Writing about Industrial Tourism in the Bakken Oil Patch

Last night my colleague Richard Rothaus sent me a link to a story about how Tourism North Dakota is hoping to attract international tourists to the state. Apparently these tours will give international visitors an opportunity to have a real American experience channeling equal parts red state rhetoric and Sherwood Anderson. This all sets up nicely my ongoing effort to write a guide to “industrial tourism” in North Dakota with a focus on the Bakken.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve used spare moments to work on my tourist guide and I’m making progress in describing various places in the Bakken. As with most of my spontaneous writing projects, my plan was half-baked. So now I’m stuck with 5000 words that provides no clear indication of what I’m trying to do. At the same time, the process of writing these words has at least given me a few ideas for what I should start to try to do…

So here are those ideas.

1. Themes and Organization. From the start I had this foggy idea that I should write this tourism guide as a series of routes like the classic Blue Guides. Each route begins with a town and ends at another town. Detours from the route are designated with a lower case “a” or “b”. The advantage of routes is that they lead a traveler through the landscape rather than just identifying landmarks.

The upside to this approach is that it provides me with the opportunity to link together similar types of sites or juxtapose contrasts. For example, leading a traveler through the workforce housing to the east of Tioga and the Hess Gas Plant on the horizon provides a nice contrast to the quaint downtown surrounded by residential neighborhoods and watched over by the grain elevator and church steeples.    

This bit of cleverness aside, I’ve struggled to organize my routes according to themes. Part of the goal of the tourist guide is to create a more thoughtful visitor to the Bakken and to challenge the seemingly obvious conclusions about work and life in the oil patch. In some way, I want to encourage a traveler to understand the Bakken “taskscape” through their own movement. Presenting every aspect of the Bakken taskcape on every route will be overwhelming (at first) and then redundant. I’m struggling to organize travel thematically.  

2. Characters. One of the great thing that I’ve encountered by working in the Bakken is the fantastic characters that oil work has drawn to our state. With few exceptions, newcomers to the Bakken have been willing to share their stories, and even when they aren’t, they remain colorful characters. The stern-faced banker-type with reflective sunglasses who threatened to “smash my camera if I tried to take a photo” while his buddies assured me that “he has reasons” was as interesting as the Louisiana transplant who chatted with us in front of his decrepit trailer home and gushed about how kind North Dakotans were.

The issue is, do I include these characters on the routes or do I add them as little side blocks, set apart from the main text? Or do I leave the characters out completely and let the landscape itself do most of the talking?  

3. Food and Lodging. I’m a creature of habit, particular when it comes to my research. My colleagues and I tended to stay at the same places in the Bakken every time through and frequent, as much as possible, the same eateries. So, on the one hand, it will be difficult for me to speak about every lodging opportunity and cafe in the region. On the other hand, part of the charm of “dining in the Bakken” is the fluidity of the restaurant market. Food trucks and short-lived businesses represent one of the most interesting things about the Bakken foodscape, but it makes a tourist guide difficult. The number of hotels and price of lodging makes describing all the options an expensive and time consuming prospect. My feeling is that there are better ways to learn about where to stay online.  

4. Style. One the things that I’ve been working on this fall is my “creative non-fiction voice.” I worked on it a bit with the piece I co-wrote for The Atlantic’s website. I’m trying to develop it through my little “Slow Archaeology” essay (and I need to work more on that today), and my hope is that the tourist guide will be my first “longer than a blog post or article” foray to the edges of academic writing.)

I’ll be honest, I am not sure what I’m doing. I’m reading some creative non-fiction (for example, a prepublication draft of Marilyn Johnson’s new book on archaeology and Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell at Any Price as well as some compelling essays by Amy Leach in her Things That Are) and I’ve been trying to figure out how to make my own language and style more accessible without watering down the ideas. I hope that the dear readers of this blog, as well as some colleagues in my Bakken endeavors. 

5. Irony. One thing that I’ve been battling against is my own outsized love of the ironic. The very idea of industrial tourism captures the kind of counterintuitive thought play that I enjoy, but I also recognize that not everyone finds this stuff amusing. I understand, for example, that many people in the Bakken are working hard (harder and with greater risk than I’ve ever worked). I also understand that longtime residents of the Bakken counties are genuinely traumatized and mourn the changes taking place to their once familiar communities. I also know that environmentalists have a real stake in what’s going on out west, as do worker safety advocates, Native American communities, small town administrators, and scholars, journalists, and entrepreneurs.

More than that, as the article on North Dakota Tourism has indicated, many folks in my adopted home state are deeply committed to a post-ironic position. To give a flippant example,they wear trucker hats with farm logos on them not to be hipsters, but to take a hipster meme and infuse it with genuine sentiment that nevertheless remains open to a kind of productive ambiguous. I don’t want to trivialize their intellectual, political, economic, or environment commitments for the sake of a wry smile or some smug ironic posturing.

I do, however, think that our current spate of “triumph of the human spirit” voyeurism, cookie-cutter outrage and, above all else, FEAR of the Bakken has shaped how the world sees this landscape. My goal is to inject a playful, but critical dose of skepticism into this conversation by translating our fascination with the Bakken to a genre intrinsically dependent upon the wondrous gaze.

I hope I figure out how to do this before this guide is too long to fix!

One Comment

  1. For layout I prefer sidebars. Thomas Cahill in Mysteries Of The Middle Ages uses them very effectively. Each tangential block is interesting in itself without breaking the flow of an equally interesting narrative.


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