They rushed in from out of state to reap the real and imagined profits of North Dakota’s recent oil boom. They were “pioneers, outcasts, losers, tramps, dreamers, do-gooders, failures, drifters, deadbeats, felons, freaks, dodgers, bootleggers, scum, miscreants, missionaries, stumblebums, sneaks, bastards, loan sharks, hustlers, millionaires.”
This stew of American humanity also included sex offenders, sex workers, drug dealers and parolees who were given a one-way ticket to the Bakken oil fields, which contain the largest oil deposit in the United States, larger than even Saudi Arabia’s.
“Great American Outpost,” Maya Rao’s frightening yet objective account of America’s modern-day equivalent of the Gold Rush, drags readers into the nasty business of oil extraction, fracking style.
Rao, a staff writer for the Star Tribune based in Washington, D.C., spent a year in the Bakken, living there for an extended period and also making many shorter trips between 2012 and 2016.
She cashiers at a truck stop. She bravely — or perhaps foolishly — rides with stressed truck drivers across isolated roads in a stark landscape that reminds Army veterans of Iraqi war zones.
Although it seems as if Rao is everywhere at once, her base is Williston, N.D., a quiet burg transformed into a traffic-clogged boom city struggling to preserve its character as the population overflows with transients whose goals are to make a living, not a life.
She interviews oil executives, American Indians, the newly arrived, local farmers and high-risk deal junkies. Everyone salivates over a slice of the pie: the oil leases, the six-figure salaries and a chance to pay off debts back home. Yet the real profiteers are companies such as Halliburton that had invested some $450 million in Williston’s infrastructure.
Lured by the high salaries, Danny Witt left North Carolina, a bitter divorce and an estranged son for the Bakken. At times he made good wages ($12,000 in one memorable week), but he also found a shortage of housing, hazardous working conditions, expensive and dangerous man camps and numbing loneliness. He says, “This kind of desolation truly scares me. … The sheer emptiness of it.”
Despite the hardships and a recent market correction that has slowed oil production, people continue to head to the oil fields and to their imagined fortunes. As one woman, who lives in a dreary encampment by a landfill, tells Rao, “You just have to put up with the opposite of the American dream when you’re here. When you go home, that’s when you can have it.”
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of four books, most recently “Going Driftless: Life Lessons From the Heartland for Unraveling Times.”
Great American Outpost
By: Maya Rao.
Publisher: Public Affairs, 324 pages, $27.
Events: 7 p.m. April 24, Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.