Into darkeness and fire: My journey of self-discovery in North Dakota’s oil fields
Words and photos by Chris Rusanowsky.
It was time for me to make a change. I was twenty-two, a young photographer and knew that I needed to do something that helped me progress in my trade.
I needed to make money and work.
North Dakota provided that opportunity, and it was a place that many young men chased their dreams. I called us the “Oil Boom Boys.” We came here for an opportunity to better our lives, leave a dark past or embark on an adventure. My ongoing photography project was not about fracking. Nor was it about crime or environmental issues.
The story is a day-to-day glimpse of life in the Bakken, both for me and for others. It’s about how we got here, the challenges we faced, the families we formed, who we are as individuals and who we grew to become.
The outside world looks at the oil fields as a machine that is destroying our world. Maybe it is, to us it was a way to gain independence and grow as a person.
Before I knew about the oil fields, I was living with my father in Pennsylvania and was entertaining the idea of joining the military. A friend from my home state of California contacted me and told me about the employment opportunity in North Dakota. He spoke about the high wages, the grueling work and the long hours.
This sounded like the place for me. I went to my computer but could not find very much information about living and working in North Dakota. There were a lot of unknowns. But I made up my mind to do it anyway. I had just to take the risk and go. In 2012, I began to save the money I would need to make my move to North Dakota.
Near the end of 2013 I was ready for my road trip into the unknown. I packed up my car and made the three-day journey up north. As I got closer to my destination, I was shocked to see the dramatic change of environment.
I asked myself, “What am I in for?”
On the last night of my drive, the sun fell behind the horizon and revealed a night sky filled with millions of stars. I stared straight ahead to a highway that disappeared into the thick darkness. Slowly, an orange glow began to reveal itself on the horizon.
I assumed I was heading towards a town or city. But, as I got closer, I realized that I was driving towards fields of giant burning flames. (I later learned that they were natural gas flares on well sites.) I was finally in the Bakken, and there was nothing around but well sites.
It was a scary feeling to have traveled so far and not see anything but darkness and fire.
I arrived in Sidney, Montana where my friend lived at the time. He offered me a place to stay until I could get on my feet. He lived in a two bedroom basement with another oilfield worker.
The next day, he took me to the place he worked, and I got a job immediately. Employed in less than 24 hours. They sent me to work in one of their facilities and arranged a small hotel room for my friend and me.
I worked my first three months at a small site on the Sioux Indian reservation and was completely unprepared for the weather. I barely had enough clothes to keep myself warm for the long shifts. It was so cold that my skin would burn if exposed to the wind. My hands would lock up, and my feet felt like they were walking on needles. My friend knew that I needed better clothing, so he bought me some proper work boots and a thick coat. He said; “we all come out here without the right equipment, and your first check will always go to clothing.”
Some companies provided more for their employees than others including clothing and PPE (Personal Protection Equipment). My life was tough the first few weeks. I had to adapt to the weather, the fatigue, and the workload. We were all learning how to survive and do this crazy job. Most of us had little-to-no experience working with our hands or on heavy equipment.
We faced a lot of challenges working in the oilfields, and preparation is key (even if it is preparing for the unknown). For my team and me, we had to prepare everything the day before. We never knew what kind of shift we would experience. It could be completely chaotic. I learned to bring enough food and water to get me through my entire 12 hour shift. There were no set lunch breaks or places to eat nearby, so grabbing a quick meal off site was impossible.
The pace was continuous, the chaos was nonstop. On many occasions I would have to remind myself to step away from the circus and breathe.
Housing was by far the most difficult challenge we faced. I figured I could just find a small apartment or room to rent, but housing had not yet been developed in the early years. Many workers opted to live in their cars or rent a trailer on farm property (for thousands of dollars). Others, in spite of earning a large salary, would be homeless. The State was simply not prepared for the amount of people that flooded into these small towns. Most big oil companies and entrepreneurs started to build “man camps,” which are comprised of hundreds of small living spaces with only the necessities to live. They were still expensive, but cheaper than living in a trailer.
Our time off and down-time was torture. There’s almost nothing to do in the oilfields but drink and look for female companionship. We missed our family and missed the little things in life. I sometimes took two-hour road trips with co-workers to eat at Taco Bell just because we missed it. Since there was nothing to do and we saw others develop bad habits during their time off (like drinking, excess spending, gambling, buying escort services, etc.), we worked as much as we could.
During the summer months there are outdoor activities like fishing and hiking, but most of the year it was winter and temperatures were below zero.
We got through every situation by helping each other. We spent holidays together; we had cookouts and parties, we became a family. When someone new came along, we tested their work ethic and helped them through the hardship of being new to this environment.
The people I worked with where my inspiration for this project. I wanted to document our lives in the oilfields.
I remember the first time I knew that I would never forget these guys. I was working with two other people at our facility. We had recently lost a lot of workers (that either couldn’t take living in North Dakota anymore, were fired or found a better paying job), so our crew of three was small. It was a freezing night and a number of our tasks were completely overwhelming. Everything that could go wrong, did. And all at the same time. Even though this happened many times in our line of work, this was by far the worst.
After twelve hours of pure battle, problem solving, cursing and yelling at each other, we came to the end of the escapade. We all looked at each other and laughed while sharing a cigarette. In unison two of us let out a cleansing roar.
Kyle, who was with us that night, turned to me and asked; “Did you scream?” I said yes. He turned to Alvin and asked: “Did you scream?” He also replied “Yes.”
We just laughed.
We laughed because it was crazy. We laughed because we got through that night and could care less about any feedback from our employers. We laughed because we put our sweat and tears into that night, and we finished it together.
The oil boom brought together people from countless backgrounds and cultures. We learned the value of friendship and how to work as a team. The Bakken produced millions of barrels of oil not just because of hydraulic fracking, but because of the fathers, sons, brothers and men that worked together to accomplish a goal.
We came to North Dakota for work and a fair wage, but we gained more than a paycheck; we gained epic experiences and lifetime friends. As the oil boom came to an end and people started moving away, the whole experience was over. It was time to take what we learned and move to the next adventure, more equipped and resilient than ever.
See Chris’ full photo essay on Intersection Journal.
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