The back seat of Vern Stiller’s silver Mercedes SR5 SUV is littered with maps, a hard hat, work gloves and an extra carton of Pall Mall cigarettes.
There are 180,000 miles on the odometer, with 80,000 more piling up yearly. He’s driven 330 miles today and it’s still early afternoon.
“That’s a lot of ass time,” said Stiller, 70. “I drive around, smoke cigarettes, drink coffee, talk smart and write checks.”
His voice is pure gravel, his neck tan and weathered. You can’t tell he’s got an artificial leg under his bluejeans, a remnant of a busted ankle and frostbite from five decades working on oil fields in Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming and now North Dakota.
“They call us land men,” he said. “What we do is investigate, negotiate and argue.”
As middle man between the oil companies and ranchers in western North Dakota, Stiller searches courthouses for titles and figures out who owns the mineral rights.
Then he greases the deal, acquiring rights of way easements for pipelines to move the oil and natural gas from this remote landscape to a world thirsting for fuel.
“I do love making deals,” said Stiller.
He’s been married four times, lives in Billings, Mont., but spends most of his time in a friend’s Airstream trailer at the Tobacco Garden campground 20 miles northwest of here.
“I’ve retired three times but needed something to do,” he said. “I make more money than a medical doctor or an engineer, which is hard to imagine.”
As he steers his Mercedes through the canyon country known as the Little Missouri Breaks, he spots a prominent landowner — Bill Jorgenson of the Bar U Ranch.
They talk on the road about 15 miles of potential pipeline that one of Stiller’s clients would like to put on Jorgenson’s property.
“Anyway you can work it out,” Stiller says in parting, lighting another Pall Mall and driving off past another well pad tucked in a hillside.