Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Voyages of the Blue Buss -- Oil Patch

It had been over a month since the Blue Bus was on a cruise, and the bottom of my feet needed scratching, so away we go. Nice weather for this time of year made it possible to turn north. I had an itch to visit the oil patch in North Dakota and inspect personally what this economic whirlwind was like on the ground. What I found was very interesting, although not surprising.

First five days in Bozeman visiting my sister. She is our favorite, and Linda loves to just spend time with her in conversation. I was able to do my usual computer maintenance mission, fixing both her anti-virus and backup software via software updates and solving a mystery of her banking logon. I also replaced a dishwasher part that we had ordered on the internet on my last visit, but we did not replace a shower head due to an alignment problem with the new fixture. Had breakfast with one nephew and dinner with another and his friend. Always good to see those two handsome guys. We shopped and ate and walked and walked. Weather was in the mid to high sixties throughout the visit, although we encountered a light rain while walking the old neighborhoods by the University. The sun hid itself from us most days, but it was a good visit and we spent most all of it out of doors.

Then we turned the bus toward Canada, driving north of Lewistown, crossing the big Mo, and arriving in Malta (just 30 miles below the Canadian border) before heading east on highway 2, the “high line.” We were following the path of Lewis and Clark, although opposed in direction since the famous explorers returned East via a southern route following the Yellowstone. Knowing the crowding I would find in the eastern end of Montana due to the oil boom, I had called to reserve a room at the Homestead Inn in Wolf Point two days before my arrival. I got the LAST ROOM AVAILABLE!

This is the edge of the oil patch, and with all the activity and workers in this previously sparsely populated region has made a bed something hard to find. Some drive 50 to 100 miles each night to sleep, returning the next day for work. The motel’s parking lot emptied before dawn with the departure of these commuters. The place we stayed was quite nice, but it was noticeable to me, the son of an inn keeper, that they were renting by the day, week, and month; and I paid a price that is about double what I would expect for this region under quieter times. Plus, this is hunting country and hunting season, so we also had to complete with the boys in orange.

After a brief and sparse breakfast, we headed for the border, adding North Dakota to the Blue Bus map. We started finding evidence of oil soon after leaving Wolf Point. Road construction, new wells being drilled, lots of trucks, all showed the activity du jour. We continued on highway 2 to Williston. Although this ND city is on the northern edge of the fields, as the largest burg in the area, it is heavily impacted. I noted many unusual abodes. We saw many recreational and travel trailers obviously being used for more permanent residence as evidenced by the plywood winterizing the undersides of the trailers. We often saw five or ten or more travel trailers here and there. As we got closer to Williston we found a lot of rectangular prefabs that I call “trailers without wheels.” Some were lined up like soldiers with some large installations having over 50 units. They all looked new and clean which is in contrast to the trucks we saw, many so covered with mud that you couldn’t make out their license plates. We passed by a heavy equipment dealer and you never saw so many vehicles with treads. There was farm equipment on the road too, but the concentration was semis with flat bed trailers and tanker trucks interspersed with those heavy duty, pick-up like trucks you often see from tire dealers. Of course, lots of regular pickups too.

We arrived in Williston and I have two words: “hustle” and “bustle.” Two more words: “traffic” and more “traffic.” The jam started ten miles out of town at a stop light where US 89 turned south. That was our route, but we went on into Williston to investigate the town. The traffic was brutal and many stop lights had to cycle twice to let us through. We stopped for lunch at an Arby’s which was enjoying a rush like Santa on Christmas Eve. Lots of new construction. We saw two different projects made up of two high prefab units and a wooden roof being constructed over the top of the two-layer cake. Everywhere were trailers, many of the recreational type that would be short of elbow room for a small family, although it may only be the bread winner in residence.

I noted several small concerns, obviously in the oil or construction business, which had half a dozen small trailers in the yard. I suspect companies were hiring and providing space for their employees. Besides all the small home and trailer construction, there were earth moving machines everywhere. For every cat you saw on the ground, we saw another on the back of a semi on the move. Most of the large truck traffic was tankers of some sort. Obviously some were hauling oil, but many were hauling water either to or from the fields. I saw two “salt water” disposal sites. Everywhere tanks were growing out of the ground like mushrooms after a shower. Most were the typical twelve foot diameter, small tanks, often in groups of ten or twenty, but we saw one facility with several tanks over fifty feet in diameter. As we headed south on US 89 we continued to see drilling operations, as well as the familiar “hobby horse” pumps all busy drawing black gold out of the ground and rapidly turning the US into the top oil producer in the world. Fresh plowed earth and brand-spanking-new mats to protect from erosion were a common site, as were hard hats and people in day glow safety clothing.

As we continued south, we approached the Teddy Roosevelt National Park, the home of his Elkhorn Ranch. Roosevelt first came to the North Dakota badlands to hunt bison in September 1883. In that first short trip he got his bison and fell in love with the rugged lifestyle and the "perfect freedom" of the West. After the death of both his wife and mother on February 14, 1884, Roosevelt returned to his North Dakota ranch seeking solitude and time to heal. That summer, he started his second ranch, the Elkhorn Ranch, 35 miles north of Medora. Roosevelt took great interest in his ranches and in hunting in the West, detailing his experiences in pieces published in eastern newspapers and magazines. He wrote three major works on his life in the West: "Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail," "Hunting Trips of a Ranchman," and "The Wilderness Hunter." His adventures in "the strenuous life" outdoors and the loss of his cattle in the starvation winter in 1886-1887 were influential in Theodore Roosevelt's pursuit of conservation policies as President of the United States (1901-1909). Sadly his hyper-rural ranch and view is now somewhat threatened, not by the oil boom, but by the a proposed bridge near the home which will open up the area to more development. Although this region is considered “badlands,” its beauty and solitude made a permanent stamp on my favorite Roosevelt president which ended up manifesting itself in several new national parks and monuments which he preserved for future generations.

We finally reached I-95, the southern end of the oil patch, and continued heading down to the Black Hills. A short stop at a convenience store and the girl at the counter told me she lived in the rec-vehicle parked behind. I check out the location and there were five small trailers lined up behind the store. Room and board is short everywhere in this area. Even after crossing the ND / SD state line we continued to see oil pumpers, but the drilling was not evident that far south. We are now at our evening destination, Spearfish, just north of the Black Hills. Tomorrow it will be Sturgis, Deadwood, Mt. Rushmore, and that big Indian fellow. The weather is still holding in the sixties and no snow in sight, although the forecasters are predicting snow by the weekend, so we will continue south to home in a few days before the snow flies.

Most of the trip through both ND and SD was on the National grasslands. It isn't hard to imagine these plains covered with buffalo. (Did see some Bison, but they were "tame" and ranch animals.) The sunset was spectacular. In Colorado, the front range hides about half the sunset. Here it was like out on the open sea with the horizon a distant line. Moderate clouds helped present the reds and oranges ... it was magnificent. I took some pictures, but the scope of a camera just isn't wide or tall enough to capture the entire scene. Panoramic views would help, but the human eye is still the best camera for these nature views.

So the Blue Bus adds two new states to its accomplishments and Linda, and I get to enjoy what will likely be our last trip in 2012. We already are planning 2013. The wheels haven’t fallen off the bus, and my trust funds are still adequate. I may get those 49 states accomplished before long.