21st Century Boomtown
by Gabriel Neely
Enter Portal, North Dakota, a border town, a gateway to even more plains of greens and yellows. I cross back into the USA and drive with few interruptions, few towns, little of anything, for now. In the distance, what at first looked like a scattered stand of warped trees, I see large narrow towers of metal. They are oil rigs rhythmically churning into the ground near large trailers of industry, all surrounded by the pastoral calm of grazing beef. And then a hot and rich metallic smell fills the air and lingers reminiscent of Gary, Indiana, except harnessed with the winds of the open plains and carrying more dust.
I continue on past Bowbells, Kenmare, Carpio, small towns that would otherwise look lost or pasted by if not for the boom. Instead taverns, converted (maybe) from sheds, abound with filled parking lots of F150s or other popular models. Tired roughneckers in T-shirts and jeans and boots wander in and around this and other strip-malls and strip-clubs. This is not a lazy place. It is opportunity reborn into a 21st century frontier town of construction and commerce and men escaping family and recession for their chance.
I learned after my trip that I had crossed veins of the Bakken formation, a vast submerged shield of shale that stretches beyond North Dakota into Montana and Saskatchewan. The frontier town is hardly something new, but will this 21st century reincarnation extend beyond the precedent “bust”, which is scarred deep into the fabric of old mining towns throughout the Rockies? So small and so far removed this corner is from our comprehensions.
If we have learned anything from rural extractions, anything from history, we know three truths: growth is chaotic, the land often spoiled, and we are eventually left with the shelled remains of our hidden costs and continued progress.
For furthering reading regarding the oil boom in North Dakota look to Nicholas Kusnetz’s piece, North Dakota’s Oil Boom Brings Damage Along with Prosperity, for ProPublica.