The Tourist Guide to the Bakken: A Preface

One of my favorite things to do when a book manuscript is almost done is to prepare the preface and acknowledgements. 

Since I put the final touches on the first completed (and ready to send to the publisher) draft of the Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch this week, I indulged myself in writing a short preface. I’m not sure how much of this preface will actually appear in the published version (except for the acknowledgements with will almost certainly be expanded), but it was fun to site down and try to write out a <1000 word summary of the project.

With any luck, the Guide will head off on its maiden voyage to a publisher by the end of this week, scrapping in just a week before classes start! I’ll do all I can to make a complete copy of the guide available in an open access form, but this will be subject to some negotiation with the publisher.

In the meantime, enjoy!

Preface 

This book is meant to be several things at once. First, it is a genuine guide to the sights and sites of the Bakken oil patch. It took its inspiration from European travel guides like the Blue Guide and Baedecker’s as well as myriad locally-authored guides designed to give visitors an opportunity to explore a city’s or regions’ cultural life. Following in the tradition of these guides, this volume privileges an archaeological reading of the Bakken landscape and foregrounds the material culture and the industrial picturesque. The book also reflects close to four years of visits to the Bakken and presents a landscape informed by conversations with scholars, journalists, long-time residents, temporary workers, and new North Dakotans. So while the book is primarily archaeological, it cannot avoid the people who make the Bakken oil boom such an intriguing and dynamic time in both the history of North Dakota and the the United States.

Even a superficial reading of this guide should demonstrate our deep commitment to recognizing the historical significance of the Bakken Boom, its monuments, and its people. We intentionally selected the genre of the tourist guide as a way to emphasize the dynamism of a the Bakken oil boom against the backdrop of tourism, which since the start of the 20th century represents a rather middle-class form of engagement. Tourism and recreational travel offered a controlled respite from the stability of suburban life and repackaged the adventure of travel and tourism as a way to validate the privilege of the middle class condition. Today, however, the mobility and instability that is visible in the Bakken has emerged not as a respite from the routine life of the settled middle class suburb, but a the daily condition of a significant segment of the middle class. This segment consists of people who work “just-in-time,” contribute to extractive industries, or are otherwise buffeted by the eddying flow of global capital. This locates the genre of the tourist guide in a challenging place. On the one hand, the tourist guide locates both the worker in the Bakken oil patch and the traveler in the same space within a dynamic landscape. In this way, it is consistent with the classic view of tourism as a method for creating a cohesive modern world understandable to the tourist, if not entirely familiar.

On the other hand, the use of the tourist guide as a way to present the the dynamic world of the Bakken has obvious, if superficial, limits. The tourist guide freezes the Bakken in time. A book cannot represent thoroughly the dynamic character of the changing Bakken landscape. Because of this shortcoming, we have taken the liberty of recording as contemporary various sites observed over multiple trips to the Bakken. This is consistent with our interest in using the tourist guide as a way to document the landscape and history of the 21st century Bakken oil boom. The composite landscape presented in this guide includes ephemera that are unlikely to persist longer than the decade or will almost certainly be hidden as part of a efforts to return the region to a romanticized vision of a pre-boom state or as different economic priorities reshape the landscape. Our tourist guide draws attention to workforce housing sites, fragile roadside memorials, oil wells destined to be drained and capped, and bustling businesses poised to follow the crowds of workers to the next boom site.

There are several themes that run through this tourist guide. We sought to describe movement of people and resources throughout the oil patch by highlighting infrastructure ranging from truck stops to pipeline hubs. We set movement in the Bakken against sites of both very recent and more distant historical significance to the industrial past of region with particular attention to the history of extractive industries. Through The Guide, we have directed visitors to the Bakken to the sites of recent environmental catastrophes and point out a few of the prominent accident sites that communities and loved ones have commemorated through the patch. Finally, we have attempted to leaven the guide with some of the individuals we have met throughout our research in the oil patch. We have, as much as possible, avoided direct criticism of the oil industry, communities, or, in most cases, the mass media, but at times a thorough consideration of the Bakken as a living landscape makes this unavoidable.

This preface and the final chapter of the guide provide a framework for reading the guide as a piece of scholarship. We hope that the guide stands alone as a piece of engaging and useful writing without the academic apparatus.

The guide would not be possible without the assistance of a vast number of individuals. Richard Rothaus accompanied us on most of our trips to the Bakken, encouraged our work, read drafts of the guide, and provided a running and mostly welcomed commentary on the Bakken. Aaron Barth, Kostis Kourelis, Bob Caulkins, Carenlee Barkdull, John Holmgren, Kyle Cassidy, and Ryan Stander are members of the North Dakota Man Camp Project and knowingly or not supported the development of this guide. Journalists covering the Bakken offered helpful insights throughout our work with special thanks going to Amy Dalrymple and Emily Guerin, and photographers Andy Cullen and Chad Ziemendorf. Finally, this guide would not have been possible without the willingness of the residents of the Bakken, various municipal officials, employees of Bakken business, and other busy people who decided to take a few minutes (and sometimes more) to talk with us about their experiences, their landscapes, and their history. Without their help this guide would not be possible. Any shortcomings of the guide are our responsibilities alone.

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