CLAY JENKINSON: Future In Context — The Promises And Pitfalls Of A Modern-Day Boomtown

When the price of a barrel of oil peaked at $145 amid the 2008 economic meltdown, thousands of unsettled men from all over the country descended on the fracking boomtown of Williston, N.D. Centered atop the estimated 7.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil contained within the Bakken Formation, Williston witnessed over the next six years what writer Michael Patrick F. Smith describes as a modern-day “Grapes of Wrath,” an influx of migrant workers living in cars and flophouses that more than doubled the town’s population and put unimaginable demands on its resources. The modern take is detailed in his debut book, The Good Hand.”

Smith arrived in Williston in 2013. He was a homeless and unemployed musician, playwright and natural storyteller, but he wanted to physically challenge himself through the dangerously grueling work in the oil fields. Staying for nearly a year, Smith integrated himself into a migrant culture that he never realized existed. “The Good Hand” began as reportage, but Smith eventually realized that he could only earn the right to examine his co-workers in the oil fields by putting himself on the line. The result is a blend of autobiography and journalism and Great Plains history chock-full of colorful characters. Like Steinbeck, Smith displays an excellent ear for the dialogue of his fellow migrants, along with the ability to smoothly shift his lens between the particular and the larger perspective. While thrust into a world of bigots and criminals and desperate men, he comes to observe in this broken slice of America a reflection of his own broken family.

Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson recently spoke with Smith. The following interview has been edited for clarity, length and readability.

People Chase Booms, the Unlucky Live With the Busts

Governing: We know you as a writer. But in your life, you have worked as an actor, a bartender, junk hauler, furniture mover, bookstore clerk, contractor, guitar player, receptionist, event producer, driver, office temp, stagehand, waiter, security guard, set fabricator, legal assistant, grocer and, of course, an oil field hand. When you went out to the oil fields in 2013, you were an observer, almost a sociologist. What did you learn?

Michael Smith: That the spectrum and the diversity of America is so vast that you can be in different parts of the country and feel like you’re on Mars. One outcome from the boom was that so many people from so many different parts of the world and from so many different walks of life came together. They tended to be from the rougher, tougher walks of poverty, but there was an incredible amount of diversity. You could feel the hunger of people for the basic necessities. I was surprised to learn that there is a big culture of migrant workers in America. Guys that were working the silver boom in Nevada had come to Williston to work the Williston boom, and when that busted, they headed down to the Permian Basin in Texas.

An acute shortage of housing for out-of-state workers resulted in a profusion of so-called “man camps” near drilling sites.
An acute shortage of housing for out-of-state workers resulted in a profusion of so-called “man camps” near drilling sites.

I had only considered that lifestyle in historical terms, as with the Dust Bowl. It was a shock to find that there’s that level of ailing and brokenness in our current economic system and that nobody’s even talking about it. It’s not making it to the newsrooms and to the coasts in any way that’s affecting, that’s personal, and that’s really telling the stories.

Governing: Your book is very much a memoir, a self-examination of brokenness, your family situation, the death of your sister. At times, these elements almost overwhelm the sociological skeleton on which the book hangs. There’s a sense that it’s more about the male wound, the father wound. Do you feel that this is a universal problem that draws young men into these wild places?

Michael Smith: I was so surprised to keep finding this out as I was meeting guys out there. I call it the Williston Hello. Before talking about football, before talking about women, before anything, the father thing was the first conversation I had with a lot of guys. The memoir aspect of this book came late in the game. I wasn’t interested in examining myself in that way, and I resisted it for a couple of years. My agent and my editor kept nudging me in that direction. I talked to my mom, and she encouraged me to go ahead and do it. Then I talked to my siblings about it, and they’ve been incredibly encouraging.

It felt to me that if I was going to examine the lives of these other guys, I needed to put myself out there every bit as much. And those are the most painful parts of the book. Those are the hardest sections, and getting reactions to that stuff has been interesting. I consider myself to be a private person. But this experience has been real, and it’s been healing. It’s been healing for my brothers and sisters, and it has brought us closer together. I’m just starting to feel how freeing it is.

Governing: In “The Good Hand,” you describe hanging out in North Dakota’s oil fields with unabashed bigots, men who had committed heinous antisocial and criminal acts. You became close to some of these men, and you struggled with what these experiences said about you. Where did you finally come out on that subject?

Michael Smith: It forced me to recognize that we live within these systems that are, just by their nature, somewhat unethical and compromised. Putting myself out there, putting my body, my intellect and my ethical self on the line, allowed me to realize that you just have to love people. You just have to care for them. People all have faults. Some have incredible faults. But there’s something else that you can find within them. Having my life tested in that way was important. It’s only when you put yourself in those kinds of thorny situations that you find out what you’re really going to say and do. You’re going to disappoint yourself at times, and you’re also going to make yourself proud at times. But being in the thick of it is the place to be.

In this country right now, everybody looks at everything through political lenses. But you only get so far looking at people that way. I made incredibly strong connections with these guys. I’m proud of who I vote for, and I take that seriously. But my politics are how I live every day. The book is my personal examination of these things. Unless you have that, the politics tend to be unearned.

Governing: Highly educated people like yourself tend not only to deplore the bigotry that you witnessed in the oil fields, but to love to deplore it. But there was no chance of that approach working for you out there. How did you sort this out?

A tanker passes through a ghost town east of Williston, N.D. Drilling a new well requires more than 2,000 truck trips, putting a strain on rural North Dakota’s system of unpaved roads.
A tanker passes through a ghost town east of Williston, N.D. Drilling a new well requires more than 2,000 truck trips, putting a strain on rural North Dakota’s system of unpaved roads.

Michael Smith: I tried to wrestle with it as honestly as possible and to use my experience as an example of someone trying to figure it out. What is more ethical, living a cloistered life where you’re not rubbing up against this stuff or being in the mix where you can see these tiny gradations in the ways that people look at things? The shaming and calling-out culture won’t work if the desire is to change people’s minds.

Is the goal for me to feel good and superior? Or is the goal to experience human growth? I grew up in a place where people said racist things and where I engaged in language that I now find abhorrent. The reason that I evolved out of that wasn’t because people shamed me. It was because I met people who made it clear to me that it was wrong. They were gentle about it. They did it by simple example. I remember showing a buddy of mine in North Dakota photos of an ex-girlfriend who happened to be a woman of color. I remember his puzzled expression as he looked at the photos and realized, “Oh, yeah, she is pretty.” He’d never been in a situation where he’d been encouraged to view a woman of color as a beautiful woman. I was able to give him that. I’m unwilling to see that as a small thing.

Huck: An Appreciation

Governing: The masterful portrait in your book is a character you call Huck. It’s an amazing story, and although you wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with him when he has been drinking, you wind up loving him. There were so many reasons not to love him, and yet you obviously did. Can you explain that?

Michael Smith: Huck, at 6’7”, was literally one of the biggest characters I’d ever met. He was like a little kid, with a real innocence to him, and yet he was constantly fighting and wrecking trucks and getting into the face of the police. He was in and out of jail. He was doing it all wrong in a lot of ways, but he still had this real gentle side to him. He became just one of my closest friends.

Governing: You describe his death, which seems inevitable given the recklessness of his life. Does our system depend on guys like that, men with nothing to lose who are desperate enough to go out and do the really hard work and live in all that misery?

Michael Smith: The oil industry does require these people to do this kind of work. Otherwise, it doesn’t exist. If I had grown up in a well-adjusted family, I would have just turned around when I got up to North Dakota. It would have been too rough. I wouldn’t have had the grit to do it.

Governing: You were working long hours, and when you weren’t working, you were either sleeping or drinking in a bar. That was your world. Your book leaves the impression that you never really got to know the Williston area.

Michael Smith: Right. There’s a book called “Petrolia,” by Brian Black, in which he discusses how boom towns are more tools than they are places. For it to be a place, you need the opportunity to indulge in the culture. When you’re in New Orleans, you’re going to go out to hear some music, for instance. If you’re in New York, you’re going to take in a play. But any boomtown is basically the same town. When I visited Willison later — I think it was in 2017 — it was really nice. It was shocking to me. I went out with some friends. We heard some music. There were families out, there were men and women hanging out and dancing. It was certainly not the perspective I had while I was working out there.

 A drilling rig near Williston, one of the 18,000 wells in North Dakota.
A drilling rig near Williston, one of the 18,000 wells in North Dakota.

Governing: In one sense, it hardly matters where your story takes place. It could just as easily have been Venezuela or Texas. It’s an oil platform. But it was North Dakota, and you give the impression that North Dakota perhaps lacked rigor in its regulatory protocols.

Michael Smith: I don’t have a great deal of insight into that, but everything I was hearing seemed to indicate that the same guys who were regulating the oil companies were working for the oil companies. I felt sympathy for a mayor with a small population who’s suddenly forced to sit down with high-powered lawyers to try to sort things out. It didn’t seem that North Dakota had anybody who was standing up to the oil companies. My impression was that they were rubber stamping the whole thing, from beginning to end. I’d love to see North Dakota officials take some of these oil field companies to the woodshed, get better deals, get better infrastructure. These companies are making a lot of money.

The Dark Side Considered, from Williston to Manhattan 

Governing: How do you respond to those of your friends who contend that fracking is evil?

Michael Smith: I try to stress the level of complication around it. My home is heated with natural gas. The power plants in the state of New York run on natural gas. It was considered a huge environmental victory to transition from coal to natural gas. People are so uneducated about it. It has become a culture issue. It should be looked at as a practical issue. There are gray areas. Any kind of mining is going to degrade the environment in which it occurs. That’s not a news flash. But fracking is such a buzzword that it’s hard to get through to anybody on that issue.

I generally found that the guys I worked with had the more nuanced view. Some of them didn’t finish high school, but they had high levels of education on oil extraction. They really knew this stuff, and they were willing to make the trade-off. More importantly, they understood what the trade-off was. That’s what I try to get at in that chapter about New York. Everybody is guzzling oil. If you really have that big of a problem with it, there are things you can do.

Governing: Do you have friends who think that you’ve gone over to the dark side? Or do they see the perspective you’ve gained as evidence that maybe they need to rethink some things?

Michael Smith: People that I have a personal relationship with are willing to hear me out, and I believe I have injected some nuance into these conversations. Reaching people that I don’t know is harder. I got mostly positive feedback from the piece I wrote for The New York Times, and from others who said they hadn’t really considered the trade-off. But others are saying I’m just a shill for the oil company. I don’t know what you do with people who have already made their minds up.

Someone left their own addition at the base of the monument marking the spot where oil was first discovered in North Dakota, back in 1951.
Someone left their own addition at the base of the monument marking the spot where oil was first discovered in North Dakota, back in 1951.

One hope I have with getting this book out there is that it will inject a little nuance into the discussion. I’m hoping that people of a more liberal persuasion will identify with me and stick with it and find something there. And I hope that people of more a conservative persuasion will like it because of the subject matter, and that maybe they’ll realize that, though I’m a liberal, I’m a human being. It might soften things up a little bit.

Governing: Toward the end of “The Good Hand,” you talk pretty starkly about race. For all the multiculturalism that you’ve experienced as a New Yorker, you recognize your own complicity. That took some courage.

Michael Smith: One of the big themes of the book is complicity. I wish I’d highlighted more the fact that I came from New York while it was being governed by Michael Bloomberg. He was a huge progressive figure, but he was enforcing stop-and-frisk, one of the most egregious post-reconstruction racist policies in the United States. Many folks say that if you voted for Trump, you’re a racist. But if that’s your approach, then you’d have to say that if you voted for Michael Bloomberg, you’re a racist. I don’t think anything happens with all the finger pointing. For the most part, the best finger I can point is at myself. Let me try to figure me out. Let me not be too easy on myself.

Next week, Clay reviews “The Good Hand.”

You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, The Future In Context.”

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