The Tourist Guide to the Bakken: New Title and Introduction

It looks good for me and Bret Weber to submit the almost complete manuscript of our Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch. We’ve had a few cool developments over the last week.

First, we have a new title. Since the book formerly known as The Tourist Guide will appear in the Heritage Guide Series, it seemed a bit redundant to use the word guide twice on the cover of the book. So we changed its name the simpler: The Bakken. To reinforce the book’s academic credentials, the publisher will let us have the requisite subtitle: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape.

Below is the almost-final draft of the introductory material. There are just a few things left to sort out over the next 24 hours and the completed manuscript should be on its way by Tuesday evening.


BOO! We had to take down the introduction at the request of our publisher!

Bakken Goes Boom Press Release and First Weekend Data

The newest publication from The Digital Press, The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies in Western North Dakota was released quietly on Friday and propagated through social media outlets. We had about 800 page views over the last few days at The Digital Press website from about 450 unique visitors. These resulted in just under 200 downloads of the book.  We updated the book slightly on Sunday morning when we received our LCCN number and caught another round of little niggling proofreading errors. 

This week, we’ll slowly ramp up publicity beginning with a press release:

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota announces the publication of the first, peer-reviewed, book-length collection of studies on the Bakken oil boom in Western North Dakota: The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota edited by William Caraher (History, UND) and Kyle Conway (Communications, University of Ottawa)

The book brings together a substantial range of scholarly and creative contributions to consider the impact of the Bakken Boom on history and healthcare, the natural and man-made environment, the media and art. Poetry, photography, and essays rub shoulders with scholarly articles to communicate and document the challenges of the 21st century Bakken boom.

Kyle Conway, the co-editor of the volume, reinforces the point: “The neat thing about this book is that it’s not just academics talking to each other. It’s journalists, poets, and artists, too. Art and poetry hold can open up a different world for us, which is why everyone whose life is affect by oil — and that means everyone, not just North Dakotans — should read this book.”

The book features contributions from national and local authors who each offer distinct visions of the challenges and opportunities of the Bakken oil boom in the context of both Western North Dakota and the world. Some of the articles present cutting-edge research from a graduate seminar in rural communication in the Communications Program at the University of North Dakota. Others offer insights into recent completed or ongoing research projects including exploratory “adventure science” in the North Dakota Badlands, work by the North Dakota Man Camp Project to document workforce housing conditions, ethnographic work on the Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation, and the definitive catalogue of the Plains Art Museum’s Bakken Boom! exhibit from 2015.

William Caraher (Department of History, UND) adds: “We hope this book does more than just provide a first reaction to the Bakken Boom, but also serves as a kind of historical document that will help future generations in both North Dakotans and elsewhere see how folks understood the experiences and challenges of the 21st-century Bakken Boom.”

The book is available as free, color, digital download from and will be released on paper at the end of the month.

Book Blurb

The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota

Edited by William Caraher and Kyle Conway

With contributions from Carenlee Barkdull, Karin L. Becker, Sebastian Braun, Nikki Berg Burin, Angela Cary, Kyle Cassidy, Heidi Czerwiec, Simon Donato, Rebecca A. Dunham, Julia C. Geigle, John Holmgren, Heather Jackson, Ann Reed, Andrew Reinhard, Richard Rothaus, Melissa Rae Stewart, Jessica Sobolik, Laura Tally, Ryan M. Taylor, Bret A. Weber, Joshua E. Young

In 2008, the Bakken went boom. Thanks to advances in hydraulic fracturing, oil production in western North Dakota exploded. As the price of oil went up, so did the oil rigs. People came from all over the country (and the world) in search of work, and cities and towns struggled to keep up. This book is about the challenges they faced. It is about the human dimensions of the boom, as told by artists, poets, journalists, and scholars. It captures the boom at its peak, before the price of oil fell and the boom went bust.

This is the only book on the Bakken to bring together such a wide range of voices. It captures a fascinating moment in the history not only of North Dakota, but of global oil production. It sheds light on the impact of oil on local communities that, until now, had not attracted much interest from the outside world. And it shows how North Dakotans, both old and new, have found ways to address the challenges they face in a turbulent, changing environment.

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota publishes high quality peer-reviewed and popular books. It uses digital and print-on-demand technologies to publish timely works in the digital humanities, broadly conceived. Whenever possible, we produce open access, digital publications, that can attract local and global audiences.

The Digital Press uses a cooperative model for publishing in which authors, editors, and designers work closely together to bring a book to publication. The publication process is as transparent as possible to build awareness of the publication, and social and new media platforms engages audiences with the publication process, and serves to market the final product.

The Bakken Goes Boom

It is really exciting to announce that the Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota went live this morning. As readers of this blog know, The Bakken Goes Boom is the first conventional edited volume that The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has released. It was peer-reviewed and drew upon a wide range of scholars, artists, and thoughtful writers to offer a distinct and significant contribution on how we understand the Bakken.

Needless to say, this project would not have happened without the support of my co-editor, Kyle Conway, and all the contributors to the volume. 

The book is available for free download under a CC-By open access license. Go here to get it

Download it, share the link, read it, criticize it, review it, fear it, and revile it:

Bakken Goes Boom Front Cover

Maps, Maps, Maps

I’ve been working on maps for my Tourist Guide to the Bakken. This is a tedious task made lighter only by the remarkably robust GIS data available from the great states of North Dakota and Montana.

BOO! I had to remove this content at the request of our publisher!


Oil, Industry, and Tourism: Another Draft

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been churning away on a revised version of the final chapter of my Tourist Guide to the Bakken. These revisions have two goals. One is to make it more accessible to non-academics and the other is to reflect on the particular role of oil in the creation both of tourism and the industrial world.

Below is the first part of this concluding section. Enjoy:

BOO! I had to take down this content at request of the publisher!


Oil and Tourism in the Bakken

I learned last week that my Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch has been accepted for publication. It received two more or less positive peer reviews, a good editorial review, and the endorsement of an established, but up-and-coming press. 

I now have about a month to make some serious revisions to the manuscript and to prepare maps for each of the seven tourist routes through the Bakken. The biggest challenge will be to revise the final section of the guide which is a more scholarly treatment of landscapes, tourism, and archaeology. In keeping with ideas that I began to hash out in my work on “slow archaeology,” I focused on the intersection of archaeology and modernity but instead of relating it archaeological methods, I consider how archaeology can help us to understand the dynamic landscape of the Bakken.

I make this move using a bit of puckish trickeration. Archaeology intersects with tourism to transform the past into our modern concept of heritage, which can then be commodified and monetized. This parallels the role extractive industries play in transforming geological formations into fossil fuels available for the market. Tourism binds the two together as the Bakken landscape – for both the tourist and worker – depends on oil to structure our interaction with it. 

I recent book titled After Oil from the Petrocultures group at the University of Alberta emphasizes the link between oil and the foundation of modern society. Oil is not just another commodity or resource, but also a key structuring element in our economy, political culture, and society. For the conclusion of my book, I play with Dean MacCannell’s idea that tourism (particularly self-guided tourism) provided a quintessentially modern way to organize bourgeois dominion of the world through the creation of highly mobile tourist class, and mash it up with growing interest in the archaeology of the modern (and even contemporary) world. Tourism in the Bakken (and, perhaps more broadly, industrial tourism) offers the tourist a chance to subject their own world to the critical scrutiny of the “tourist’s gaze.” Through this process, the Bakken gains a kind of authenticity – produced ironically from the tourist expectation that their encounters with the wider world exist outside the influence of tourism. In other words, tourism, particularly in places where tourists are not expected, plays directly to our modern, Western, 21st-century ways of viewing the world. What’s more exciting is that by authorizing this kind of industrial, contemporary tourism, we’re offering glimpse of the founding acts of modernity in the production of fossil fuels. Without oil, tourism, the tourist class, and our modern world would not be possible.

By re-appropriating the founding moment of modernity through the tourist gaze, we confront the complexities and contradictions necessary to produce the energy that our world – including the act of tourism – requires. In other words, we creating a way for modernity to look at itself in the mirror. 

These ideas are complex and require a familiarity with both the discourse of modernity and the more specialized critiques of industrial archaeology, archaeology of the contemporary world, and tourism. The series editor requested that I revise the final section of the book significantly and, instead of offering an academic critique, make it as accessible to a wide audience as the rest of the book. After a bit of grumbling (to myself) I decided to start that process this weekend. Keep an eye out for revised and clarified text!

Sneak Peak of the Bakken Goes Boom

Over the next few weeks, Kyle Conway and I will be offering some sneak peeks at our forthcoming edited volume: Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota which should come out early next month from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. 

Here’s our introduction:

0a Conway

The Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota

This book is about the human side of the oil boom in the Bakken formation in western North Dakota. We began work on it in 2013, when a barrel of crude oil sold for a little more than $90. At that time, economic optimism was the order of the day. People were asking, would the boom last twenty, forty, or sixty years? Harold Hamm, the billionaire CEO of Continental Resources, went so far as to tell the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference, “I still think we will reach 2 million barrels a day [by 2020]. I don’t think that’s over the top, folks” (quoted in Burnes 2014).

Now, as we write this introduction at the end of 2015, that same barrel sells for less than $40. What we did not know—what we could not know—when we began was that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) would refuse to cut production in the face of dropping oil prices, in an apparent attempt to make oil production from shale, such as in the Bakken, too expensive to continue (Murtagh 2015; Olson and Ailworth 2015). In retrospect, the estimates of a forty- or sixty-year boom seem naive: by all appearances, we were at the boom’s peak. In December 2014, there were 174 rigs drilling in the oil patch; a year later, there are 65. There are also five thousand fewer jobs, and monthly in-state income on oil royalties has dropped from $128 million to $69 million (Donovan 2015). Inadvertently, it seems, we captured an important moment, when the bust people dreaded (but thought would never happen) was just on the horizon.

Our purpose in putting this book together was to give voice to as wide a range of people as we could. We were both professors at the University of North Dakota, so we sought out other scholars. We researched the boom, so we sought out our collaborators. We taught about the Bakken, so we sought out students. But we also read the news, went to art galleries, and read poetry, so we also sought out journalists, artists and museum curators, and poets. The boom was one of the most interesting things we had ever seen, and there were more ways to know it than through the cold rationality we privileged in our scholarship. Journalists, artists, and poets could reveal things we would not otherwise see, experiences or emotions that academic prose could not capture, but art or poetry could. As much as drilling for oil in the Bakken produced an economic and demographic boom, it also was an intellectual and cultural moment for North Dakota, and our book tries to capture that.

Our approach was propitious, if the controversies around hydraulic fracturing (or simply “fracking”) are any indication. In the time since we began soliciting submissions, a wide range of books have been published, each more polemical than the last. In one, an environmentalist asks what happens when she inherits mineral rights in North Dakota and has to choose between her ideals and financial security (Peters 2014). In another, a conservative media darling calls out environmentalists for what he sees as their duplicity and willful ignorance of the human rights abuses inflicted by governments of oil-rich countries on their own citizens (Levant 2014). In yet another, an investigative reporter tells the story of an Alberta woman’s fight for justice from the oil industry (and her own government) after fracking poisons her water supply (Nikiforuk 2015).

In this back-and-forth, it is clear that the pro- and anti-fracking groups are talking past each other. This is where our book does something different. By and large, contributors sidestep the controversies about fracking and focus instead on the social impact of the boom. There is much to learn here: whether we support or oppose fracking, it has had a significant impact on people’s lives. For people living in the Bakken region, life has changed, and we want to understand how. What impact did the boom have on longtime residents? On newcomers? On women? On Native Americans? How did it reshape the healthcare infrastructure? Housing? The media? These are the questions we asked our contributors to answer.

Scholars and journalists shared insight that they gained from their particular perch. But artists and poets did something more: as they talked about how the boom has reshaped North Dakotans’ sense of self—how North Dakotans see themselves and imagine their future—they evoked something akin to emotional truth. For that reason, we have devoted considerable space in this book to their work. Because art has to potential to affect viewers at a gut level, we included, among other things, a catalogue from an exhibit about the Bakken at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo. We also included comments left by members of the public.

We also decided to open this book with a prologue in the form of a prose poem. Language is an imperfect tool. It serves us relatively well when we describe technical aspects of a situation, but in other cases it falls short. We know this most acutely when we experience powerful emotions such as joy or grief and words fail us. In the Bakken, for instance, it is relatively easy to describe the monetary or environmental costs of an oil boom, but it is much harder to find words for the ache we feel when our home no longer looks the same. But in poetry, language comes closest to breaking free of its bounds. When poet Heidi Czerwiec writes, “Given enough time, a sea can become a desert; given enough time, even a desert has value,” she presents us with an image not unlike the art in the catalogue. In the dried up sea, we see our own fall from plenitude to emptiness. But the loss is paradoxical, in that it brings a new type of value. Her image brings the contradictions that undergird our experience into view. Even if we cannot put them into words, we can see them and feel them.

So what do we learn from all of this? What do scholars, journalists, artists, and poets reveal about the human side of North Dakota’s oil boom? Resources are stretched thin, and to compensate, people have had to rethink the social and physical networks that link them to others. As a result, the geographies of western North Dakota—the ways people understand their relationship to space and place—have changed. Part of this change is material, such as the demographic shift from the eastern part of the state to the western part. A decade ago, nearly a third of the state’s residents, those in Grand Forks and Fargo, lived in the narrow strip between Interstate 29 and the Red River. In other words, almost one out of three people lived within five miles of Minnesota. No longer is that the case, as towns such as Williston, Watford City, and Dickinson have doubled or tripled in size, creating unmet needs in social services, law enforcement, healthcare, housing, and other forms of infrastructure.

Part of this change is psychological, too. The stories people tell to make sense of their place in their community or the world have changed. They understand their relationships with their neighbors differently. Some longtime residents and newcomers view each other with a suspicion that grows out of a disparity in wealth and access to resources. Others look for what they share in common.

One result of these changing physical and mental geographies is that many people have had to make do with less, especially those who were already in vulnerable positions. Rents have gone up, but the stock of quality housing has gone down. Travel takes longer and is more dangerous, and unfamiliar people congregate in once familiar places. Even as the boom has subsided, social networks remain stretched for longtime residents, who face new disparities of wealth and ongoing political challenges, and for newcomers, who have left families in faraway homes in search of work. In short, there are more cracks to slip through.

But there is also resilience and creativity. Longtime residents have found ways to extend hospitality to newcomers. Artists have found ways to reimagine their place—which is to say, our place—in a landscape punctuated by oil rigs and tanker trucks. We cannot understand the challenges posed by the boom without considering the creativity it has brought about, nor the creativity without the challenges. One tugs constantly on the other.

To close, let us consider an interesting potential symmetry. In 2013, the bust was on the horizon, but we could not yet make it out. We must not forget that booms and busts are cyclical. Perhaps the next boom is on the horizon now, but as with the bust, we will see it most clearly in retrospect. As Karin Becker writes in her chapter, change has reached a plateau. North Dakota in 2015 is not the same as North Dakota in 2005. People talk of a “new normal.” The state has reversed its longstanding trend of outmigration, and the population is up almost 20 percent compared to a decade ago. The median age is younger, and jobs pay better: even Wal-Mart has to pay $17 an hour to its employees in Williston, where the average annual salary is still more than $75,000 (Donovan 2015).

The changes North Dakota has undergone are real, and we owe it to ourselves to ask how they have shaped us. We would do well to listen to everyone—citizens, public figures, artists, poets, and even scholars. This book is not the final word on the Bakken oil boom, but we hope readers will find in it something useful, a starting point for understanding how the boom has affected us and who it is we have come to be.


Burnes, Jerry. 2014. “Hamm: Bakken Will Double Production by 2020.” Williston Herald, May 23.

Donovan, Lauren. 2015. “Oil Patch Slides Toward a New Normal.” Bismark Tribune, December 25.

Levant, Ezra. 2014. Groundswell: The Case for Fracking. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart.

Murtagh, Dan. 2015. “Shale’s Running Out of Survival Tricks as OPEC Ramps Up Pressure.” Bloomberg Business, December 27.

Nikiforuk, Andrew. 2015. Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry. Berkeley, CA: Greystone Books.

Olson, Bradley, and Erin Ailworth. 2015. “Low Crude Prices Catch Up with the U.S. Oil Patch.” Wall Street Journal, November 20.

Peters, Lisa Westberg. 2014. Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil. Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Society Press.

The Archaeology of Home in the Bakken Oil Patch

A year or so ago we submitted a manuscript to a top-tier archaeology journal describing our North Dakota Man Camp Project. It was a long manuscript – 12,000 words, it was descriptive and report-y, and tried to say everything at once. It came as no little surprise, then, when we received a “revise and resubmit” request from the journal along with some really positive (and critical) comments. It turns out that our article was far worse than our project (at least we hope). We hope this article is better.

I make a couple of maps yesterday using the really great data from the North Dakota GIS Hub.

Figure 6

A year later, we’re ready to resubmit, and this marks one of the few tangible results of my sabbatical (so far?):

Man Camps, Domesticity, and the Bakken

Over the past week, Capital Lodge near Tioga announced it was closing permanently. It was one of the biggest camps in the Bakken and at its peak could accommodate over 2000 workers and had infrastructure capacity – including its own sewage treatment facility – for 3000. News reports indicate that it cost close to $30 million to set up. 

The owners of the Capital Lodge suffered from the decline in oil prices and activity in the Bakken and when the camp closed it had only around 100 residents. We visited Capital Lodge in August and guess that many of those were employees of the lodge. The decision to close the facility came at the end of some rather lengthy negotiations to try to rezone the camp either as an extended stay hotel or to move at least part of the camp to another site in the region. The reluctance by the community to allow the camp to be rezoned (and the economically unfriendly conditions attached to the setting the camp up elsewhere in the region) represented as much “market forces” as the local media spun it as decisions made by the local communities.


The decisions made by communities in the patch with regard to temporary workforce housing have received national attention. The city of Williston, for example, has established a moratorium on new camps and has a date for camps to depart from city limits. RV parks and the like are under pressure as well as they try either to renegotiate their zoning or find ways to continue to generate revenue as the boom slows to a crawl. Over the last few months, I have received calls from national and local media and financial firms from across the US asking my thoughts on the man camp situation in the Bakken. 

This has led to me to think about how the communities in the Bakken are asserting their autonomy during this lull (let’s say) in the boom. First, many observers have critiqued the role that the state of North Dakota has played in encouraging the rapid acceleration of oil related activity in the Bakken. There is no doubt that lax regulation, low taxes, and various incentives made it appealing for companies to invest in their Bakken operations and persist with them even as the price of oil has declined. The state not only accelerated the impact of the boom in the Bakken, but also prolonged the boom even as it became clear that the price of oil could not longer support the more costly extractive processes used in the Bakken. 

Under these circumstances, local communities often struggled to accommodate the rapidly growing workforce, the infrastructural demands of the oil industry, and the social pressures associated with the boom. Since local communities had very little control over what goes on outside their limited territorial jurisdiction, they often sought extra territorial authority from the counties or to expand the city boundaries and by-and-large were granted these rights. Even these expanded rights, however, did not impact the state policies that dictated the extent and pace of oil work in the region. City and county authority can influence the inventory of workforce housing, however, and recent decisions by both counties and city councils have demonstrated a growing reluctance to allow temporary workforce housing to expand or persist unfettered in their communities.

To be clear, I’m skeptical whether these communities’ decisions to limit temporary workforce housing is the right one. Since most work in the oil field is temporary, expecting short-term oil field workers to sign leases or purchase housing in a community is unrealistic. At the same time, I do recognize the strategies used by these communities represent a kind of control over the processes associated with the oil boom. Cities and counties have virtually no control over the extractive process, but they do have control over the social impact of these processes.

Efforts to limit the extent of temporary housing is not just about making it harder for oil companies and related industries to expand the number of workers in a community. While there are tax implications associated with permanent housing – either in apartments or houses, I’d argue that this isn’t simply an economic decision on the part of these communities.

In the Bakken, man camps and workforce housing stand as a challenge to traditional notions of domesticity. Traditional domestic space accommodates family life whereas temporary workforce housing serves single individuals, typically men, who live in dormitory style rooms and dine in communal space. Traditional domestic space is stable and permanent, whereas workforce housing – whether prefabricated and mobile man camps or RV parks – are inherently mobile and temporary. The investment in permanent housing recalls the investment in the traditional family and the importance of property and fixity in both the myth of American life and in the economic and social life of local communities. Finally, traditional domesticity continues to play a key role in the dominant discourse of morality. The fixity of domestic life and the presence of the family reinforces accountability in the context of traditional morality.

Managing workforce housing, then, presents an opportunity for local communities to exert control in a situation that is largely dictated by the state and by transnational corporation. They do this by appealing to traditional domesticity and the economic, social, and moral controls inherent in these long-standing structures.