For entertainment, a one-man hairball fest comes to town and impersonates power-chord superstars like Brett Michaels, Alice Cooper, and Axl Rose. It’s as close as you get to culture in the Bakken.
Williston, ND—Ask folks around here about Williston and you’ll hear much lamenting about how far gone it is from what it used to be. In less than four years the town metastasized from an idyllic American town—one where you’ll find pictures of the Pope hanging in most businesses—to one that has succumbed to the corruptions of hedonism and oil money.
Williston lost its soul, as one man put it. Everyone has gotten greedy.
Similar to the California Gold Rush in the late 1840s, thousands of people, mostly men, have abdicated their lives in search of the big money in the North Dakota oil fields. Since 2009, the year the boom began in earnest, a steady stream of laborers, long haulers and black-market-types have flooded western North Dakota, hoping to pocket some of that oil money. In fact, between 2010 and 2011, more than 4,000 people poured into Williston, arriving in battered cars, vapors in the tank, pennies in the wallet, and little notion of what a bad idea their Hail Mary excursion north will likely turn out to be. Everybody might be hiring, but that doesn’t mean they’re hiring anybody.
You can see the panic spread across their faces when their week is up and it’s fuck or walk. No cash, no job, no family or friends to turn to—nothing but alcohol-scented promises to pay, not today, but once they get a paycheck from the job they don’t have. Some go off to the squatter camps. Others move back into their cars. Those with a little coin return home to hungry babies and unhappy women. But you can’t blame these guys entirely. In the abstract, it should’ve been a lot easier. You arrive in a place constricted by a chronic labor shortage, land a job, collect a check, and live happily ever after. Even Walmart here starts third-shifters at $17 an hour.
One thing no one anticipates is the locals’ greed, greed so fierce I’m surprised the neighborhood associations aren’t charging tolls on the residential streets. Everyone wants their cut. Some motels charge guests ten bucks for everything from directions to the Chinese restaurant to a roll of toilet paper. Knowing the nearest mall is one-hundred miles away, local merchants price gouge the shit out of everything. A gallon of milk: $5. A dozen eggs: $3. A pound of ground beef: $7. Even those raised here can no longer afford to live here. A studio that rented for $550 before the boom now fetches $2,000.
The real money, of course, is in narcotics. Those willing to hazard the perils of getting their goods to the Bakken clock beaucoup cash, given the nearest city is Billings, more than 350 miles west, or Denver, 1,110 miles south. A gram of anything, save weed, will set you back at least $200, according to all the griping guests do over the slim pickings of quality feelgoods.
I wouldn’t call what they got around here heroin, one guest explained. Boogers is all it is.
A teenager spends Saturday afternoon popping wheelies on his bicycle.
Williston, like a handful of western North Dakota towns, sits three miles above the Bakken Rock Formation, a 220,000-square-mile subterranean slab of fossil-fuel-bearing shale. Although discovered in the early 1950s, horizontal-drilling technology wasn’t sophisticated enough to extract the Bakken’s oil or natural gas until the mid-aughts. Since 2009, eight thousand wells have been dug, with another fifty thousand expected in the coming years. So much oil is being fracked there aren’t enough tankers to haul it away.
As for the natural gas, nearly all of it is burned off in a process called flaring. Apparently some fossil fuels are only worth wasting.
More than most, Williston was unprepared for a surge in population. The quaint stasis with which it existed for one-hundred years supplanted, almost overnight, by bar fights, man rapes, and people sleeping in parks and beneath the bridges. Even the born-and-raised’s who haven’t been priced out probably aren’t much longer for Williston, either, unwilling to accept the big-city problems polluting their town.
It’s not the place I grew up in, one woman lamented.
Then, as if to underscore just how much the boom has changed life here, she continued, A man was raped at Walmart… did you hear about that? Right in the parking lot.
Not many man-rapes around here I take it?
Heavens no! she cried. We couldn’t believe it when we heard about it. I mean, what kind of man rapes another man? There was three of them, all raping one man. In the middle of the day! At Walmart!
I couldn’t tell if she was more appalled that a man was raped by men or that a man was raped by men at Walmart, that bastion of false-suburban safety. I suppose that’s beside the point. To this woman, and others who’ve shared this tale, Williston’s most famous crime attests to the corrupting influence of oil money. People no longer wave at strangers or picnic in the park after church. As more and more residents are forced out so to do the church pews empty. The only thing the state’s no-liquor-sales-before-noon-on-Sundays law compels among the transient fortune-seekers is sleeping in, man rapes be damned.
Thing about the man-rape story, and nearly every other rape story around these parts, is that they aren’t true. Sure, women will confess to being hyper-aware that lady parts are in high demand, but in short supply. But rapes, according to Williston police, are infrequent. The man rape, if it happened, was never reported.
But don’t tell that to a Williston native. They’ll swear they know the victim or that they were at the store when it happened or that they heard it on the news (with their own ears). The story, like urban legends before it, has taken on a life of its own, because people truly believe their town is now so awful they’re concocting and propagating rape stories to scare people off.
Don’t come to Williston! It’s a terrible place.
I’ll guess the same locals who bitch about how Williston is ruined forever are the same ones who force these employment hopefuls toward homeless desperation with every $4 water. Overcharging people already on the edge is in a league of cruelty all of its own. They’re not feeding off the system, because there is no system here to exploit. Unlike modern cities, there are few, if any, social services available, no non-profits to assist the down and out. Can’t afford the motel room? There is no homeless shelter to turn to. During winter, that could be a death sentence.
Williston, a self-professed Christian town, is too full of capitalistic thugs who ain’t got a minute to spare if you ain’t got a dollar to spend. It’s preoccupied with money. The oil companies must’ve felt right at home, never offering to lend a helping hand. If a motel owner finds a room smeared with shit more than likely it has to do with the motel charging $10 for a roll of subpar toilet paper after the stores have closed than bad manners. People lash out in the ways they can.
Here, we give toilet paper away for free and so far, knock on wood, no one has smeared shit on the walls. Giving breaks from time to time can go a long way to discourage bad behavior, like destroying a room. North Dakotans, Willistonians in particular, haven’t learned this lesson yet.