping at truck stops for a lease at a high-end apartment. It is not the raw frontier it was; the lone male laborer is less of a story. There are fewer roughnecks, as my old landlord had warned, to trash the place.

* * *

Maya Rao is the author of Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks and the Making of an Oil Frontier.