An enlightening 12-hour drive around the Bakken

Five years ago, the drive from Dickinson to Williston was considered boring by some and peaceful by others.

Western North Dakota’s quiet beauty and emptiness, accentuated by Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit, surrounded dying towns such as Grassy Butte, Arnegard and Alexander.

Today, the 132-mile trek is a scene of semi trucks lumbering up and down hills, wild pickup drivers with out-of-state plates, vast crew camps, random infrastructure construction, dirt (Oh God, the dirt!) and, most importantly, oil rigs and wells.

On Thursday, my fiancée Sarah and I and put 435 miles on my car while spending more than 12 hours on an exploratory mission of the Bakken.

Excluding trips to Minot, I had not been north of Killdeer in a few years. I remember my last drive to Williston — a parts run to Lindsey Implement with my dad — being fairly uneventful.

After Thursday, I tip my hat to anyone who drives those roads on a daily basis.

Some will say people who drive those roads risk their lives and that isn’t a stretch.

Of the 52 road fatalities in North Dakota this year, 12 were in McKenzie County and 11 happened in Williams County. There have been 12 other road-related deaths in what is considered oil country, including three in Stark County.

The reason for making the drive was to see for myself if all the talk about the madness of the Oil Patch was blown out of proportion — since many who write about it don’t know pre-oil boom western North Dakota — or if there were shreds of truth.

For the most part, everything you read is true.

After you get into McKenzie County, not a mile goes by where you don’t see a pumping well or a new rig. Sometimes, one rig is right beside the other. Most pads have multiple wells.

Watford City is surreal in terms of dirtiness and congestion. It is in desperate need of the U.S. Highway 85 bypass it has been promised. While the Legislature helped speed that along this spring, it can’t happen soon enough for the people there.

While Watford City has five times the taxable income as it did five years ago, it only took a couple quick conversations for me to get the sense that they would trade it all for a bit of sanity and a chance to go back to the way things were.

Williston? Well, for those who haven’t been there in a while, it is what you’ve heard it is.

Streets are packed, you seat yourself in sit-down restaurants and wait 10 minutes to get a waitress.

Walmart was crazy for 2 p.m. on a Thursday, though not the end-of-times, barren shelves scene many of us have heard it was. Yes, they have a Buffalo Wild Wings now for those of you who are still upset Dickinson didn’t get one first. Though a man told me it had to close in mid-afternoon a few days back because it ran out of food.

In small towns along Highway 2, I get a sense that things are beginning to settle down as infrastructure begins to catch up and rigs get replaced by pump jacks.

At least it appears that way on the exterior.

Ray is one huge construction zone, but there’s no denying the town needed it. Tioga looks like it has more apartments than Dickinson had when I moved here seven years ago, though I’m sure they’re a tad more expensive than anyone would like to pay. Stanley has a newer set of storefronts but it also sits in the middle of Williston, Minot, the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, as well as all of the oil that is pumped between Highway 2 and the Canadian border.

Traffic between Stanley and New Town was slow. The roads are littered with oil trucks and, at this time of year, farmers who are still trying to do their jobs amid the newfound congestion.
After stopping in New Town, I texted a friend who spent the past four years working for an oil field service company. He has logged thousands of miles in a company truck on the very same roads I was exploring.

I asked, “How did you do this every day?” His response: “Welcome to my nightmare and why I chose to do what I’m doing right now.”

He left his job May 31 to pursue a career outside of the oil industry.

Now he doesn’t have to deal with driving on those roads, including the traffic catastrophe that is Johnson Corner — a roundabout would be a intelligent addition there — and Highway 22, which is under major construction south of Lost Bridge through the Badlands and the Little Missouri River valley between Mandaree and Killdeer.

What a relief it was, after 12 tiring hours spent mostly in the car, to pop over the hill and see Dickinson.

Compared to the rest of the area we’ve affectionately come to know as the Bakken, Dickinson seemed like paradise.

The city felt noticeably cleaner than most we stopped in or passed through. The roads and the drivers who inhabit them aren’t as crazy as they are elsewhere. Even Killdeer, which is becoming more and more impacted by the boom each day, was manageable compared to other small towns along our drive.

While western North Dakota isn’t the same as many of us once knew it, it is clear the oil industry is here to stay. It has brought money, jobs and development to our once moribund area. Then again, it also brings dust, disdain and even death.

Dickinson and southwest North Dakota are in good positions as the oil boom encamps increasingly on our formerly sleepy town. However, if a 12-hour trip has taught me anything, it’s that we must remain cautious in the face of progress and be overwhelmingly thankful that the oil boom didn’t hit here first.

Monke is the managing editor of The Dickinson Press. Email him at Tweet him at monkebusiness.

Author: Dustin Monke

Former newspaper editor. Now I market the best baked goods and donuts in America. But every once in a while, I write a cool story too.

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