When we moved from our previous home in the Mountain West to our current one in the Mountain East, it was a very long and stressful drive. The best evening we spent was in Ohio, where we somehow ended up snagging a hotel room at a rustic golf resort hotel off Kayak. Our least pleasant is equally as easy to determine: Dickinson, North Dakota. Hotel rooms in Dickinson were virtually non-existent. We found a Super 8. The outside whole hotel smelled like sweat and cigarette smoke. Our room hadn’t been cleaned when we got it. Housekeeping – or somebody – stole my daughter’s Cat in the Hat book.
Dickinson is over two hours south of Williston, North Dakota, which is the focal point for the oil boom that has come to define the state. I thought that would be enough distance from all of the activity that we would be able to avoid what we weren’t.
The previously small town of Williston has been getting a lot of national press lately due to the insanity that has followed the oil boom. There was initially some positive coverage, but it was quickly followed by a different type of article. One that stated, in effect, the economic boom is great for some, but… but… but… there’s crime, sexual harassment, housing shortages, doctor shortages, and on and on.
The problems range from annoying to serious, but the overall tone I think gets it backwards. It’s not that there’s a great things but all of these problems. It’s that there are these problems, but there is this great thing!
I sacrificed my career for my wife’s. Her career needs resulted in five moves over ten years, including to places that are inhospitable to a career in IT. I made the most of every landing while I could, but each new location meant a step back from the promotions and capital I’d built at the previous. Then we landed in ruralia, and there simply were no opportunities. While there, our daughter was born and I became a stay-at-home father.
I find myself preoccupied at times with what happens to us if something happens to my wife. She’s ineligible for any sort of significant life insurance. I’m beyond mere long term unemployment. I would also have a daughter to take care of, which means that I’m not sure I would even have the breathing room to “start at the bottom” in the way that I did. Even with the recognition that I have it better than so many, it’s a sense of vulnerability I have never really experienced before.
If, heaven forbid, something did happen to her, I would not start looking for work in North Dakota. I would start in my home town, to be near my family. Or my wife’s home town, to be near her’s. I’d exhaust every personal contact that I have there and elsewhere. I’d ask former bosses and if I needed to I would move back to the Mormon West if that was where opportunity is. I’d look in Kansas. I’d look in South Dakota.
If all else failed, though, it is of enormous relief to me that there is a North Dakota. Some place that could very likely use me if I have nowhere else to go. We might be living in a repurposed FEMA trailer, but there is a place to go. I would worry about crime and specifically my daughter, but there is a place to go. Life is accepting that not everything can happen on your terms, and if North Dakota’s terms are what there are, I’m glad that they are there, to the extent that they are, for however long they are.
By the time I was in high school, I had resolved never to leave the city where I grew up unless I needed to. Fortunately, it was a big city with enormous opportunity where having to leave was unlikely. I grew up there, I went to college there, and it seemed unlikely that anywhere could offer me what that city could. I wanted to be near family. I wanted to be near friends. Big city amenities with small city prices. Who could ask for more?
Then I met my wife, with her plans to go west and her need not to be in a city. Her professional training would be built around living somewhere else. So for love, and not money, I packed everything in my Ford Escort and left. Into great personal and professional uncertainty. Into a part of the country that was very much not North Dakota. Or, for that matter, the place I left. It was incredibly difficult to leave my family behind. I still lament, at times, the social network I left behind and have been completely unable to rebuild in one move after another.
Whether for love or money, leaving is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Sometimes, it’s an impossible one. It’s financially impossible when you’re underwater on your mortgage or you have a spouse who is nailed down where you are. It’s personally impossible if you have family to take care of. Moving for money is also not a broader solution to the economy. There are 20,000 jobs in North Dakota, and far more than that looking and waiting for work.
For some, though, it represents a fantastic opportunity. A friend of mine from out west has hit a dead end, career-wise, and is considering getting a commercial drivers license and heading east. It would mean being away from his wife and step-children for six months of the year, but in that time he can earn more than he earns year around where he currently lives. People like myself who need reintroduction into the workforce when all else fails. Kids just getting started in need of experience and job skills.
When I was substitute teaching in a decaying Mountain Western town, I was always depressed at the dim prospects of a lot of the students I saw over. Many of the best and brightest would leave for the bright lights of Denver, Seattle, or Salt Lake City. But the rest? What of the rest? Towards the end of the year I would start getting more high school assignments and I heard a lot of them talking about what they planned to do next. College, for some. Others talked about going east to the oil fields.
The New York Times published a piece on young people in Montana going straight to the fields out of high school. The piece had a somber tone, but for a lot of the kids it truly is a great opportunity straight out of the gate. There are opportunities for people just graduating college as well, as the South Dakota School of Mines at least temporarily passed Harvard for graduate incomes. Obviously, that’s major-dependent, but opportunities abound.
I don’t begrudge those who look at North Dakota and think about living in a trailer (or worse) and living amidst the chaos, and simply want no piece of it. I don’t blame those who don’t want to leave family behind. I know that a lot of people can’t. I also know that the life calculations are going to be different for everybody. Ten years ago, North Dakota would have been a lot less unattractive to me than it is now, and ten years from now it will likely be more unattractive, and that’s despite holding a lot of the “me” of the equation constant.
I don’t blame those who don’t want to take the journey. I can’t blame those who can’t. I am not unsympathetic to those who don’t want to. But I wholeheartedly celebrate those who can and do.
Beneath the weeds, through all of the chaos, lies opportunity. The vast majority of the chaos caused by that very opportunity. It’s the bad that comes with the good. They are all textures of an unspeakably beautiful painting. When you attract the good, you attract the bad. Rapid growth is by its nature chaotic, but with it lies opportunity. Beautiful, scary, wonderful, chaotic, glorious opportunity.
While it’s not for everybody, and it’s not a universal solution, but for those of whom it is an opportunity? I’m giddy and elated that it’s there.
As time passes, it too will eventually pass. Hopefully it will be because we have made innovations in renewables that render such resource exploitation unnecessary. Or else, eventually that particular well will run dry. Perhaps to be replaced by another somewhere else, or perhaps not. Maybe replaced by some new wizbang technology that will allow us to turn the entirety of northern Nevada into a power generator for the entire country. Hopefully, some new industry will come along somewhere and put us to work.
If something else does come along, it will likely cause chaos wherever it occurs. And it will be beautiful.