Excerpt from “Boomtown” an essay by Erik Anderson



Credit: Giphy
Credit: Giphy

Roughneck (OED):

1. A person with rough manners; an uncultivated or uneducated person; (also) a quarrelsome troublemaker, a rowdy. Also fig.

2. a. Originally: an ironworker; (in later use also) a person engaged in any hard, rough, or poorly paid work; a labourer.

b. A worker on an oil rig, esp. a labourer on the floor of a rig.


My room is a “suite,” by which they don’t mean a set of rooms but rather several rooms combined into one, and all of them, right down to the wall hangings (I hesitate to call them paintings), decorated out of a Pier One catalog. Upon entry, there’s a full sized fridge to the right, a hot plate built into the counter, a dish washer and microwave, also built in. There’s a tiled backsplash above the “kitchen” counter, which terminates in a slightly lower, L-shaped desk (and/or dining table) with a rolling office chair on one side and a matching dining chair on the other. Across from the desk sits a king bed (“the bedroom”), on one side of which is the bathroom wall and on the other an armless sleeper couch and accompanying faux leather ottoman. A TV sits atop a dresser on the opposite wall. The bathroom, a square within the rectangle, is notable only for the large walk-in shower, from which the bather is fully visible in the large mirror above the sink.

None of the patterns in the room match, nor the colors for that matter, though the green in the bedspread is picked up by the sleeper sofa, echoed in turn by the leaves on the curtains and valance, even in the bathroom walls, though you wouldn’t know it, sitting in the main room. The appliances are black, with the exception of the white coffee maker, but the sink is stainless steel. The frames and light fixtures are a mixture of plastic brass and fake bamboo, including the full-length mirror across from the sleeper sofa but between the TV (still atop its dresser) and the L-shaped desk. The primary view through the window is of a new strip mall, still under construction. A dumpster sits in front of what will soon be a deli, the only business opening up in the building so far. It is beyond boring, architecturally, in the style of no style that dominates American suburban life, and for a moment it is difficult to tell the difference between the thriving place the developers have imagined and the abandoned one it someday may become.

And if one were to look inside my room from, say, the roof of the strip mall? Soiled clothes, draped across the extra chair, the sofa sleeper, and the ottoman: two pairs black dress socks, two pairs boxer-briefs, one pair of jeans (black), two t-shirts (one maroon, one blue), one sweater (maroon with white horizontal stripes), one dress shirt (blue and white gingham), one jacket (black). On the other surfaces, end tables, counter tops, etc.: one backpack (yellow and black), one tin of mints, gloves, stocking cap, ball cap (“Electro & Magneto, Service Since 1946”), a pencil sharpener, two coffee cups (ceramic), one 20-ounce bottle of water (mostly empty), one 22-ounce bottle of New Belgium IPA (empty), one glass with dried beer residue, two small notebooks (black), blue pen, Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces, Francisco Goldman’s Interior Circuit, a copy of the Bakken Oil Business Journal, a copy of the 2014 visitor’s guide to Williston, the Williston Herald (Friday, October 10, 2014 edition), keycard, car key, wallet, phone, laptop, chargers. Beyond that are the objects that will remain after I have left: two telephones, a phonebook, alarm clock, guest services directory, remote controls, various pamphlets and placards listing the television stations or else reminding me not to smoke. The bed hasn’t been made up, and the comforter is slumping slightly onto the floor. In short, the room is in slight disarray. I will attend to my share of it in due time. The housekeeper, whose cart I can hear moving in the hallway, will take care of the rest.

What can be said about a room like this—and there are thousands of them here—except that it is designed for one or more persons to live essentially as one would in a house, albeit in a room of roughly two hundred square feet, a room meant (unlike most hotel rooms) to imitate all the functions of home, a room so anonymous, so clearly in poor or missing taste, as to be any room, every room, and no room all at once. It is the ideal room in which to experience the ideal America being extracted from or projected on Williston, in which one might feel at home everywhere but, again to paraphrase Perec, at ease nowhere.


I spend the day with Ben, a friend of a friend and a Williston native. He pulls up to the hotel in a large black pickup, Credence blaring through the speakers, and we head to a couple rigs drilling north of town. The sites are ugly things set against the tough but lovely land. The sky is big and bright and the derricks rise into it like monuments, but monuments to what? The drill pads are construction sites mostly, full of heavy equipment, portable trailers, and piles of pipe. I watch the horse heads on the pumping units nod up and down, John Fogerty’s familiar voice in the background. It’s just as Cam said: the heartbeat of America.

Ben is a voluble guy who drinks several sodas and a couple cups of coffee (double cream, double sugar) during the hours I spend with him. For work, he rents and services the heavy diamond bits (I pick one up in his garage) the oil companies—or rather, their intermediaries—use to drill deep into the ground, sometimes as far as four miles and always, in North Dakota, first vertically then horizontally. He drives all over the state and into Montana and South Dakota, but most of his clients aren’t far away, no more than an hour and a half.

Driving back into town, he talks at length about the politics and practicalities of governing a city built for fifteen thousand but housing, he guesses, fifty-five. We pass a large red billboard that advertises “The Future of FR.” “Fire-Retardant Clothing,” he explains, translating the local patois—the oil companies require their workers to wear it. Ben expatiates on tolerance (“so long as they aren’t trying to penetrate my ass, I don’t care what they do”), on Texans (“they come up here with their big belt buckles, thinking they’re better than everyone”), on the current American president (“this numb nuts”), on the prospects of a Republican one (“we need someone who isn’t as old as the hill”), on the rumors of rapes in the aisles of the local Walmart (“I know what my town ain’t”), and on the oil boom itself (“At this point it done more bad than good”). He’s a warm, big-hearted guy, and even his bluster is delivered in the lilt of the upper Midwest, familiar to audiences of Fargo, and in a manner you might call North Dakota nice.

We have lunch in a place filled with locals called Dakota Farms. It looks like a Pizza Hut from the outside, but inside it’s lined with log beams. The effect is strange, as though I were in both a chain restaurant and a local greasy spoon. Ben orders “the Chuck Wagon,” a combination of eggs over easy, sausage, biscuits, and gravy that he mixes up into a hash. I order a grilled cheese with fries, and when I ask for some vegetables in my sandwich, both the waitress and Ben give me a funny look. Still, it’s a pleasant lunch and Ben, in his generous way, insists on paying.

Afterwards, to establish some contrast, he takes me through the Williston of his youth: his middle school, high school, his church, houses where he went to parties. He points out the notorious side-by-side strip clubs, Whispers and Heartbreakers, outside of which a man was beaten to death in August. This part of town, he says, remains the same as he’s always known it, with the exception of the heavy truck traffic that makes it nearly impossible to turn at some intersections. We head northwest of town, past Ben’s early apartments. He was working construction back then, playing in a band on the side. There used to be nothing out here, he says, as we drive through miles of new apartment blocks and tract housing, all of it built in a sprawling, haphazard way, without any apparent plan, and in a style reminiscent of an ugly Denver suburb. There used to be nothing out here. He keeps repeating the line, as though reassuring us both that it’s true.


-Excerpted from Anderson’s new book, Flutter Point, winner of the Zone 3 Press Nonfiction Book Award. Reprinted with the permission of Zone 3 Press.


Erik Anderson is the author of three books of nonfiction: The Poetics of Trespass, Estranger, and, most recently, Flutter Point: Essays. He teaches at Franklin and Marshall College, where he also directs the annual Emerging Writers Festival.