WILLISTON, N.D. — You can almost smell the opportunity along Highway 2. It oozes deep from the sloping North Dakota prairie where oil derricks and natural gas wells sprout among the drying rolls of hay.
People come here hopeful, drawn by the promise of jobs. But they probably also utter a few prayers, or expletives, when they realize just how far from home this place really is.
Or when they see the makeshift villages of narrow metal-sided buildings rising from the plains — temporary housing to accommodate what many are calling the largest oil boom in recent North American history.
They’re called “man camps,” because there’s something else you’ll notice when you arrive in this upper corner of North Dakota: There aren’t a lot of women here.
“The best thing about a man camp? Uhhh, I don’t know. I couldn’t really tell you,” says Jacob Austin, a 22-year-old line cook at a camp outside the small town of Williston.
After a 12-hour day, he stands on a pile of rocks in the camp parking lot, playing his guitar.
“I could tell you the worst thing about a man camp. It’s a man camp, and not a woman camp.”
He pauses, strums his guitar some more, and smiles at a female reporter.
“It’s nice to see you here.”
Tracy Glover, manager at this camp, probably doesn’t feel the same way. He is hours away from a two-week leave after six solid weeks at the camp since his last break. He’s dreaming about his wife, and his Harley, back in Arizona, where he makes his permanent home. A lengthy to-do list sits on his desk.
But he’s still friendly enough as he emerges from his office.
“Welcome to the middle of nowhere,” he says. He is a towering denim-clad character with a wide gray mustache who looks the part of the Old West innkeeper, or maybe the sheriff. Here, he’s a bit of both.
His greeting is his way of acknowledging the bewilderment he sees on people’s faces when they step into the camp, whether they are BMW-driving former executives, young men fresh off the farm, or recent college graduates. Or maybe it’s just commiseration.
They’ve come to seek their fortune, along this stretch of oil country that’s known as the Bakken, where barreling fuel trucks dominate the roads. Parking lots are full of cars, RVs and pickups with plates from states where financial upheaval has shaken many Americans to their core.
The toughest among them will make that fortune. But for some, the cost will be too high — the distance from home too much to take — the work too difficult. Here, it’s easy to go a little crazy in a room that’s so small you have to step outside to think, only to be reminded how isolated you are under the big sky that rolls in from Montana.
“I always say, ‘Oil doesn’t grow where men go,’” Glover tells new arrivals.
Folks in nearby Williston might take exception to his insinuation that there is no civilization around here. But no one would dispute that there’s simply been no place to put the thousands of people who are the embodiment of this modern-day “rush.”
Rent for a house here can run into the thousands of dollars, if you can find one that’s vacant. The most desperate among the new arrivals show up and pitch tents in vacant fields, or sleep in their cars.
So a man camp like this can be a godsend, an oasis in conditions that can be unforgiving.
This particular camp houses nearly 500 residents. But you wouldn’t know it to look around because “there is no normal here,” says Glover, who manages the camp for Target Logistics, a Boston company that is one of several temporary housing outfits that has come to North Dakota.
By that, he means there is no such thing as a normal schedule. One guy’s shift might start at 4 a.m., another’s at 4 p.m. — those shifts often running 12 to 16 hours, seven days a week, depending on the work and the deadlines.
It leaves little time for the rowdiness that you might expect at a place like this. The quiet is most often broken by the sound of footsteps on the gravel that fills the camp walkways.
The men might watch a little TV, shoot some pool or hang out for a chat and a smoke. They use computers next to the laundry room or Wi-Fi on their own laptops to communicate with the outside world, and cell phones, when they work.
Target Logistics is building another camp near Tioga, N.D., that will have a barber shop, a tanning booth, a hot tub spa and a 24-hour commissary. It’s a sign of what it takes for oil companies to keep good workers, some who pay their companies $400 a month, or whatever they can negotiate, for room and board at the camps.
In reality, though, these men have time only for the basics — eating, sleeping and recuperating from work that can be grueling, and dangerous, so they can go back out there and do it again.
“If I had a sign at my desk, it’d say, ‘It’s the food, stupid,’” says Brian Lash, CEO of Target Logistics. Next in importance: a comfortable bed. He likens the man camp to a hotel, “a turn-key city that has everything you would need to live in a remote environment.”
To the average person, though, the rooms at this camp would probably seem more like a dorm, or Army barracks — solid enough, with heat, air-conditioning and indoor plumbing.
But they’re also basic and tight on space, often equipped with a single bed, a small desk, a TV with cable and a DVD player, and a “Jack-and-Jill” bathroom, shared with a next-door neighbor. If that neighbor visited, someone would have to sit on the bed. There’s only room for one small chair.
The smell of plastic (a main component in the walls of these temporary structures) and pesticide (mice and insects are problems out here on the prairie) also can be a little overwhelming.
But to most of the men who come here, especially those who’ve lived elsewhere on the oil fields, the accommodation is just fine.
“It looks nice to me!” says Matthew Tjaden, a 21-year-old oil worker who has just arrived at the camp.
The Minnesota native has been toiling in the oil fields since he graduated from an Iowa community college in the spring of last year.
Before this, he stayed in a double-wide trailer with six cots on one side and six on the other — 12 stinky, snoring guys who were mostly fed a diet of chicken nuggets and other junk food.
Tjaden hears that there’s a salad bar at this man camp’s cafeteria, and his eyebrows rise.
“Vegetables?” he says. “What is this? The Ritz?”
Even if it weren’t, he’d stay for the same reason everyone else does: the money.
His degree is in recreation and leisure management. When he was in school, he was a Wal-Mart cashier and also delivered pizzas.
Now he makes six-figures working on an oil rig, 80 hours a week. He figures this time, with more experience and plenty of overtime, he’ll take home $4,000 to $5,000 a week.
“I’ve paid off college and my car. I blew a lot of it, too,” he says, detailing some of those purchases — $4,000 worth of snowboarding equipment, $5,000 worth of clothes, a $3,000 mountain bike….
“I know how the economy is back home,” he says, “but I’m not worried about it as much as other people.”
For him and a lot of other young guys, this boom is a way to set themselves up for life, with enough to buy a home and a new car.
For other men, it is simply survival.
Jared DeCastro, a father of three young boys, came up here a couple months ago after he got laid off from his job on a Colorado oil rig. His family stayed there. For one, the schools are better there, he says.
“I miss out on their life. But you’re up here, working for them,” says DeCastro, who works on a “fracking” crew, two weeks on the job and then a week back in Colorado before returning to the camp for another two-week stint. Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a way to get oil and natural gas out of rock.
“I can’t wait to hug my boys, and my wife,” DeCastro says, clearly giddy as he boards a bus that has pulled up in the man camp parking lot to take him and several men home.
In the camp kitchen, meanwhile, head chef Pat Gahn has just returned from two weeks spent in Arizona with his family, including his newborn baby.
He is tired, and looks a little sad as he heads to a stoop outside for a smoking break.
Gahn has only worked here for a few months, long enough to experience an early spring storm that had the camp snowed in and running on generators for a few days.
This summer, it’s been a mix of sun, hail storms and blue-gray clouds, punctuated by flashes of lightning and accompanying rains — sometimes all in one day.
This is what breaks the monotony.
It is a different kind of life for Gahn, who tried for years to make it as a folk singer, traveling through the United States and Europe performing songs he wrote about wanderers and gunslingers.
At the man camp, some guys like to play up the Wild West mystique. One jokes that he’s “wanted in nine states,” as he makes his way through the cafeteria line.
But truth is, the troublemakers are generally weeded out, at least at this man camp. Target Logistics only accepts residents from companies that do drug tests and background checks.
There also are rules — no alcohol, no weapons, no women in the rooms, no drama.
“They don’t tolerate much around here. But I’d be all right with it, either way,” Gahn says, smiling coyly.
Breakfast in his kitchen starts well before dawn, at 3 a.m., with a steady flow of diners until 8 a.m. or so.
The men pile their plates with omelets and bacon, or pancakes. There’s mild excitement on days the cooks offer “eggs to order.” Coffee flows generously.
The men make themselves sack lunches to take on the job with them. The kitchen stays open well into the evening.
When they have time to linger, the men talk about their children, sometimes their wives and girlfriends. A few discuss work, or the happenings at the bars in town, if any have had time or the energy to go there.
When any woman — ANY woman — walks into the cafeteria, heads rise.
There are a few of them who live or work here at the camp — the secretary in the front office, a couple of kitchen staff, the maids who clean the rooms.
By now, those women have probably heard the jokes some of the men tell at the women’s expense.
Tjaden, the 21-year-old who’s just arrived at the camp, shares one of them: “Have you heard the one about North Dakota women?” he says, snickering before he delivers the punch line. “They say there’s a pretty girl behind every tree — but good luck finding a tree.”
Sharron Tallent, who works in the kitchen, has heard that, and more, but she just smiles.
“You gotta be kind of tough about it. You gotta be strong-willed, strong-minded. It’s a mind-set to be here,” says the 47-year-old Montana native, an easy-going sort. Some of the younger guys affectionately call her “mom.”
She cracks the eggs, fries them up, serves the meals, and continually reminds herself: “This isn’t the real world.”
It helps, of course, that in seven months on the job, she’s already made what she’d make in a year back home.
But there is a price — for some more than others.
Marriages collapse, and so do bodies.
You see leg braces, smashed fingers. Men quietly complain of aching backs, and broken spirits.
“There’s a lot of guys who can do this forever, and then there are those who burn out,” Tjaden says.
He is young, a bundle of muscles and bravado. But he’s seen enough to know that it can be taken away quickly, in an accident, or over time, beaten down like the shale these guys pound, day after day.
One evening at the man camp, a grizzled resident walks down a hallway toward his room. He is limping, war-torn, grimacing with each step. At this moment, he looks like he’s 60, too old to be out here doing this kind of work. But in reality, he’s probably much younger.
Asked if he’d had a hard day, he looks up for a moment.
“You have no idea,” he says, shaking his head.
His eyes drop.
He keeps walking, past the doors of the much younger men who are likely to outlast him here at the camp.
They include Lev Cooper, a 22-year-old diesel mechanic from Washington state.
“Different people have been saying different things about how long the boom’s going to last,” Cooper says, “anywhere from five years, I’ve heard, all the way up to 40 years.”
He says he could make a life out here — maybe — but even he could only take living in a man camp for so long.
“I don’t think I’d want to give it more than a year or two here,” he says, “which is still a pretty long time.”
A few feet away, Jacob Austin continues to play his guitar, now joined by Gahn, who’s singing his gunslinger song.
Austin, who grew up in California, found the job here through Craigslist. He was living in Montana at the time, had already worked in Alaska and was ready for his next adventure.
In addition to his kitchen duties, he’s also the camp garbage man. It’s not glamorous, but it is lucrative.
“I’m making more now than I would’ve if I would’ve gone to college,” Austin says. As the sun sets behind him, the sky turns a hazy pink.
“I was going to go to school for alternative energy — and here I am in the oil field.
“So much for solar panels.”