Heading Out West

Early tomorrow morning I’m heading out to the Bakken for a “Man Camp Dialogue” at Capital Lodge near Tioga and a few days of research with a team of Bret Weber, Richard Rothaus, Kostis Kourelis, and photographers John Holmgren and maybe Ryan Stander. Tom Isern will moderate our conversation. If you want to know what we’re on about, download this lovely free guide (pdf) graciously provided by Tom’s Center for Heritage Renewal. The program is funded by our friends at the North Dakota Humanities Council. The event is from 6:30-8 pm on Friday evening at Capital Lodge near Tioga.

Before and after the event, we plan to check out our long term study sites in the Bakken and see how they’re holding up during a time of diminished drilling, expanding housing options, and another round of legal restrictions on the conditional use permits that so much short-term workforce housing uses for zoning.

While my colleagues may have various goals (and that’s part of the fun of this project), I have a few priorities in mind for this trip:

1. The Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch. I’ve been working to revise my Tourist Guide to the Bakken and eliminate some of the evidence for its hasty and piecemeal composition. The biggest challenge is keeping in mind the genre of the tourist guide and balancing that with my desire to use this form of writing to introduce and critique the Bakken as a living, working, changing, historical landscape. 

I also need to spend some time filling in a few holes in my manuscript. The largest is the route from Watford City to Killdeer and then Dickinson, which I’ll fill in on the drive home. I also want to fill in a bit around Williston and Watford City. My treatment of the former, is particularly superficial, and I’d like to write something about the role of various churches in both towns. 

2. Abandonment. When I was last in “the patch” in the spring, there were clear signs that some of the more marginal workforce housing sites were being abandoned. I hope each time that I venture to the Bakken to discover an abandoned workforce housing site that had enough intensity of use to leave a modern signature on the group. (We’ve noted some abandoned camps, for example, around Wheelock, but these camps do not seem to have been in use for longer than a few months.) The best case scenario would be to do a little informal survey without collection of the site to document systematically what is left behind.

3. Changing Character. One of the real challenges that I’ve faced the last few times in the Bakken is the feeling that many of the RV parks are more run-down and less dynamic places with aging infrastructure and features. The problem is that documenting these relatively subtle changes to workforce housing sites is difficult. We will continue to document using photography extensively and hope that our systematic photographs will provide us with an opportunity to document changes that remains elusive on the ground. We’ll also take long-form notes and do some work documenting individual units to build on that archive with an eye toward noticing the small changes that suggest that workforce housing has changed in the region.

4. Conversation, Perspective, and Publication. Finally, I’m looking forward to conversations with our field team which comprised of some folks who have been visiting the Bakken with us a few times a year and folks who have not been to out west since 2013. I am also excited to work alongside two exceptional photographers in Ryan Stander and John Holmgren and try to understand how they are seeing the Bakken. Finally, I hope to pin down members of the publication team (Kostis, Bret, Richard) and set a deadline on our resubmission to Historical Archaeology as well as various other projects. Research is great, but publication gives our work lasting value and impact. We’ve been working in the Bakken for close to 4 years now and its time to have something tangible to show for it.

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