I thought life outside of the patch would be much tougher. I had grown accustomed to the pace of the oilfield, that type of existence that evolves into a lifestyle. In the Bakken, rear windows are adorned with stickers proclaiming Oilfield Trash and Oilfield Badass. Sadder yet, are those occasional memorials honoring a fallen crew member. They are symbols of a shared understanding of why this time and place was special, and why it stood out from the norm. Something small but generational happened in a fleeting moment that, for years to come, would leave a lasting imprint on the timeline of real, not contrived, history. Our gift was cheap shale oil, the gift that caused the many gears and wheels of the world turning, spinning into new directions, just as oil always has. Our gift was our demise.
Was living in the Bakken tough? Hell yes! North Dakota is a very, very cold place, and in 2010, it seemed like we were all living on top of each other. I spent most of my first year living in the Dakotan Inn in Minot, until the flood. My Frac crew would commute two hours one-way to work a 12-hour shift. In reality, lots of people couldn’t hack it. After leaving the Frac crew, I heard rumors of a crewmate who bugged out when they made the switch to man camps, wandering the halls talking to himself, never sleeping. The hands in the oilfield that can cut it are a special grade of asshole; few are sensitive, some are criminal nutjobs, some have Ph.D.s and others STDs. The exciting thing about the boom was that the survivors stayed, worked and made the best of it; this was a fraternity where you were hazed by winters, deadly roads and bad food.
Picking out who was going to make it was impossible, but there were a lot of guys and girls that seemed unlikely to make it. Many not only stuck it out, but thrived. I worked with world-class SOBs that I hated yet grew to respect. Success and survival came from developing relationships with people with whom you would never normally associate. The only difference was that the Bakken was home turf for none of us; we were all just long-term visitors, bouncing from one short-term job to the next.
What I learned about booms is this: the only people that remember them are the people who lifted the load. By sheer force of will, ragged nomads changed the very shape of the North Dakotan, Texan and Pennsylvanian landscapes. Good, bad — who the hell knows, but it was a massive undertaking, and in the end, the nation benefited. No matter how big a deal we thought our effort was, it only lasted for a second. That leads us to the truly astonishing reality of the oilfield and the people who work it.
In a timespan of about three months, roughly 300,000 oil workers woke up without the job that had for years consumed every waking moment of their lives. The ironic thing about the situation is that we did our job too well, pushing the science of oil production to unimaginable limits. Sadly, society doesn’t recognize the correlation between our efforts and cheaper gas. There is no campaign to find and train oil workers for new jobs because we are America’s dirty little secret. Much like drug dealers, oil workers provide the rest of Americans with their cheap energy fix, and it’s ok that we exist just as long as we stay in the shadows, with all the other modern-day monsters. If Silicon Valley lost as many jobs as the oil industry has since the beginning of 2015, it would have been a national outrage. Talking heads on the cable news shows would be demanding to know what the government was doing to soften the blow of such a devastating hit to one of America’s most critical industries. There is not going to be any such chatter and clamoring for us. It’s not going to happen because oil carries a stigma and, therefore, all who have ever profited from a resource as dirty and hated as crude oil are social pariahs.
Am I whining about being laid off? Maybe a little, because I enjoyed my jobs in the Bakken and the people I met along the way. See, I understand the accomplishments of the oil industry during the last decade; it was a big deal, and I’m proud to have been a part of it. The other truth that I know is that those oilfield hands who have been laid-off in the last six months are going to get new jobs because they are not watchers but participants of life. They are the horsepower of a great nation, and they survive. They are the living embodiment of the American Dream, the genuine souls that understand that only they alone can shape their destiny.
So, my life after the Bakken has been playing catch-up with girlfriend and family, working on my limited fly-fishing skills and visiting with neglected buddies. I’m taking a few quick moments to savor life, and then, like many other oilfield workers, I will just go back to work. Why not? I’m not a victim in all this, just the opposite. I gained so much from the Bakken Patch; beyond money, I found confidence and learned that a little extra effort makes many things possible. Often I do have twinges of frustration when I hear people complaining about the price of gas. Then I think, “Why get mad? Their relationship with oil starts and stops at the pump.” I have been spoiled for five years, as I have been privileged to work alongside the Doer’s of this world, and that’s why I miss the Bakken. All the Doers are in the wind now, spread across all corners of America. Our little elite club has been broken up. The party’s over.