September 2, 2011

Life in oil field 'man camp'
not for everyone 

Martha Irvine, The Associated Press

(Continued from page 3)

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Austin Mitchell, left, and Ryan Lehto, work on an oil derrick outside of Williston, N.D. With what many are calling the largest oil boom in recent North American history, temporary housing for the huge influx of workers, known as "man camps," now dots the sparse North Dakota landscape.


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Austin Mitchell, right, takes a break with Ben Shaw, left, and Ryan Letho, center, while working an oil derrick outside of Williston, N.D.


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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."

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Temporary housing units outside of Williston, N.D.



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