Great American Outpost

Excerpt from “Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier,” by Maya Rao

Maya Rao
Maya Rao

I only had one housemate at a time on the bottom floor, and those came and went. One afternoon I saw a young woman sitting at the picnic table in our backyard. She lived on the top floor, where I hadn’t met anyone so far because they entered the house through a separate door. She told me she had dropped out of college in Michigan and come out with her boyfriend. But unlike many of the 21 year-old women who came to the oil field, she hadn’t taken a job as a cashier or waitress. She wanted to pay off her $20,000 in student loans, and had taken up a job checking oil tank levels for a company owned by ExxonMobil.

As the pumper and I chatted, a new stranger walked by with a load of boxes. I was startled when she told us she was moving into the room next to mine; I hadn’t realized the last roommate left. 

Barbara, as she later introduced herself, had the most inspiring story of anyone I met in Williston. Back in New England, her boyfriend bought a conversion van for them to live in while he dealt crack. 

“He’d done ten years in federal,” she said, as we got acquainted at the picnic table. When she tried to escape, he threatened to cut her neck with a butcher knife. He moved them into an apartment infested with bedbugs and gang members. Barbara’s sunny demeanor briefly receded as she sighed, covering the top of her coffee cup with her hand, nails painted hot pink. 

Barbara escaped several times to the abused women’s shelter, where she logged onto the computer to look for a job. She read about the explosion of high-paying jobs in North Dakota and spoke to some people over the phone about working as an Applebee’s waitress or a housekeeper. 

Barbara negotiated with her boyfriend to find her an old vehicle, manipulating him with assurances that he could later meet her out there for work. She sold her jewelry at the pawn shop and her food stamps on the street for a discount in cash. Barbara departed at sunrise, singing to Katy Perry and running the string of tolls from Ohio to Illinois.

By the time she reached Fargo, still six hours east of the oilfield, her car broke down. A man at a truck stop there warned here against going to the Bakken, saying the men were dangerous. But she had just escaped a boyfriend who was a violent criminal — could oil-field men be any worse? 

She went to a woman’s shelter in Fargo, where they arranged for her to work at a pasta plant for $12 an hour. Barbara saved up enough in a month to fix the car, fill up the tank, and get the proper insurance and registration. She drove across Interstate 94 to the southeast oil town of Dickinson and slept in the Walmart parking lot with a heated blanket. A man there offered to let her sleep in his hotel room, but then began hassling her for sexual favors. When she refused, he told her he had money — a line common among newly flush oil workers. 

“They can be the ugliest thing out here, but [men say] me man, you woman, me have man money and you’re just supposed to bow down!” a female friend once complained. This had calmed down by the time I was doing most of my reporting there, but at one time, men in the Bakken were famous for propositioning women in front of their own husbands.

Barbara reached in her pocket for the fifteen cents she had left. “I got money, too. And I have self-respect and pride and dignity.”

She started making $1,500 a week working at a company that cleaned trailers on drilling rigs. Being a cleaning woman in the Bakken didn’t have the low-class stigma it had in other places. The oil field was a filthy place, and everyone made enough money to pay other people a grand sum to clean up their messes.

Digging Into the Culture of the Bakken Oil Fields

Submitted by author Maya Rao

As a woman in the North Dakota oil field, it was a struggle to find housing. One landlord dismissed my inquiries about living in a house with several other men, even though I would have had my own room. “We’ve got to be careful now,” he said. “We don’t want to discriminate, but we can’t put anyone in a compromising situation.” 

Amid the largest oil rush in modern U.S. history, the Bakken was also one of America’s most patriarchal societies: an unabashedly male space where women were guests. 

But I’d set out from Minneapolis in steel-toe boots because I was a longtime journalist working on a book of creative nonfiction about the oil rush — and how North Dakota had become a microcosm of breakneck capitalism — and wasn’t intimidated about being a woman in what was here, quite literally, a man’s world. The story of how North Dakota became the state’s second-largest oil producer struck me as one of the most important stories of the 21st century. 

Oftentimes I even forgot about gender, until men like the landlord reminded me of how much it structured people’s lives in the oil field. Particularly in housing, gender segregation was de rigueur, and many people believed in the old idea that men civilized the frontier and women followed. 

It was too expensive to live alone. I finally found a Craigslist ad promoting a house of about six women and rented a basement room there for $600 a  month. The landlord, a native of Ohio, told us that guests were prohibited. Somebody’s oil worker boyfriend might trash the place; indeed, the last round of roughneck tenants already had. 

So there we made our home, near the Walmart in Williston and a small truck stop, falling asleep to the sound of diesel pickups snarling down the main thoroughfare a few dozen feet away.

Maya Rao is the author of “Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks and the Making of an Oil Frontier.” She is a D.C. correspondent for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.