Monday, February 11, 2013

North Dakota or Bust!

North Dakota is our neighbor to the Northwest, but we’ve never regarded it all that highly; and now it is in a boom period that is difficult to believe. The question is, however: Is North Dakota selling its soul?
by Charlie Leck

I’ve never given North Dakota much of a chance. I’ve always thought of it as a bland state without much to offer in the dream story about the United States and its “sea to shining sea” beauty. North Dakota has just been left out of the discussion! Now, however, it is definitely a part of the conversation. Indeed! (I think it’s time, when the weather improves around here, for me to take a slow, observant drive around North Dakota – especially the western half of the state.)

As a young businessman, working for a company founded by the famous columnist and publisher, David Lawrence, North Dakota was part of my territory. However, my boss told me not to pay too much attention to that. “Perhaps an annual drive through the state would be good enough,” he said. “Just, you know, to show our presence off a little.”

Those annual drives weren’t very interesting. The only restaurant I ever found worthwhile, for taking an evening dinner, was a joint in Grand Forks called Whitey’s. I wonder if it’s still open. From Fargo to Williston, it was a pretty bleak drive across the state. There just were any places where you absolutely had to stop the car in order to take a photograph. Frankly there just wasn’t any need to haul a camera along. Desolate is the way I thought of North Dakota. It was the least populated state in the nation. The farms were immense and the weather was usually horrible. It would be unbelievably cold in the winter and frighteningly hot in the summer. It was difficult to pick a time to make my annual trek across the state to call on whatever lawyers and/or accountants I could find. Autumn was normally the best – late September, perhaps – and it wasn’t to view the changing leaves because North Dakota only had a tree or two once you left the Red River region on the eastern border.

Now a lengthy story in the New York Times Magazine is calling North Dakota “the Luckiest Place on Earth.” It carries this subtitle: “In the belly of the boom in North Dakota.”

Yup, North Dakota is in a boom time and its enjoying some economic luxuries we never believed would be associated with that forlorn state. It’s got the lowest unemployment level in the entire nation. People have been streaming into North Dakota for jobs. . North Dakota has grown into the 2nd largest oil producing state in the nation (only behind Texas) and the state’s treasury boasts a 3.8 billion dollar surplus.

The New York Times Magazine story by Chip Brown is an extraordinary account of just what’s happened in North Dakota. To give you just a taste of how good the writing is, here’s Brown’s way of telling you what I was trying to say two paragraphs above.

“In a way, of course, this kind of frontier is as much a state of mind as an actual place, a melancholy mood you can’t shake as you drive all day in a raw spring rain with nothing but fence posts and featureless cattle range for company thinking, Is this all there is? until finally you get out at some windswept intersection and gratefully fall on the fellowship of a dog-faced bar with a jukebox of songs about people on their way to somewhere else.

Just what’s going on?
Western North Dakota is in the midst of an oil boom! And, it’s a big oil boom and North Dakotans are hoping this is a sign of much better days to come. At these oil drilling sites, former flat crop fields are being turned into housing settlements where small, inexpensive single-family homes are being quickly constructed to house the needed workers who are pouring into the state.

Brown writes:

“It’s hard to think of what oil hasn’t done to life in the small communities of western North Dakota, good and bad. It has minted millionaires, paid off mortgages, created businesses; it has raised rents, stressed roads, vexed planners and overwhelmed schools; it has polluted streams, spoiled fields and boosted crime.”

The population of sleepy, little Willeston, North Dakota has tripled in the last ten years. That town, which I used to enjoy just about a much as any community in the state and is the birthplace of famous NBA coach Phil Jackson, is right in the heart of the Williston Basin. Geologists of good rank now believe it may contain “one of the largest oil fields in the world.”

About 200 wells have been dug and are working right now. Soon the process will move toward oil production and new roads, new railroad tracks and new pipelines will need to be built. That’ll bring more workers and more new residents.

This is a remarkable development – sometimes a “revolting development” and sometime heroic. It would probably help the reader appreciate the story more if he’s been a visitor to North Dakota and knows the lay-of-the-land up there, but it is not a requirement at all. This is an extraordinary piece of writing and the subject matter is sometimes honorable and sometimes downright low-down.

If you have some interesting in North Dakota, I can’t recommend any Sunday morning reading more highly than this story by Chip Brown. Read it here!

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