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Home In The Oil Fields

May 14, 2014, 9:45 PM by Kevin Woster

Home In The Oil Fields

The oil boom around Williston has brought high-salaried jobs and a surge in economic growth to northwestern North Dakota, attracting workers from across the state and the nation.

But growth has gotten ahead of infrastructure, challenging local governments to catch up. For instance, the high costs of limited housing forces workers and job seekers to pack into pricey apartments, live in campers, and even sleep in their cars.

On a mild spring evening in oil country, even a sunset seems productive.

It's a great place to make a buck, but often a hard place to live.

With motel rooms costing $150 a night and up, and small apartments renting for $2,500 a month and more, workers and job seekers hunt for cheaper ways to spend the night.

"Well, I've lived in my camper since I got here, even in the wintertime," 22-year-old construction worker from Colville, WA, Kierstyn Glover said.

Like thousands of others who have flocked to northwest North Dakota for the ready work and high wages, Glover got a job right away. She started at $23.40 an hour and has since had a $4-an-hour raise, with a promise of more. That beats the $9.26 she was making back home at Walmart.

But housing is something else. Glover was just forced out of a trailer camp north of Williston which was affordable at $138 a week with no water or sewer hookups. She moved her camper to a gravel pit where her father works.

"I don't mind living in my trailer," Glover said. "It's just for now, you know."

That could be a t-shirt slogan for the complications caused by the energy boom. Temporary lodging can mean sleeping just about anywhere, including behind the steering wheel.

"Sleeping in the car," 29-year-old Steve Hopkins said. "I got my first shower this morning in four days. That was the best shower I've had in a while."

Hopkins drove out from Madison, WI, arriving with high hopes, a degree in entrepreneurship and $100 in cash. He was encouraged by the work options at the local Job Service office but also resigned to sleep in the car for a while, if needed.

"And if that's not the way you want to live in the oil fields, your way might be one of the many man camps like this one out on the prairie west of Williston."

They're called "man camps" even though a still-small-but-increasing number of residents are women. Usually constructed of one modular design or another, they are scattered across the oil fields -- in or near towns, or far from them.

For Dudley Hanks, who came to the North Dakota oil fields from Alaska in 2011, the camps were an affordable housing option.

"Living in a camp does have its benefits, when you figure that the company you work for are the ones that are paying for the room," Hanks said. "And you get three meals a day."

Now Hanks and his wife live near Summerset northwest of Rapid City. He drives to the oil fields for extended stretches of work.  When he became a supervisor, he moved out of a man camp and into a travel trailer in a nearby town. He'd had enough camp life.

"It does have its drawbacks. If anybody's ever been in the military, it's like living in the barracks," Hanks said. "You're right there. You can't get away."

At the Great American Lodge 11 miles southwest of Williston, general manager Steve Hightower tries to make the camp more like home by providing a good cafeteria, computer and recreation rooms and double and single rooms with fresh linens each week.

"In town you're purchasing a room and possibly a continental breakfast," Hightower said. "Here we include three meals a day and we also have recreational facilities. We have a TV room. It's more like home than a hotel room."

The camps are home enough for oil rig crewman Billy Butler of Kennewick, Washington. He has been in the Williston fields for more than four years, and rides Amtrak home during two-week breaks from work. Butler loves the money and time off, but admits living at the camps gets old.

"So, you got to sleep next to the guy you work with all day long -- which, you know, after 14 days most guys want to punch each other in the face," Butler said.

But then there's that two-week break, the trip home and a refreshed return to the oil fields, where both challenges and promise are waiting.

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