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  11 December 2017  |  Vol: 4 facebooktwitterrss  
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Perspective
 
Inside the Belly of the Bakken
 

Photo by Chris Sawicki

They come from Starkville, Mississippi, Ozark, Missouri, Bay City, Michigan, Pulaski, Tennessee, Hanksville, Utah, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Pilgrims trailing the hopeful music of the piper, summoned by songs of wealth, opportunity, adventure, glory...

The once-quiet town of Williston, North Dakota, has ballooned from a population of 12,000 three years ago to over 25,000 people now, and it’s expected to hit 60,000 in the next few years. The new arrivals, nearly all men, are fleeing the depressed economies of their home states. They’ve come for the bustling promise of the Bakken Boom, the record oil production of eastern Montana and western North Dakota. The largest continuous oil resource in the lower 48 states, stretching beneath 200,000 square miles, the Bakken boasts over 6,600 producing wells, pumping out over 250,000 barrels a day—and it’s just getting started.

Once they reach the epicenter of the Bakken—Williston, North Dakota, or one of the surrounding communities—the new arrivals will settle into “man camps.” These company-owned, dormitory-styled, aluminum-sided housing complexes have been thrown up overnight to accommodate the massive influx of workers. Others will inhabit trailer parks and campgrounds, and some will just rough it, using their trucks or cars or polyester tents as a base. Ever since the Williston Walmart outlawed camping in their parking lot, they sleep wherever they can, enduring crude living conditions for the high-paying jobs found on the Bakken. This is Boom Town, USA, and you either roll with it or get out of the way.

_____________________________

From the formerly peaceful farming communities scattered across western North Dakota and eastern Montana come reports of bars full of mean-spirited men flying high on crystal methamphetamine, prostitution rings, strippers pulling in two grand a night, insolent truck drivers throwing garbage out their windows and urinating on people’s lawns. Theft, murder, sex crimes, men being raped, abduction, domestic violence—for each of these categories, regional crime rates have tripled. The police are unable to recruit enough officers due to housing shortages and competition with high-paying oil field jobs. Eight-dollar-a-gallon milk, homeless men making six-figure salaries, one-bedroom apartments renting for $2,000 a month, nightmare traffic all hours of the day.

I would be travelling to the Bakken with friend and photographer, Chris Sawicki. When we broke word of our intentions, friends and colleagues inundated us with a litany of warnings. Even my trusty horse, Little Chief, acted high strung and nervous as I filled the ponies’ hay feeder with enough square bales to last them through the week. I assured him that everything was under control, but he still cast a skeptical eye at me, and his parting whinny had a wary ring to it.

We loaded up Loretta, my road-worn, Ford pickup mended together with duct tape and baling wire, stuffed with enough equipment and supplies for the duration. Then under an overcast sky, the grey monotony characteristic of a long western Montana winter, we left Missoula and turned east towards the far-off Bakken.

_____________________________

Chris’s co-worker had put us in contact with two Sidney, Montana, school teachers. Cindy and Mark, a polite married couple, agreed to give us lodging for the first night.

We arrive around 9 in the evening, and Cindy welcomes us inside their tidy house located a few blocks off Sidney’s main drag. Cindy is a gregarious, middle-aged English teacher at Sidney High School. Originally from Minnesota, she wears glasses and her light brown hair is cut several inches above the shoulder. She speaks with ease and authority, encouraging the kind of chit-chat that you’d expect in a school cafeteria.

“The McDonald’s workers in Sidney are starting at $10 an hour. Sometimes only the drive-thru is open, they’re so short-staffed. Local businesses are having trouble keeping employees who are leaving to work the oil field jobs. That’s why restaurants don’t stay open late anymore. It’s impossible to get a hotel room. Three or four hotels are currently under construction in Sidney, just trying to catch up to the demand. The Walmart in Williston can’t keep workers, so they’re having to wheel palettes onto the floor, not even bothering to stock the shelves. People are driving all the way to Miles City to shop.”

“A lot of people are making a lot of money, but prices have inflated so much that the ones on fixed incomes can’t afford to stay. The worst part is the traffic. It’s constant, day and night, and the semi drivers aren’t always courteous. Re-routes from the boom have caused major traffic problems. The roads are getting torn-up from the trucks. Some people are fed-up and want out of here. There are ads in the paper that say, ‘Tired of it All? Move to Billings!’ or ‘Tired of it All? Move to Bismarck!’ The infrastructure simply can’t support what’s going on. City maintenance workers, special education teachers, janitors, are quitting for the better-paying jobs. You can’t blame them.”

Just then the phone rings. Cindy answers it and talks to someone about the Sherry Arnold case. Arnold, a Sidney High School math teacher, was abducted and murdered by two men from Colorado who were en route to the Bakken. She hangs up the phone and calmly tells us they found Sherry’s body earlier that day in a North Dakota farm field.

It’s the final piece of a twisted, disturbing puzzle that started in the early morning hours of January 7, 2012. Sherry was last seen at 6:30 in the morning, leaving home for her regular run. Not much later, two men, deep inside a crack-fueled bender, impulsively kidnapped the 43-year-old teacher and choked her to death. One of the kidnappers told the other that crack “brought the devil out in him.”

The attack devastated the small community. Self-defense classes were suddenly popular while the number of concealed carry permits soared; ninety-seven permits were issued in February 2012, compared to seven in February 2011.

I ask Cindy if she knew Sherry Arnold.

“Knew her? I was her teacher, her coach, her neighbor and then her colleague. I was part of the group that found her shoe after she disappeared. She was abducted just down the road from here, ” she says with much control, as though she’d exhausted so much grief there’s little left to show.

Cindy’s husband walks in the back door, tired after a long day of teaching and parent/teacher conferences. Mark teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science, has short brown hair and glasses. Originally from Malta, Montana, he probably made a serious run of 1st place science fair projects as a kid.

Cindy tells us that the empty field across from their house is being developed into a planned subdivision, truck stop and hotel. The increased housing is supposed to make their property value increase. “A friend of mine said to me, ‘What about the geese that live in the field?’ I told her the geese are going to have to find a new place to live,” she says.

Mark speaks up, turning us back to where so many conversations in this town go, “When the thing happened with Sherry, there was a lot of reaction about the riff-raff around here. But that could be any kind of work. Some really interesting people have come as well.”

But the numbers don’t lie: drug crimes in eastern Montana have increased 172 percent. Assaults in Dickinson, North Dakota, are up 300 percent. Organized crime from British Columbia has reportedly moved the drug trade into rural areas of south-central Canada. To combat the increase in crime, Montana and North Dakota have added what state troopers they could hire.

Mark informs us that one of the major complaints in Sidney is how the Montana legislature wants to re-distribute oil revenue throughout the state, when money is needed in Sidney for infrastructure and schools. Every grade in school, K-12, sees five to ten new students every week, and the entire student population is expected to double in the next five years.

The man camps are popping up everywhere, says Mark. In Williston, the number of people currently living in man camps outnumbers the town population prior to the boom. Just down the road is a trailer park full of Bakken workers. It was originally a go-kart track and putt-putt golf course for kids.

“The boom has brought some good things to Sidney. Things were pretty quiet here, and we were really limited in regards to shopping and entertainment. Men’s clothing options were very poor. If you were a man in Sidney, you had to dress like all the other men. Now there are lots more places to buy clothes,” he tells us.

_____________________________

In the morning we talk to Cindy as pale light illuminates the soon-to-be subdivision/hotel/truck stop. Framing the field is a narrow chain of mountains, from which the sun rises up and over. The view instills a sense of pastoral charm.

Chris, who slept in the room nearest the street, tells us he heard trucks all night, shaking the floor of the house and constantly waking him.

Cindy responds with another inconvenience: cell phone reception has decreased from all the oil companies using signal-enhancing boosters. “You walk outside to try and get reception and then you can’t hear from the loud trucks driving by. Hopefully, when they build the subdivision across the street they’ll put in a bypass.”

We say goodbye to Cindy and drive to McDonald’s to investigate the claims of worker shortages. The dining room is open so we go inside and drink more coffee. Presently turned inward, a sign on the window reads: “Due to the shortage in the local labor pool we are forced to close our lobby at this time. We would be happy to serve our in our drive thru. We value you as a customer and appreciate your patronage and understanding.”

Another sign reads: “HIRING ALL SHIFTS, ALL POSITIONS, MANAGEMENT AND CREW. McDonald’s of Sidney…The Best Place to Work!”

That afternoon we meet up with Calla, a gal in her mid-twenties who’s lived her entire life in Fairview, less than twelve miles down the road. She commutes to Sidney each day for work and has experienced the boom from Day One. Not long ago she had an iPod stolen out of her car, parked right in front of her house. Growing up, her family never locked their doors.

“After the Sherry Arnold murder, people went nuts,” Calla says. “Before the murder, I received a taser and pepper spray for Christmas. Back then I used to walk my dogs at six in the morning, the same time Sherry was abducted. Now I don’t walk then because it’s still dark. I don’t like that, I don’t like not feeling safe.”

It used to take her ten minutes to commute from Fairview to Sidney, now it takes twenty. She says the truck drivers don’t consider Sidney their home and have little respect for the area. They throw litter out their windows and the garbage covers the sides of the roads. The wind blows it everywhere.

“I don’t want to generalize about the people because a lot of them are here to save their homes. They don’t want to live in man camps or old camper trailers. But there’s a lot of creepers that come, too. In Fairview, we’ve gone from three or four sex offenders to seventeen, and those are just the ones that have settled down. Lots more are roaming around and transient. It used to be that you knew where the creepy guy’s house was located, now they’re everywhere.”

She says a lot of the places where people stay don’t have sewer systems, so the waste either gets pumped out or they flush it onto the ground. The bad traffic, offensive truck drivers, raw sewage, man camps, crowded restaurants and population boom have left many locals with a ‘screw the oil field’ attitude. Some of her friends use the terms “rig-rats” and “rig-pigs” to describe the Bakken workers.

“My fiancé’s cousin works for the sheriff’s department in Williston. He told me not to go into the Walmart alone. He said there are reports of women being followed, women being threatened. The bars are really bad; he told me not to go to them either. If you two go to the bars, don’t split up. Stay together. I’ve heard that men are getting raped in Williston. You might be OK on a Thursday night, but on the weekend things get pretty rowdy.”

___________________________________

From Sidney we drive northwest towards Williston, the belly of the Bakken beast. On both sides of the two-lane highway the traffic is dense with large oil trucks. Construction crews labor on the sides of the road, making modifications to accommodate the increase in traffic. About twelve miles outside of Williston, the air starts to smell like sewage.

Following a tip from Calla, we stop at the North Dakota Fish and Game Department to inquire about a place to stay. We ask the lady at the front desk about public land available for camping. She looks confused and gives us a handful of brochures. I look at one of the maps, and The Lewis and Clark Wildlife Management Area has camping only a few miles down the road. They had to close it down to overnight use, she tells us. Some oil workers brutally beat another oil worker and stole all of his belongings.

“Is there anything else along the Missouri River?” I ask, thinking it would be nice to camp along the fabled waterway.

“Is that the Missouri?” she asks, more confused. She closes down the social networking page on her computer and pulls up a Fish and Game map of the area.

“I’m sorry,” she says, “People don’t usually ask about camping. Where are you two from?”

“Missoula,” says Chris.

“Where’s that?” she asks.

Minutes later, she points to some public land on the map about twenty minutes away, near the town of Trenton. She thinks there’s available camping there, but she’s not positive.

We thank her and get back on the highway, heading towards the Missouri River. For the next forty-five minutes we try to access isolated tracts of public land via unsigned dirt roads. The Fish and Game maps are vague, and we eventually tire of the unfruitful search. On a farm road, we pull over to get directions from a man standing near his tractor. We tell him what we’re looking for and he recommends Trenton Lake.

“I used to take my kids there camping,” he tells us. “It’s a real nice place.”

We get directions, relieved to have a solid sense of where we’re going. At the Trenton Lake public use area are a couple large, hand-painted signs: “ABSOLUTELY NO CAMPING” and “ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK!” We pull over at a picnic table to eat a meal out of the cooler, and try to figure out where we’ll sleep. It’s early evening.
We call the Buffalo Trails Campground in Williston. The lady who answers the phone tells us a couple tent sites just opened up. We’re shocked at the news and quickly drive over.

___________________________

The Buffalo Trails Campground has seventy-five spots, filled with mobile homes, trailers, large trucks and our two tents. The trailers and mobile homes are insulated with blue and pink slabs of Styrofoam, bales of hay, plywood, whatever is handy. Motorcycles, ATV’s, grills, water jugs, coolers, propane tanks and satellite television dishes are parked outside the rigs.

There’s no running water and no showers. Two pit toilets service the entire campground. Posted inside one of the pit toilets are the words: “This rental includes complete servicing. It will accommodate ten persons for a normal work week. Excessive use will result in unsatisfactory conditions before the next regular servicing.” It looks like a hepatitis outbreak in there.

Surrounding the campground is a wide moat of beer cans, glass bottles, plastic jugs, Styrofoam coolers, broken glass, cigarette butts, plastic bags, scraps of carpet, old tire tubes, plastic sheeting, worn-out clothing, fast food packaging, Styrofoam paneling, paper plates.

We count license plates from ten different states. A couple trailers down from our tents lives Mario, a greasy, long-haired man in his late thirties, wearing an old t-shirt and sweatpants. He came from the poor economy of New Port Richie, Florida, about six weeks ago.

“I’m looking to make my dollar in the boom,” he tells us. “I’m working for a temporary service agency to try and make ends meet. Ideally, I’d like to be contracting with the housing boom. If that doesn’t work out, I’m gonna go with the oil rigs. I’ll wait three or four months, and try and stick with my trade, doing dry-wall work. Granted, if you work on one of the rigs, you make exceptional money. But you’re gonna earn it.”

At the end of the road we meet Scott, a native-American man from southeast Minnesota. He’s holding a Bud Light in his hand with five more bottles tucked into his black work vest and jean pants pockets. When we ask for a picture he removes all the bottles. He’s worked highway construction on the Bakken for almost a year. He says he’ll leave the Bakken “if something more civilized opens up.”

“In January,” he says, “the city of Williston recorded 46,000 units of traffic in a 24-hour time period on a stretch of Highway 2 and 85. The road never quits day or night.”

Amy works the front desk at the campground office. A high-strung, no-frills gal from Libby, Montana, she came to Williston about a year ago. She’s taking time off from construction and has worked at the campground the last couple months. There’s a high demand for our tent spots, so she asks us to let her know the second we decide to leave.

I ask if the owner is around.

“She was here last night to drink beer with me. That’s the only time she comes in, or to chew people out for driving too fast. She gets her fill of bitching somebody out, then she feels better and goes home. This is her only business, she’s had it for thirteen years. She’s increasing her rates from $20 a day to $25 a day, or $750 a month. The campground is all paid for so she keeps whatever she makes, and she’s very tight with her money. She’s thinking about converting the tent spots into more space for campers, which makes sense cause she makes more money off campers. No offense to you guys, but we have a lot of problems with tent people. Fighting, getting drunk, screaming and yelling in their tent, they think their walls are soundproof. The cops patrol out here a lot. We had a guy get in a fistfight a couple weeks ago and they had to come throw him out. He was going up to people’s campers and knocking on the door, trying to get in their camper with them. He got in one guy’s camper, and he wouldn’t leave, so the guy beat the shit out of him.”

I ask how long most men stay here.

“All their life. If you get in, you better not leave, cause you ain’t getting back in. There’s nothing anywhere else. This first row of campers, they’ve all been here probably three…shit, Ralph’s been here four years.”

_____________________________

D & K’s is a split-level, dance joint. The upper level provides a view of the dance floor below. We grab a couple of beers and a table overlooking the dance floor. Loud, hard-core rap music blasts out of industrial-sized speakers and high-powered subwoofers. Everyone knows the words. Everyone is smoking cigarettes.

Young men, both black and white, wear tank tops showing off tattooed arms, ball caps worn backwards or cocked to the side, and saggy jeans. The men strike gangsta-like poses and strut around with an air of arrogance and contumacy. The ladies, heavily outnumbered by the men, have their hair dyed bleach blond or some unnatural color, and are garbed in low-cut attire, painted-on jeans, hot pants or skimpy dresses two sizes too small.

The bathroom walls are puke-splattered. A guy is cleaning out a nasty flesh wound in the sink, running water over a quarter-sized flap of skin that hangs off his hand. When I return to our perch, the dancers are throbbing and pulsating to “S + M” by Rihanna.

We watch as a young woman transforms into a writhing succubus. She squats down with her mouth against her dance partner’s crotch. The man throws his hands in the air and smiles shamelessly at the mob. Spinning around, she rubs her ass against the front of his trousers, dropping her hands to the dance floor for support. Then she abandons her partner to fly solo, lifting the front of her dress to reveal bright white panties.

“That’s called presenting,” Chris informs me.

The young girl drops to the 3-point position, like an offensive lineman, spreading her legs. She gyrates her hips, one hand reaching back to slap herself on the ass. She lifts the skirts that cover her flanks and repeatedly spanks her bare flesh.

_____________________________

The forty-five minute drive from Williston to Watford City roars with the sound of diesel engines. The highway crosses the Missouri River, and along the waterway and sides of the highway is a startling wake of litter. A sign for “Lewis and Clark Wildlife Management Area” could just as easily be for the county dump.

The small ranch town of Amegard, between Williston and Watford City, has been transformed into a man camp and trailer park community. An old school bus converted into a housing unit rests just off the main street through town. Survey sticks cover the ground. Bulldozed piles of dirt and bare foundations lie waiting for improvements. Motels are sprouting up like weeds.

Back on the highway, massive trucks and trailers transporting oil field equipment crowd both lanes. Sprawling man camps flank cookie-cutter housing complexes that resemble mini-storage units, plastering the hillsides. Giant oil rigs, with Eiffel Tower-like scaffolding, dot the horizon, born on plots of land owned by the big oil companies. Oil tanker trucks are everywhere, full or ready to be filled. Gas flares burn like sacrificial fires to vicious gods.

At a gas station in Watford City, two young men stand in line for the bathroom. They’re looking at a poster advertising a self-defense class.

“Dude, we gotta take this class,” one says to the other. “We gotta learn the triangle hold, the double leg take-down, the guillotine. You can’t rely on the K.O. every time.”

Just outside Watford City we meet up with Bill Miller, an oil truck driver and business owner who leads us to his trailer parked on twelve acres of land. He purchased the land shortly after he arrived in 2008, for $2,200 an acre. Now it’s worth more than double that. Bill is from Plevna, Montana. His wife and four small children live in Plevna.

“The only thing I’m up here for is the money. That’s it. I don’t want any establishment or residence. Just money. If you’re not associated with the oil field, you have to hate it. Watford’s population has probably quadrupled. The crime rate has quadrupled.”

“I knew a buddy up here hauling oil who said they needed help hauling pit water. I got the number for Missouri Basin, and they put me to work hauling water near Stanley, North Dakota.”

“I lived in my truck the first three months. Then I heard they were having problems getting oil hauled out of the wells. There weren’t enough oil trucks. I called Missouri Basin and they switched me from water to oil. I sold my water trailer and bought my first oil trailer.”

“I went with Concord Energy when they said they’d give me my own wells if I put some trucks together. I bought a couple more trucks and hired some drivers, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. This is it for me. I want to be done driving in the next five years, but I’ll still own the trucks. I hope my boy takes the business over. We’re going to follow the Bakken wherever it goes. Right now they’re putting only one well in each section of land, just to secure their leases. Then they’ll come back and put three more wells on each section. That will take about eighteen years. That’s just the first phase of the Bakken.”

Mark pauses and rubs his stubbly goatee and looks out the trailer window.

“The oil field ruined the town,” he says. “There’s more people than the town can handle and the crime is terrible. The oil field’s got you, it sucks. I go home to Plevna to get my supplies, because you just can’t go anywhere around here. If you’re going to town to eat, you need to get there before 5pm or after 8pm, or you’re not going to sit down. Or find a parking spot. Or get through the traffic lights. It’s retarded up here, is what it is.”

I ask what he would do if Plevna, his hometown, becomes the next Watford City. Would he move his family?

“I’ve bought up nearly every spare piece of land in Plevna. As soon as a lot goes up for sale, I try to buy it. There’s not a lot of land available in Plevna unless they buy it from me, and I ain’t selling it.”

__________________________________________

Our last night in Williston, we cruise the dirt roads to photograph night scenes of oil wells and rigs, lit up like steel Christmas trees. We park at the outskirts of NOMAC Rig 316 and climb out of the truck.

“You think we’re allowed to be here?” asks Chris.

“Don’t worry about it,” I say with false confidence. “If they have a problem with it, we’ll just leave.”

It’s a cold, blustery night, and the wind blows dust into our eyes. We bundle up our coats and work the perimeter, quartering the rig while Chris takes pictures. The industrial citadel screams a tortured sound of metal on metal with a bright gas flare burning like a pagan altar below. Water shoots out of a vertical metal apparatus parallel the rig. It’s a Martian scene.

I climb a ladder to the top of one of the large tanks that flank the rig, an ideal vantage from which to photograph. I climb back down and find Chris, and just as we’re about to climb back up the ladder, we spot someone in a hard-hat walking deliberately towards us.

“Do you have permission to be here?” yells a young man over the howling wind and cacophonous racket.

I explain our situation and ask if it’s OK to take some pictures.

“Well, you need to get permission from the company man, Mark. He’s over in that trailer.” He points to a small trailer on the opposite side of the rig.

We walk to the trailer. I knock on the door and a greasy man with black, oily hair and several days of beard growth, protruding belly, pajama pants, slippers and a wife-beater, answers the door.

We state our case and he looks at us suspiciously, eyes running up and down.

“Who are you with,” he says.

“We’re freelancers out of Missoula,” I tell him.

He stares at us and runs his hand through his black, thinning hair.

“Well, just don’t get too close to the rig. And don’t take any pictures of the sign,” he says.

He shuts the door and we walk back over to the large tanks. Again, someone in a hard-hat starts walking towards us, the same kid as before.

“Are you guys journalists?” he asks.

“Yes.”

“It’s an honor to have you here,” he tells us, deeply impressed.

He offers to show us around and explain the workings of the rig. His name is Mack and his father worked on oil rigs. “I’ve been on rigs since I was seven years old,” he says proudly.

His manner is military, terse. He speaks to us as if reporting to another officer. We walk around the rig, and he explains the various functions of the equipment and machines, technical language lost on our laymen’s ears.

“Would you like to climb aboard the rig?”

We walk to the trailer to get Mark’s permission. Mark runs his hand over his hairy gut, blinks several times, and stares off into space.

“I’ll make sure they wear hard-hats and are safe,” Mack assures him, like a kid pleading with his parents to take the car on a date.

“Well, OK,” says Mark. “Just be careful up there. BE CAREFUL. And don’t take any pictures of the sign.”

In the rig locker room, a smelly, dark trailer with two rows of metal lockers, we’re outfitted with hard hats and protective gloves.

“It’s bad luck to wear another man’s hard hat, but I guess you have no choice,” says Mack. “You’re also required to wear steel-toed boots.”

He looks down at my cowboy boots and Chris’s sneakers.

“Well, if anything happens, you’re on your own,” he says.

We decline his offer of ear protection, adjust our hard hats and follow him outside to the rig. My hat is too big for my head, ridiculously so.

Below the luminous tower, we have to yell over the horrific moans and groans of the drilling. Mack leads the way to the rig backyard and then up the stairs to a platform suspended twenty feet off the ground. Climbing the stairs, a gust of wind nearly blows off my hard hat.

The sound is murderous from atop the platform. Mack gives a short speech about the mechanisms of the drilling process, technical information delivered like a combat mission briefing. He goes into details about drill bits and collars and drill casings and hole depths. Chris and I nod our heads, feigning comprehension. He tells us only five or six men work the rig at a time, the front line soldiers of the Bakken Combat Zone.

Just then a man climbs up to the platform. He tells Mack we’re not allowed to be on the rig. The company man, Mark, called his boss, and the boss told him we have to leave immediately.

Mack walks us down the stairs and back inside the locker room. Another worker, Blake, walks in and tells Mack he needs him on the rig. He speaks to him like a superior officer. We say goodbye and drive off into the dark, lonesome night.

__________________________________

From Williston we drive west via the Montana Hi-Line, a long, mostly featureless drive through the northern plains. Approaching Choteau, we see several oil wells, the grasshopper-looking types, scattered throughout the open fields. Although they’ve been drilling in Teton County for decades, it’s always been in modest amounts.

Due to the newly-developed, controversial drilling technique called “fracking,” a process that poses major environmental concerns, and the same technology that allowed for the Bakken, the area is currently in the “exploratory” phase of development. Whether it holds a major payoff like the Bakken is yet to be proven.

We head towards Augusta, a small hamlet nestled below the glaciated peaks of the Front Range. Inside the Buckhorn Bar we order cheeseburgers and more beer. The last time I was here was June of 2011, for the annual rodeo. A fellow Glacier Park ranger and I went hiking through the mountains of the Front Range that weekend, searching for Indian pictographs and other native remnants, enjoying the quiet and peace of the mountains.

I imagine a scenario where I’m on that same hike, only to look down at a sea of endless semi-truck traffic, man camps covering every available pocket of land, oil rigs screeching and flashing in the night, roads under construction to the wells and rigs, truck stops and hotels popping up everywhere, perhaps a new Wal-Mart.

I tell myself that could never happen. Montana has more sense than to whore out her resources at the expense of her quality of life.

But then I recall the Montana state motto: Oro y Plata, or Gold and Silver. It’s a clear reminder of our resource-extracting history. I recall that the discovery of gold in Bannack and Virginia City brought a veritable invasion of gold-hungry settlers, who displaced the Native Americans and ushered in a culture of violence, lawlessness and greed.

‘Gold is the yellow metal that makes the white man crazy,” said the Sioux.

Years later came the open-pit copper mining of Butte and after that, the Berkeley Pit. I remember the vermiculite mine in Libby, and all sickness and death the W.R. Grace Corporation brought to that town. Bitter, toxic legacies—all of them.

I then see a mobile home trailer being towed past the barroom window. Hanging on the wall is a black t-shirt for sale that reads, “I like my ladies like my oil… sweet and crude.”  -TBM

Michael Shaw now lives in West Glacier, Montana.

 
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