Kevin McLeod packed up his ’93 Dodge Ram and kissed his wife and 5-year-old son goodbye.
From Coeur d’Alene, the 33-year-old construction worker headed east on Interstate 90, across the broad, flat prairies of eastern Montana toward North Dakota, where good-paying jobs in the oil fields beckoned.
Kevin had $600 in his pocket – the last of the couple’s savings. It had to buy gas and food for the 800-mile trip and keep him afloat until he landed work. It was a financial gamble, but one that his wife, Lisa, fully supported.
“It was either that, or literally be out on the streets,” she said.
Kevin had hit a series of economic dead ends in the Inland Northwest. After the real estate market collapsed, he’d lost successive jobs in construction, welding and landscaping.
The family fell behind on rent and utilities. Bill collectors started calling. Even with Lisa working full time as a bartender, homelessness was a looming fear.
But in North Dakota, Kevin had heard there were endless opportunities for people willing to work hard.
New drilling technologies have created an oil boom on the state’s dusty western edge. Thirty-five thousand people work in North Dakota’s oil fields, and employers are begging for more. In Williams County – the hub for the industry – unemployment was less than 1 percent in February, compared with Spokane County’s 10 percent.
An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 job openings exist. In addition to oil field jobs, the service industry is desperate for workers. Wal-Mart is offering $14 per hour for night employees to stock shelves.
Within two weeks of arriving in North Dakota last July, Kevin McLeod had a job as a roustabout – a laborer in the oil fields. He started at $16 per hour, with opportunities for raises and all the overtime he could work. He frequently encounters other Inland Northwest residents.
“There’s so much work going on here. It’s like Coeur d’Alene used to be,” Kevin said. “If you lost your job, you could get hired on somewhere else the next day.”
Follow a western meadowlark across the North Dakota prairie and you’ll inevitably reach an oil rig.
The Bakken shale formation stretches across 200,000 square miles, including parts of Montana and Alberta, Canada. It’s one of North America’s largest contiguous oil reserves, and industry experts say it could enable North Dakota to surpass both Alaska and Texas in oil production within a decade.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, allows petroleum companies to capture oil from tiny pores in the Bakken shale. Since 2008, the technology has transformed a pastoral landscape of fields and weathered farmhouses into a busy industrial scene.
Semitrucks and water tankers rumble over dirt roads. The presence of 40 or more trucks in a single field signals that a fracking operation is under way.
During daylight hours, the rise and fall of pumping equipment is a hypnotic presence on the prairie. At night, white lights from oil derricks glow like lit-up Christmas trees.
“This is like the Alaska gold rush, except it’s with trucks instead of horses and mules,” said Glenn Welstad, president of Command Center, a Post Falls staffing company with five offices in North Dakota. “It’s intoxicating – the amount of growth and opportunity going on. Everybody is happy; everybody is working hard; everybody has a pocketful of money.”
Industry officials predict that the oil boom will last at least 10 to 15 years, maybe longer if new technologies emerge to extract more crude oil from the shale. Existing methods capture only a fraction of the Bakken’s oil reserves.
Hydraulic fracturing is controversial because the process uses millions of gallons of water. Despite new regulations designed to curb smog-forming gases released through the extraction process, environmental groups say they have ongoing concerns about fracking’s impact on air and water quality.
But with oil prices rising, fracking enjoys strong political support. U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited North Dakota last month to promote drilling on federal lands, praising the state’s crude as “American-made energy.”
The oil boom has brought a frontier mentality to Williston, N.D., a town of 20,000 in the heart of the Bakken oil fields. Men in work boots and oil-stained coveralls crowd stores and restaurants, their talk peppered with profanities.
Southern drawls are prevalent; Houston-based Halliburton is a big oil field services operator here. But workers also hail from neighboring Midwestern states and as far away as both coasts.
Housing is so scarce that one-bedroom apartments rent for $1,700 per month. As a result, many workers arrive with their own housing, parking their campers and RVs on empty lots. A transient camp in Wal-Mart’s parking lot earned the nickname “Pioneer Square” until store managers hired security to prevent overnight stays.
Ever-present prairie winds scatter litter and blow grit around town. Though he’s glad to be working, Kevin McLeod, a fly-fisherman, misses trout streams and trees.
“This place is nothing but a dirt hole,” he said, “but it’s the only place to make a dollar right now.”
For families who’ve fallen on hard times, Williston represents another shot at the American Dream. Lucrative jobs in the oil fields have helped people keep a roof over their heads, forestall home foreclosures, rewrite credit histories and funnel money into retirement savings.
“We’ve become one of the last great hopes for people,” said Ward Koeser, Williston’s mayor. “We have people here from all 50 states – I even see license plates from Hawaii. Many of these people were down on their luck or destitute.”
The average wage in North Dakota’s oil and gas industry is $90,225. With overtime and bonuses, some blue-collar workers earn six-figure incomes.
The hours are brutal and so is the weather. Operations run 24 hours a day. Many workers clock 70 to 110 hours each week, relying on cigarettes and Red Bull to stay alert.
In this part of North Dakota, the record low temperature is 50 below zero. Outdoor laborers get ice crystals in their noses, and their eyelashes freeze shut.
Humid summers produce clouds of mosquitoes. Even the hardened adventurers of the Lewis and Clark expedition, who camped near present-day Williston, complained in their journals about biting insects.
Work in the oil fields is dangerous, too. Four people have died at drilling sites since September. An explosion killed two workers. Another was electrocuted, and a fourth died when he was crushed by a vehicle.
Kevin McLeod arrived in this atmosphere of hope and hardship last summer.
He’s been working full time since he left school at 16, and he considers himself the provider in the family.
But even in the best of times, North Idaho’s resort economy provided a tenuous living for Kevin and his wife. When the real estate market was booming, the family cobbled together a living from Kevin’s $23,000 in wages and Lisa’s $8-an-hour job as a bartender.
After Kevin was laid off from his residential construction job, he worked as a welder in Spokane until that employer filed for bankruptcy. Surgery to remove a benign tumor from his arm racked up $11,000 in medical bills, and two mild winters sunk his efforts to run a snowplow/landscaping business. With the family’s finances in a tailspin, Kevin decided it was time for a drastic change.
He arrived in North Dakota dusty and tired but excited about work prospects. After a couple of day-labor jobs, he was hired full time for the roustabout position. He and his co-workers install the pipes at drilling sites. He leaves for work at 6 a.m., and often doesn’t get back until 8 or 9 p.m.
With raises, Kevin now earns $20 an hour and expects to take home more than $50,000 this year with overtime.
Housing, however, was as scarce as predicted. Kevin paid $10 a night to park his camper at a county park, washing up in a 5-gallon bucket. “For almost three months, a shower was a luxury,” he said.
Shortly after her husband left for North Dakota, Lisa McLeod broke her foot and lost her job managing a Coeur d’Alene bar.
For eight months, Kevin’s earnings carried two households. But paying rent and utilities on two places made it hard to get ahead. And the separation was difficult. Kevin had spent just 14 days with his wife and young son since July.
“Daddy is over there working,” Lisa told their son, Jacob. “We’re eventually going to North Dakota, too.”
In February, they moved to Williston to join Kevin. Their new home is a 40-foot travel trailer in an RV park north of town.
Though trailers are the standard of living for most newcomers, Kevin McLeod sometimes has difficulty accepting what he calls “modern shanty” conditions for his wife and son.
“Me and the wife, we’ve always lived in a house. We’ve always had acreage, not a 10-by-40-foot chunk of dirt,” he said.
“Our goal was to find a house to rent, but our credit was bad and we didn’t have enough cash for a deposit,” Lisa said. “But this is OK; it’s fine. We’re together.”
Their travel trailer sits on a dirt pad. Lisa McLeod fights the dust with twice-daily vacuuming. She’s constantly rearranging furniture, striving to find the perfect configuration for the small living space.
“I need Oprah to come and declutter my trailer,” she joked as she stood in Wal-Mart’s checkout line, scanning home- improvement articles in women’s magazines.
The McLeods downsized from a roomy rental home on Lake Fernan Road, where Lisa had a rose garden. Deer and quail wandered through the 1-acre backyard. If the house ever came on the market, the McLeods had hoped to be in a position to make an offer.
“We had big dreams for that place,” Lisa said.
Pictures on the trailer’s refrigerator offer glimpses of the life they left behind: Lisa holding a trout caught at Lake Coeur d’Alene; Jacob with his fishing pole; Lisa’s daughter from a previous marriage, with her 2-year-old son.
Jacob sometimes cries for his dog, Maddie, the high-energy lab they placed with another family before they moved. But the adaptable kindergartner has claimed a dirt pile behind the trailer as his favorite play place. After school, he digs for rocks with glinting bits of mica.
Inside the trailer, Lisa unpacked a glass vase and sighed. “Someday, I’ll have flowers again,” she said, both wistful and optimistic.
The RV park is full of people making a fresh start, said Holly Kuchenbecker, the park’s manager. She and her husband, Mike, are prime examples. They sold trailers in Rapid City, S.D., until the recession hit and their business folded.
While she manages the park, her husband works in a sand-and-gravel operation that supports the oil fields. The couple plan to stay in North Dakota at least two years, earning enough to pay off business debts and keep their home in Rapid City.
For Kuchenbecker, 59, it was humbling to be nearing retirement without a financial cushion. Hearing other tenants’ stories helped her appreciate how many families fell behind during the recession.
“You realize that you’re not the only ones going through hardship,” she said.
At the other end of the age spectrum is 23-year-old Alex Palmer, who also lives at the RV park. Last year, he earned $13,000 working full time in his hometown of Allegan, Mich.
“I can earn a living back home – paying $150 rent, burning wood heat and eating pork and beans,” Palmer said.
But it wasn’t the future he wanted. After he moved to North Dakota, he earned $15,000 in three weeks working for a company that pours cement casings for oil wells. But after working 120-hour weeks – where he passed up eating in order to sleep – Palmer left for a lower-paying job as a roustabout, with a more manageable work schedule.
“This job I’ve got here is just 14 to 16 hours per day,” he said.
Palmer is saving his money and dreaming of travel opportunities far from the North Dakota prairie.
“It ain’t bad here,” he said, “but it ain’t pretty.”
Kuchenbecker, meanwhile, marvels at the demand for trailers in western North Dakota, which she couldn’t sell back home.
Nearly 200 people are on the RV park’s waiting list, each willing to pay $800 per month for a spot with water and electrical hookups.
Until the recent oil boom, Williston was a staid community of 12,500, founded by German and Norwegian immigrant farmers. It had seven Lutheran churches, a grain elevator and a downtown of aging brick buildings.
Now, Williston tops lists of the nation’s fastest- growing small cities. Its population has nearly doubled in the past three and a half years.
Despite the growing pains, Mayor Koeser said it’s exciting to have young families moving into the area.
Next fall, the Williston school district will reopen an elementary school and add portable classrooms to accommodate an anticipated influx of 1,200 new students.
More than 1,000 homes and apartment units are under construction. To alleviate congestion – traffic on Williston’s thoroughfare has tripled since the oil boom – a bypass is being built to route heavy trucks around the city.
While proud of their town’s prosperity, some residents find the pace of change unsettling.
“It’s not the town I grew up in,” said Dolly Ramsey, 33, a Williston native who moved back to the area from Spokane about 10 years ago. She remembers a close-knit Midwestern community, where church festivals were social highlights.
It was a safe place. “When I was growing up, the biggest thing would be vandalism from teenagers,” she said.
When the body of a teacher from Sidney, Mont., was found in a field near Williston last month, local residents were shocked. The teacher was abducted while she was jogging in her hometown, about 55 miles to the west. Two drifters, who hoped to find work in the oil fields, are facing charges in her death.
With so many transient men in Williston, women warn each other to be careful.
Ramsey carries a Taser, as do her sister and sister-in-law. She bought it at a “Damsels in Distress” party that sells personal protection devices for women. “In other towns, women get together for Tupperware parties,” she said.
A handgun might be next. A brunette with long, wavy hair, the married mother of three attracts frequent male attention.
Her husband does the grocery shopping so she doesn’t get hassled at Albertsons. When Dolly Ramsey goes out for an evening with her husband, men buy her drinks and try to give her their cellphone numbers.
Paul Keller was at Williston’s Amtrak Station last month waiting for the train that would take him home to Olympia for a visit with his wife and two boys. After the sometimes surreal boomtown atmosphere, Keller was looking forward to a dose of normalcy.
“You pretty much work and sleep here,” he said. “It’s good money, but there’s not a lot to do.”
The one night he went out for a beer, a drunk tried to start a fistfight with him.
But having a job again is its own reward for Keller, who collected unemployment for two months after he lost his construction job. “I thought, ‘This sucks. I can’t do this any longer,’ ” said Keller, 22.
He arrived in Williston in late January, when temperatures dropped to minus 19. Keller lived in his car, eating macaroni and cheese, until he found a job working for a company that supplies pipes to drilling sites. It came with an apartment.
Keller wants to advance. His inspiration is another oil field worker who saved $80,000 in 14 months.
“I’m doing this for my family,” he said, flipping open his wallet to display pictures of two dark-haired boys, a 5-month-old and a grinning 4-year-old.
Cory Cerna, 42, of Kennewick, was also waiting for the train. He was also looking forward to a more normal routine during his time off.
Getting his first haircut since January was on his agenda. Grueling work days leave Cerna, an electrician, little time to get to a barber.
On St. Patrick’s Day, Kevin and Lisa McLeod threw a party. New acquaintances and some longtime friends from Coeur d’Alene came over to drink beer and eat Lisa’s corned beef and cabbage.
When darkness fell, they gathered around a metal burn barrel, where a fire burning scrap lumber and tumbleweeds shot off sparks. Amid the laughter and conversation, Kevin’s only Celtic CD sent haunting melodies into the night.
Nick Murrell, who was at the party, inspired Kevin to look for work in North Dakota. He came over earlier, sending back reports of plentiful jobs. Now Murrell, his wife, Tiffany, and their 5-year-old son, Cole, are making plans to move back to Coeur d’Alene. He had a job offer from a former employer.
“I can make more money here, but that isn’t the only consideration,” said Murrell, a heavy equipment operator.
He doesn’t like his wife being around the coarse talk prevalent in Williston. And he misses his extended family. Murrell’s grandmother died while he was in North Dakota.
“I want him to grow up to be a family man,” he said of his son.
For Kevin and Lisa McLeod, however, North Dakota is home for the foreseeable future.
“We’re here for one thing, and that’s to take care of our family and make a living,” Lisa said. “This is the only way we can see us having a future.”
In that future, the couple would like to be debt-free, with enough savings to send Jacob to college. Through education, they hope to give their son an easier path in life. “We don’t want him to have to struggle like we did,” Lisa said.
Someday, Kevin and Lisa hope to return to Coeur d’Alene. Their retirement dream is to buy a neighborhood pub and enjoy the lake.
“No matter how long we live here,” Kevin said, “Coeur d’Alene will still be home.”