The Oil Patch: It’s Not What You Think

I visited North Dakota’s Oil Patch last week and discovered the truth about the area, often compared to the Wild West and considered frightening, dangerous and filled with men who would shoot you just to watch you die.

Unsurprisingly, after a visit to Williston and a general tour of the area, as well as a quick stop in Walmart there and a brief hour or so in a bar, I found it’s really not that bad.

Caveat: I have actually lived in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis, which is… well. As a Minnesotan all I can really say is “It’s not a nice neighborhood.” Partly because we’re Nice and partly because I can’t remember how long after I left that guy was shot to death a block from where I lived, or how bad the stabbing in the parking lot was. And yes, I did get held up at gunpoint there. So it’s not a very nice neighborhood.

Williston is going through massive changes. That much is stunningly obvious. There’s construction everywhere, there are man camps everywhere, at Walmart they can’t keep certain items on the shelves.

A few words about Walmart, as it’s been a locus of rumors. They stopped allowing people to park campers in its parking lot, and they staff a 24-hour security guard. My colleague Logan Adams and I visited it at about 9 p.m., and there were about 5 men to every 1 woman shopping. The women were generally not unaccompanied, but whether they were with men or in pairs with other women varied a bit. The lines were very long.

Many of the men there were blue collar guys, either oil field workers or construction guys, or maybe they worked in various other fields. Plenty of tattoos, plenty of people from various ethnicities.

Not one of them seemed the slightest bit interested in making trouble of any kind. They were just shopping. In fact, while we were waiting in line to buy something, one of them politely waved us forward to the checkout counter instead of jumping in front of us when we were slow.

Picture from Logan Adams:

It was very obvious the Walmart in Williston is having trouble keeping certain things on shelves. There were quite a few things on pallets waiting to be shelved, and there were quite a few items that were completely gone. The shelf containing water, for example, was completely empty. Many campers don’t have running water, so people living in them have to buy it.

A lot of other shelves that were empty had contained what I called “dude food,” meaning food an 18-25-year-old guy would buy–ramen noodles, frozen dinners, meat, and frozen pizza. I haven’t ever seen such a large selection of frozen pizza in my life. It took up a little more than half of a very long freezer aisle. The meat section had been decimated, so maybe some of these guys have grills. That would be nice, I thought. Dudes like to grill. It’s a total stereotype, but there’s some truth in it too.

Movies were obviously popular, as a bargain bin of DVDs had been decimated and clearly certain flicks were selling well. You had to wonder about some of them. “The Fox and the Hound”–are these guys nostalgic for their youth? Maybe. I did notice that the stack of Twilight movies was completely untouched.

On a tour of the Williston area, we drove past numerous man camps, some of which looked sort of liveable, and others of which looked like people warehouses, drab, soulless and dormlike beyond belief. I don’t mean nice dorms. I mean icky dorms.

Houses are being built too. This isn’t an area of emphasis for most press coverage, because houses are being built everywhere, but it’s still pretty interesting from my perspective.

No care at all is being taken to stop or even limit erosion at any of these sites, or at least, none that I saw. There’s lots of exposed soil, all of which I’m sure ends up in the waterways every time it rains. I suppose high-turbidity water isn’t first on anyone’s list of concerns over there at this point.

The houses being built in nice suburb-type areas vary quite a bit, but they are being built very, very close together compared to suburbs in, say, Plymouth, Minn. Land values must be at an extreme premium even for people who can afford massive houses.

Not one person made me feel the least bit uncomfortable the entire time I was there. That’s not to say bad things don’t happen in the Oil Patch; I just don’t think it’s quite as bad as people make it out to be.

Sure, if you’re from a really rural area, like the Oil Patch used to be, and you are used to small-town life, it may be a shock to you to suddenly have to lock your door at night. It’s just not what you’re used to, and you may very well not like it. That’s entirely fair. Then again, these days, it’d be a good idea to take that precaution no matter where you live.

But from the perspective of this outsider, it’s really not that bad.