Photographers' Blog

Adventures on the western frontier

April 5, 2013

North Dakota

By Shannon Stapleton

It had been a couple months since I traveled somewhere to cover an assignment and I have to admit I was really looking to get out of town.

So when I heard that the Reuters text operation was covering a story in Williston, North Dakota on the Bakken Oil boom I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to visit a place that I had never been before. That same day I picked up the month’s edition of National Geographic and saw on the cover that one of my favorite photographers Eugene Richards had spent some time there this past summer. I was excited to embark on an adventure to the western frontier and see for myself this modern day gold rush.

GALLERY: NORTH DAKOTA BOOMING

I should have known that the average daily high temperature in March doesn’t exceed 35 degrees Fahrenheit in western North Dakota with a wind that bites right through you. But I was getting out of town and having the opportunity to work on a story that had significant news value. So, on Monday I took a 6:30 am flight from New York to Minneapolis for a layover then on to the wild frontier of Williston, North Dakota. During the layover I noticed that I was the only guy wearing sunglasses and a North Face jacket. I was surrounded by burly guys in Carhartt work clothes waiting to head back to a place that I found was a home away from home that afforded these men the opportunity to provide for their families that most of them had left back in areas all over the United States. I arrived in Williston and the temperature was a balmy 23 degrees. I picked up my rent a car and drove to my “luxurious” weekly rental located right off the main drag of Highway 85.

That day I met our text reporter Ernest Scheyder and even after a long day of traveling was excited see the various oil drilling sites that were everywhere around the vast snow-covered wheat fields. About an hour into our venture a snow storm came out of nowhere and caught us a little off guard. It was blinding and thank God for the iPhone’s GPS and Ernie’s four wheel drive we made it back to the motel. Over the next few days I encountered several men and women that had very similar stories about coming to Williston for work in order to survive and make a better life for them and their families in such troubling financial times in our country. Other than the daunting task of finding an affordable place to live, the jobs were there and ripe for the picking. Experience was not required in some cases. Wal-Mart was advertising starting jobs at $17 an hour with benefits merely because they were having difficulty finding people to work for those low wages.

All in all it was a mirage unlike anywhere else in the country that had an unemployment rate hovering around three percent, some five points lower than the national rate. Jobs were plentiful and there was a lot of money to be made.

With all that said I have to admit when my time was up I was more than ready to go home. The freezing cold temperatures, dirt roads, lack of eating options, lack of cultural diversity and, even though I’m happily married, the men to women ratio got to me after five days.

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