The Edge of Boomtown

Buffalo Country, North Central Montana

I have been traveling around a bit for a while, and I’ve seen some things.  But I haven’t yet seen ice fog.  Until this morning in Havre, MT.  So, for the uninitiated, among whom I counted myself until today, ice fog occurs when the thing that causes fog (which is related to dew point and something else I can’t remember) happens at the same time the temperature is below freezing.  I don’t know how common this is.  The net effect is that you wake up to a dense, milky fog which is freezing on everything it touches.  Which is everything. In the words of Todd Snider, “It’s odd.  I think.”  Anyway, it melts right off the car as soon as it is warmed up and I head east with the new Rigid Industries lights making daylight out of murk.  I can see the road, but nothing else, so I don’t have a lot to report on the early going.  This lack of distraction gives me time to remember the night prior when I got my first sense of tension on this northern edge.

Ice Fog

By and large the northern edge has been a naturally spectacular place, with all manner of flora and fauna and topography impressing at every turn.  But the relative scarcity of people has meant there hasn’t been much sense of what it is like actually being on this edge.  Unlike the shared southern border, this one has basically been a cultural non-event.  Until I started drinking at the local pub.  My barkeep was an affable fellow wearing a Kangol flat cap and madly pouring beers along the bar.  He had to do a little extra work for my glass of whiskey, which is apparently not a local choice.  This gave us a moment to chat, during which I remarked on how crowded the place was for a Monday night with no football.  He said it’s the Canadians, they all come here.  Because we’re Canadian-friendly.  And there a bunch of Canadians who are down here for work during the week.  I asked him if the other local spots were not Canadian-friendly.  He said not really.  I waited an appropriate amount of time for him to serve the other folks at the bar and during a lull re-entered the issue at hand.  What’s the deal with Canadians and the other spots I said.  Oh, everyone’s a good guy, he said, and they’ll help anyone out who is in a pinch, but they just sort of prefer to hang out with the local people.  Why is that I asked.  No real reason, I mean if you went in to one of the other joints, they’d be nice and serve you, but they wouldn’t go out of their way to talk to you like I am, so it’s not a Canadian thing, it’s a local thing. It’s just people around here have something in common and they like to hang out with folks they know, who are local, who do stuff and think about stuff like they do.  Like Brooklyn, I said.  He didn’t get it. 

The barkeep liked my accent, and I liked his two rules for drinking at the bar: No discussion of politics or religion. As I thought about it in the ice fog of US 2 whirling through north central Montana, it made some sense to the general order of things these days.  The people up here on the northern edge are uniformly nice.  But given the choice, which they are when it comes to where they drink, they drink local.  No real judgement about anyone not from here, just a preference for their own people who have shared similar experience and dealt with it in a similar way.  One could call this unenlightened, but then one would have to explain the out of the way trips to purchase eggs and beer and vegetables only grown locally, which seems to be the rage amongst the hipper set.  I think it’s kind of, well, normal; and doesn’t speak to any larger issue of our general polity at all.  While I enjoy the irregular oddity of drinking in a strange place, given the choice, I will drink with those I know.  This doesn’t speak to any proclivity for one type of person or another, it speaks to comfort.

Philosophizing accomplished I wait patiently at 70 mph for the sun to win the battle over the fog so I can see the country. Which it does around 11 o’clock.  What I see is buffalo country.  These wide open grasslands of central and eastern Montana were once the home of millions of buffalo.  The Indians followed the herds, rounding them up on foot or driving them off cliffs before horses, and used all the meat and all the hides to see them through the tough times.  Once they could steal horses, the Indians hunted them for sport and to demonstrate bravery, but always with some sense of conservation. White mean settling the west showed no such deference and simply killed them all.  So now the buffalo country is cattle country, fenced and divided and still providing the lush graze that feeds us our porterhouse Pittsburgh Medium Rare at the steakhouse.  

The source of the ice fog, I think, was the Milk River.  The northernmost contributors to the Missouri River drainage — as Lewis and Clark discovered, not northern enough — it makes its appearance around Havre, coming in from the north, and tracks US2 to the east where it finds the Missouri.  The result is that for most of north central to north east Montana, I am in a wide swale, with a ridge to the north on the Canadian border and a ridge to the south that turns the Milk River east to the Missouri.  This swale is full of fog because of the Milk River.  Eventually, somewhere around Ft. Peck, the two ridges come together and the Milk dumps into the Missouri.  From there the route is higher, and there is general sense of the Missouri River to the south, but I can’t see it.  More buffalo country and big sky prevail until I enter North Dakota.  There is a big sign that says so.

In addition to the sign, shortly after crossing into North Dakota there is Williston.  And all Hell breaks loose.  Williston is ground zero for the Bakken Oil boom.  Originally thought to hold a total of 2 to 3.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil, the Bakken shale formation is now thought to represent as much as 24 billion barrels.  In 2010, over half a million barrels a day were being drawn up.  This is because of fracking and because of horizontal drilling.  The immediate result is that Williston is a modern day Tombstone.  It is wall-to-wall money.  Entire towns of temporary housing abound, along with every manner of supporting business from Boomtown Babes coffee shop to an executive headquarters hotel, to trucking companies, logistics companies, welders, fitters, drillers, riggers, tanning salons, bars, pilot car operators and more.  North Dakota has over a billion dollar surplus in its treasury and the lowest unemployment rate in the country.  It is now the second largest oil producing state in the country – Alaska included.

This is all, of course, very controversial, though not among the 2,000 millionaires a year being created in North Dakota.  Fracking is a new technology and not without its detractors.  What happens to all the water jammed into the earth with a force sufficient to split the rock layers? Is it contaminated? Does it leach into the ground water and deform future generations? And what about the whole idea of fracturing the rock on which we stand? Does it just settle back and hold firm? Does the fracturing trigger other seismic activity that threatens us all?  These are fair and important questions, and are not unlike similar types of issues with other new technologies.  But nobody in Williston is signing up for the debate.  They are coining the money as fast as they can and, based on the statistics, are all the better for it.  Median income in the county is among the 10 highest in the United States.

So, in general, the people in and around Williston, don’t want to talk about the risks — they think they know them and they think the rewards out weigh them — and the people not in and around Williston want the fracking to stop.  Because it is bad.  Journaled and credentialed experts line up on each side and shout at each other about it all everywhere except in and around Williston.  In Williston, they make money.  Here is what I will say: Williston is a typical boomtown and it’s interesting to see such growth and success in the middle of fracking nowhere, though they need to address zoning if you ask me.  As far as the countryside goes, it’s a non-event.  The wells are unobtrusive and generally spread out.  Each one is four or five tanks about the size of a car and one or two nodding donkeys pumping away.  A view across the grasslands is decidedly less antagonized by these than by 1,000 giant wind turbines.  And the bar ditches and ponds along the way are thick with waterfowl, none of which appear to be glowing.  All this is, of course, anecdotal and worthless to the real debate, but it does represent the life of the folks around Williston — who are getting fat rich.  So any discussion of the terrifying effects of fracking, has to accommodate the enormous benefits of fracking in order to be heard.  It generally doesn’t, and it generally isn’t — at least around the Boomtown Babes Coffee Shop.

By the middle of the state, there is no evidence whatsoever of oil or Boomtown.  I can’t find a rig when I head into Minot (where a chain motel advertisement says “we welcome Canadians” as if to differentiate…). It is cattle and grain and cattle and grain all the way to the eastern border.  One surprise, to me at least, is all the water.  I don’t know whether it is the presence of the Missouri and all its glory somewhere to the south, or a shallow water table, or what, but there are potholes and ponds of water all over the grain fields and pastures.  And everyone is filled with waterfowl.  Geese walk the road shoulder like hitchhikers, and countless varieties of ducks from Mallards, to Canvasbacks, to Widgeons, to Shovelers, to Scaups ply the wetness dabbling away.  I don’t know what this flyway is or what the seasons are, but I intend to find out.

At the end of all this is Grand Forks, basically on the Minnesota border.  It’s 50 miles to Canada and I’m at the eastern end of the straight line border of the 49th parallel agreed to lo those many years ago.  From here east, the northern edge is a chop chop of lakes and rivers and vagaries — notwithstanding the flat top of Vermont —  that I will have to take another trip to understand.  From here, I turn south to home.  If you have your mental map handy, I made my way to the western edge at San Luis Obispo, CA where I turned North and followed the western edge all the way to the corner.  Then I turned east and followed the northern edge from the Straits of Juan de Fuca to Grand Forks, North Dakota.  Of course, I had to get all the way out there to get started, and now I have to get all the back to get finished.  I will have total mileages once I’m finally in Atlanta, but it has been epic.  The final push home will be as fast and efficient as roads allow, but I’ll have time to think and write about it all.  So maybe two more installations of this gibberish before I put it away for a while and think about the next journey.  I hope it’s been as fun for you as it has for me (it hasn’t, sorry).  I’m headed home.  

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