North Dakotans In The Mist

As I’ve noted over the years, I was born, grew up and went to college in North Dakota.  I left when I was 22 – largely because everything I really wanted to do with my life involved one kind of city or another.  At that time, “things I wanted to do with my life” mostly included “have a band and take a shot at making it in a city with a decent music scene” – but over time, everything else I ended up wanting to do tended to involve living in a major city as well.

In 1985, North Dakota was in pretty dire straits.  The state had a lot in common with Minneapolis and Saint Paul, back then; it was in the throes of the deflation of a huge real estate bubble, in this case a bubble in the price of farm land which had led an awful lot of farmers to over-borrow, which led to a huge wave of foreclosures when the bubble finally burst.  Foreclosures zoomed, unemployment soared, the whole US agriculture industry reeled (no state more than North Dakota, which was at the time more dependent on agriculture than any state in the union).  The farm crisis of the eighties took place in the fly-overiest of America’s flyover lands, and so left only a few marks on the larger American psyche – some good, some pretty awful.

The state learned a few lessons from the eighties (which also included a brief boom and long bust in the oil market; the Oil Embargo in the seventies caused a brief burst of drilling in the western part of the state, which led to some rapid expansion and equally rapid contraction when the price of oil dropped the below the point where North Dakota oil made economic sense).

Of course, times have changed in my home state.  The place is floating in oil, and money to boot.  And that money is going to a lot of things – and infrastructure isn’t as high on the list as some (MPR) seem to think it should be.  There’s method to the madness, of course; during the first oil boom, North Dakota built all kinds of infrastructure that wasn’t needed when the boom shriveled.  While this boom may not shrivel in the same way, the state also knows that there’s a pattern to oil booms; the first ten or twenty years is the Boomtown phase, with hordes of workers drilling exploratory rigs all over the place.  Once all the exploring is done, and things switch over to production mode?  There’s still lots of oil, jobs and money – but it’s not the same.  It’s steadier. And a lot of the “boom” will move on to the next boomtown, wherever that is.  And the infrastructure needs will be very different.

Still, it’s very different than when other NYTimes columnists were calling for the state to be evacuated and handed back to nature – the infamous “Buffalo Commons”.

Our nation’s idiot media “elite” have never known what to make of the place.

I bring it up because the New York Times is writing about North Dakota again.  Gail Collins, as trifling and meringue-y a columnist as Maureen Dowd,  h paid the state a visit recently, and wrote a column that TMZ might have rejected as too shallow and caricature-worthy:

Right now you are probably asking yourself: “What would it be like to live in a place with an unemployment rate of 1 percent?”

Me, too! So I went to Williston, N.D., to find out. There are certain things that journalists do as a public service because you, the noble reader, are probably not going to do them for yourself — like attending charter revision meetings or reading the autobiography of Tim Pawlenty.

Or take Gail Collins seriously.

But she gets a key fact straight; there are jobs out in oil country:

Going to Williston is sort of in this category. The people are lovely, but you’re talking about a two-hour drive from Minot.

If you did come, however, you would feel really, really wanted. Radio ads urged me to embark on a new career as a bank teller, laborer, railroad conductor or cake decorator. The local Walmart has a big sign up, begging passers-by to consider starting their lives anew in retail sales. The Bakken Region Recruiter lists openings in truck driving, winch operating and canal maintenance work, along with ads for a floral designer, bartender, public defender, loan officer, addiction counselor and sports reporter. All in an area where the big city has a population of around 16,000.

There’s an oil boom…Williston’s median income, which was under $30,000 when the serious drilling started, has jumped to well over $50,000 a year…“It’s a place of opportunity,” says E. Ward Koeser, the genial head of a local communications company who has also been Williston’s part-time mayor for the last 18 years. A waitress at a restaurant that Koeser patronizes recently told him that she made $400 in tips on a single night. “Although I’m sure that’s not the norm,” he added hastily.

(As someone who used to work in part for tips in ND, it sure isn’t.  I drove an airport van for a hotel.  You could always tell when someone visited from New York or LA; I’d get a $5 tip for driving and hauling the bags.  Minneapolis?  A couple of bucks.  North Dakotans?  Nothing.  Or a quarter.  And that was meant to be a good tip).

You are probably wondering about the downside.

Indeed, if you’re in the MSM, you’re obsessing about it.  This is wealth not bestowed by government; there just has to be a dark side to it all!

Obviously there has to be one, or you and I would already have moved to Williston, or at least taken up a collection to send unemployed college graduates.

We’ll come back to that.

You would expect that, as population and incomes rose, new stores, theaters and restaurants would follow. But, in Williston, they haven’t. Lanny Gabbert, a science teacher at the high school, says his students yearn for a mall where they could shop, “but the closest thing is Walmart.” The most ambitious restaurants would be classified under the heading of “casual dining,” and the fast food is not fast, given the lunchtime lines that can stretch out for 20 minutes or more. Neither retailers nor restaurateurs are interested in investing in a place where they have to compete with the oil fields to attract workers.

So the “downside” is that relatively great wealth hasn’t brought a Rodeo Drive to Williston.

OK, fair enough.  Let’s continue.

Housing costs in Williston, N.D., are approaching those in New York City. Many of the oil workers stash their families back wherever they came from, and live in “man camps,” some of which resemble giant stretches of storage units.

“The man camps — I call them the necessary evil,” said Koeser, who added, apologetically, “that’s a little derogatory.”

If the place you love can’t quite climb out of the recession, think of this as consolation. At least you’re not living in a man camp and waiting half an hour in line for a Big Mac.

Which is as excellent a metaphor for Obama’s America, the America of Planet Upper West Side, as there is; better to have amenities than a job – even a job in a place that may not be up the street from Fifth Avenue or the Mall of America.

Not-Obama America?   I know guys who wake up in West Saint Paul on Sunday morning, drive all day to Williston, make a ton of money, and drive home after work Thursday.  I know guys – my sister’s husband among ’em – who spend two weeks driving a truck in oil country and a week at home, because it’s where the money is and a great way to blast that nest egg to the next level.  People who, by desire or by necessity, have taken the recession by the horns and done what needs to be done to keep themselves and their families not just above water, but in the black at a time when the likes of Gail Collins are sniveling about their friends’ brats who just graduated from Bard College with an art degree and somehow can’t find a job with a hedge fund.

(Via North Dakota’s official blogger, and my Mom’s neighbor, Rob Port)

12 thoughts on “North Dakotans In The Mist

  1. “Man Camps” – A friend recently remarked that Barry Obama is so incompetent he is the only person capable of bankrupting a man camp based brothel.
    As a person who has travelled and worked with a number of suppliers & servicers of construction equipment in the greater Tri-State area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, I would submit that Gail Collins is not only ignorant of the working people of NoDak (two hours from Minot!), but she is equally ignorant of the working people who are less than an hour’s drive from Times Square. She is the living embodiment of the famed New Yorker cover made into a poster that features nothing much beyond the orbit of the planet Manhattan.

  2. I have always laughed at both the arrogance and elitism of New Yorkers. I remember when American Express bought IDS. A very good friend and coincidentally a customer of mine at IDS, relayed the the outrage of his management team when during a conference call with an AmEx, a VP from NY expressed his concern that they were buying a company that was in such a “remote location” as MN. His next comment was, “Hell, they are still fighting Indians out there.” My friend, who knew that his days there were numbered anyway, replied; “Well, one thing that you can be sure of is that all of us white men and Indians over here on the prairie, have been delivering profits and dividends since before your company was even born; you ignorant prick;” drawing laughter and cheers from his team. The funny part is that he was retained in a new and better position, by that VP’s boss!

  3. I graduated with high marks from a well-regarded Minnesota private liberal arts college in 1981 holding degrees in English Lit and Government . . . but no job offers. Sound familiar, Gail?

    A buddy got me a job driving a Kenworth in the badlands around Killdeer and I spent the summer hauling fresh water from ponds and creeks to drilling platforms. My buddy drove a semi in those same badlands, hauling crude oil from remote wells over scoria “roads” to the pipeline (in Williston, as I recall), where it started its journey across North Dakota and Northern Minnesota before turning South to end up at that stinky oil refinery on Highway 52 on the way to Rochester.

    (Aside: yes, there already was a crude oil pipeline spanning North Dakota and Minnesota 30 years ago and it’s still in use – the gas you burned in your car today came from oil safely and efficiently delivered by that pipeline. President Obama didn’t build that. he just killed the new one so HIS buddy, Warren Buffet, could control the transportation method).

    There was no housing in Killdeer so I drove from Dickinson where we rented rooms from a little old lady – cheap for us and she was glad of the rent from college boys who slept all day, worked all night and made their beds but no noise. I don’t recall we had any tenant’s rights except shower and bed so the arrangement probably wouldn’t pass Gail’s sensitive New York smell test. Nobody cared – we were all happy with the deal.

    I made a ton of money and gained valuable real-world experience (turns out the Driller is mightier than God to the people on the platform and he may not have all his teeth or even all his marbles but if you want him to sign the ticket so you get paid for your load, you better learn damned quickly about being on time and doing as you’re told).

    I “went West” as a young man and don’t regret it to this day. More “educated” people should do the same, today.

  4. “I have always laughed at both the arrogance and elitism of New Yorkers.”
    Funny thing is that Gail Collins was born and raised in Cincinnati and graduated with a degree in journalism from Marquette in Milwaukee. Her elitism, if it can be called that, wasn’t from the location of her birth. But more than 30 years of living on the planet Manhattan and hanging out with people who think exactly as you do (where David Brooks is considered “Right Wing”) will warp a person. I’ve been to the areas surrounding Manhattan a lot and the contempt a Manhattanite has for a truck driver in Willston is equal to the contempt they have for a truck driver in Bayonne or Garden City. When my brother lived in Manahattan, he to came to calling the folks not from Manhattan “bridge & tunnel people” and hoped for the secession of Manhattan from the other borroughs. This was a midwestern kid who was there just five years.

  5. Let’s see, if I had to choose between an oil rig worker or a columnist for the NYT? Hmm. Who’s buying?

  6. I have experience with ND, family, friends, co-workers, and part of our business located in Mandan. I’m in the power generation business and have spent many a day over the last 35 years at the power plants of Mandan, Center, Beulah, Garrison, and Stanton. I can tell you that there are job opportunities everywhere. I recently had crews working a project in Sidney, MT (about 1 hour drive from Williston). We had a tough time finding rooms for our crew for the month the project lasted. They’re building and filling motels as fast as they can to accomodate the workforce build-up in the area. Flying into the airport in Williston you’ll see the nonstop beehive of activity everwhere. Hard working people of all different skills are making money hand over fist. If the Feds (particularly the EPA) stay out of the way the prosperity for the region is projected to last for decades. I’d prefer ND over NYC any day of the week.

  7. Liberals love to promote the “creative class” like writers and designers.

    Where they fall down is caring about the rest of society, especially producers of anything other than entertainment. They’d rather have folks work as servants than drillers and manufacturers.

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