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The Comeback Chronicles

Go North, young man!

Ann Carrns Mar 21, 2012

Tess Vigeland: It’s a scene chronicled in one of history’s most famous novels, “The Grapes of Wrath” — a family pulling up stakes, traveling hundreds of miles to find work. Over the last couple of years, that kind of migration has been happening in western North Dakota, where new drilling technology has struck oil. But this time men are leaving families behind. New York Times reporter Ann Carrns went to the heart of the boom to talk to some of the city’s newest residents about their dreams of a comeback.

Ann Carrns: About a year ago, Guy Miramontes found himself in a situation you’ve heard all too often in this recession: the 52-year-old Las Vegas cook was out of work, his home was underwater, and the stress was wearing on his marriage. Then, he saw a segment on the news about Williston — a place with more jobs than people. He knew he had to go.

Guy Miramontes: It was a choice, but it was kind of a forced choice.

Two weeks later, he threw a mattress in the back of his Honda CRV and white knuckled it from Las Vegas to Williston in 23 hours.

Miramontes: So I didn’t stop anywhere along the way. I just ate out of the ice chest, all the way up, drove straight up here.

Once in Williston, Guy joined the ranks of men sleeping in their cars, applying for jobs on the library computers and showering at the rec center. Williston’s hiring boom has caused a huge housing crisis – hotels are full and rents are New York City high. After a couple of weeks, Guy’s wife tearfully asked him to come home. He said no.

Miramontes: You know what? I’m not leaving here. The only way I’m leaving here without a paycheck is if they take me home in a box.

Then Guy noticed a new man camp going up south of Williston. “Man camps” are temporary housing built for oil field workers. They’re a bit like college dorms or army barracks, and they’re home to about 9,000 oil field workers.

In early October, Guy walked into the Solsten man camp, resumé in hand and got a job as the breakfast cook. He works 11 p.m. to 11 a.m. and takes pride in making breakfast from scratch for about 200 men every day.

Miramontes: I’m here just for one thing. My whole job is to keep these people fed and happy and make money. And that’s it.

Bob Ripka: Then they’ve got all kinds of sandwiches we can take. They bake fresh cookies every day, potato chips, hot dogs…

The ATCO man camp is about a mile north of Williston. Bob Ripka drives heavy trucks for one of the oil services companies. He gave me a tour of the dining area.

Ripka: Today, we had clam chowder soup and BBQ ribs.

Meals — and everything else — are included in the subsidized $450 a month rent. The kitchen serves prime rib once a week. Something to look forward to after 14- to 16-hour days in the oil fields.

Ripka: I think this is great — not being away from my family — but I don’t have to come home and cook. The only thing I have to do is wash my own clothes and go to bed, you know?

But life in the man camps is more way station than reality. Bob’s been in Williston for the better part of a year, but home is back in Minnesota. His longtime girlfriend Danette and their two sons, ages 10 and 17 are there. He works two weeks on, one off. He makes extra if he sticks around on his days off. He hasn’t been home in months.

Ripka: My room is small, it’s like 7×11. I got a single bed, a TV, a little dresser, closet, desk.

Other than a towel hung poorly over the window to block out daylight, the walls are bare.

Sally Hojnacki: Sure, some guys have curtains and carpets; they really personalize it.

Sally Hojnacki is the assistant manager of this man camp. Part dorm mother, part concierge, she enforces the camp’s long list of rules: no smoking, no visitors after 10:30 p.m., no guns. She points a box of blue surgical booties near the door.

Hojnacki: All the guys have to put these on. Cause normally it’s snowy and muddy. We have them at all the doors, and we track them like we’re their moms.

Randall Ervin: It’s like you lose freedom, kind of, ’cause you’re not really free to do anything you want to.

Randall Ervin pours cement to secure casings for the oil wells. The Alabama native bristles a bit at life in these close quarters, but says having a job beats the alternative.

Ervin: I tell you what, man, if this didn’t happen, I don’t know what I would have done, honestly.

Randall came here from Portland area, where his fiancée and five-year-old twin girls live. His fiancée has a steady job, but when his business failed and he hurt his knee, they sank $30,000 in debt. He found out about the Williston boom while looking for jobs on Craigslist.

Ervin: Thank god for Craigslist. And I seen that they said oil field workers looking for heavy equipment operators and willing to travel. Well, at that point in our life, we had to do what we had to do ’cause we were about a month behind on mortgage and heading for disaster.

That was six months ago. Now, Randall says he’ll pull in about $80,000 this year — a pretty typical starting wage. He’s already paid off one credit card and is saving to take his family to Disneyworld this summer. Randall says the pay’s so good in part to make up for what you’re forced to leave behind.

Ervin: I think I miss most was my kids jumping in the bed with us like at 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning.

Randall’s ultimate goal is to stay long enough to pay everything off. But, it’s not just that. Randall’s black, and he says after years of being passed over at other companies, he’s already been promoted twice here — something he’s eager to tell his friends who are looking for work.

Ervin: Especially the minorities, the black guys and all that stuff. There’s a ton of opportunity, and they are advancing people. That’s the best part. Is that you can advance in a billion-dollar corporation. That’s what these are. These guys are making billions. If they are making money like that, you know, there’s room for you here.

Randall says, down the road he’d move with the company to Texas or somewhere warmer.

Ervin : But if this company right here is willing to keep me on, and I can keep advancing live I have, I might just ride this thing until the wheels fall off, you know?

Guy Miramontes, the Las Vegas cook, feels the same way.

Miramontes: I mean, I plan to retire out of here if I can. I’ll put in as many years as I’m able to, because the company is A#1 and the wages are the best wages I’ve seen in my lifetime for what I do.

No matter what he decides, Guy says the chance he took to come to Williston has turned his life around.

Miramontes: I see it as a comeback from a real dark place, because I don’t think we could have survived without something drastic happening.

In Williston, N.D., I’m Ann Carrns for Marketplace.

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