Reflections on the Bakken Tourist Itinerary

I’ve been thinking at least as much about the Bakken as Cyprus or Greece over the last couple of months. About half of my energy involved putting the finishing touches on an academic paper submitted in September, the rest of my energy has gone into my quirky tourist guide. Bret Weber and I traveled to the Bakken with a draft of the tourist guide in hand last week. We added a good bit of meaningful detail and tried to finish off a few legs of the itinerary. Most importantly, we agreed that the guide would take a visitor from Minot to Tioga to Williston to Watford City to New Town with detours throughout. 

Here is the current table of contents:

Route 1: Minot to Ross
Route 1a: Ross to Manitou and White Earth
Route 2: Ross to Tioga
Route 3: Tioga to Williston
Route 3a: Wheelock
Route 3b: Wildrose and Crosby
Route 4: Williston to Watford City
Route 4a: Williston to Sidney, MT
Route 5: Watford City to New Town

One of the most interesting things that developed over this trip to the Bakken is a growing appreciation of the invisible infrastructure that makes the Bakken work. Pipelines, rail unit yards, and electrical substations all represent the other routes through the Bakken that makes resource extraction possible. In many cases, they are tucked out of the view, buried under ground, or coursing overhead at the periphery of our vision. On our recent drive east from Watford City, through the rolling hills and valleys inscribed by creeks draining south into the North Dakota Badlands, took us past the landmark called Johnson’s Corner near the small, unincorporated town of Keene. Like most of the North Dakota countryside in this area, there are drill rigs, pumps, gravel pits, salt water disposal sites around, and some tanks surrounded by fences. These sights are only the tip of the iceberg, however. Underground Johnson’s Corner is a hub of multiple pipelines that carry North Dakota crude to refineries, rail yards, and markets.  

I am sure that I’m attracted to these “invisible” infrastructures as a response to all the intimately human narratives that I’ve encountered lately. From guilt-wracked, middle-class oil lease holders to Ivy League-trained journalists hanging out in Williston bars, the increasingly cliche stories of triumph and tragedy in the Bakken have begun to lose their emotional impact. The stereotyped narratives of violence, greed, and loss have been increasingly set against a generic backdrop of rural idyl. What’s missing to my eye, is an appreciation for the interlaced networks of movement, objects, and economic and social relationships that extend throughout the Bakken (and the world) that shape the life of individuals in Williston, Watford City, Wheelock, and Tioga.

The routes of pipelines, the ebb and flow of traffic, the daily movements of the service industry, and the rhythm drilling, fracking, and pumping, all make the Bakken a compelling taskscape.  These things happen at a scale that offers explanations for the individual experience in ways that microcosmic studies of oil-streaked laborers cannot. As I think more and more about the tourist guide, one of the key aspects of its design is to located these individuals in the historical and industrial context of the boom. I hope to drag individuals out of their guilt-wracked reveries, out of the strip clubs and bars, our from behind the wheels of trucks, or the controls of heavy equipment and to locate them within an economically productive landscape. Perhaps by presenting the scale and complexity of the Bakken we can go beyond the attempts to invoke empathy for the human experience and move toward understanding the relationships and systems that have created the Bakken condition. 

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