Horrific on-the-job danger, drug addiction, deep camaraderie, the lure of big money without having to go to college — this is the stuff of life in a fracking town. In this oral history of Rock Springs, Wyoming at The New Republic, J.J. Anselmi reports on the after-effects and collateral damage of repeatedly becoming a temporary boom town, where it’s not just the land and ecology that suffer in the long term.
Chris Schmidt: The whole time I worked out there, I was honestly pretty fucking terrified. My second day, this guy in the shop had this huge water tank lifted up on a forklift, and, instead of strapping it down, he tried to drive really slow. When the tank started to wobble, he got out. It ended up coming down on him and literally ripping his face off—from where his hairline started all the way down to his nose. I was sitting in the shop and heard this horrible scream coming from one of the bay doors. This guy was crawling on his hands and knees with his face hanging off.
Andrea: I think it was a fairly common perception for people in Rock Springs to see college as a waste of time and money. You could make so much easy, quick money in town. Once you start making that kind of money, it’s hard to stop. I saw this a lot at the high school, kids saying, “Why should I go to college when I can work in the coal mines or at the power plant?”
But for a lot of these kids, they didn’t get a trade they could apply outside the oil field. Many of them would do the same stuff over and over again out there. Had they gone to college and taken classes in welding or mechanics, say, they would’ve set themselves up for the future a bit more. But again, I could always understand why they’d see college the way they did. Especially when you have the cars, trucks, house, and big toys—you have to keep up with the payments, and it’s hard to get out of that cycle.
Not a lot of those kids saw that the boom would end.
Mary: Back in the day, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Rock Springs was a pretty awesome town to grow up in. But when I graduated, it changed because of the boom and the drugs. It went to shit. Nobody cared about anybody else anymore.
People who came in only saw it as a money-making town—and where that could happen really quickly. People from all over were very enticed by that. And then they realized it was a good place to get fucked up and do drugs, and word got out to people who sold drugs. You could make money quickly, rip people off, rob people.
I didn’t really start doing drugs until around 2005. I remember going to football games on Friday nights when the whole town would show up. But then drugs, especially OxyContin, took hold of a lot of people. I lost so many friends when OxyContin came around, both losing them to death and just losing people as friends—people who you thought were family but fell in too far. Everybody and their mother did Oxy: lawyers, doctors, all sorts of people doing it behind the scenes. The epidemic was very real. It was crazy how fast things would unravel for people once they started doing OxyContin.
The first time I tried it, I actually threw the other half of the pill out the window because it made me sick. I said I’d never do it again. What felt like a few weeks later, I was fully addicted.