Rachel Woltjer: North Dakota's Oil Patch Has Truly Become Home


A few weeks ago, I was in Minneapolis for a few meetings and asked my favorite college professor if we could go out for dinner. He said he would buy me dinner if I would speak in his night class about my journey to Williston and experience thereafter. Always up for a free meal, I agreed.

I got to thinking about this strange “small” town I live in, and found surprising joy reflecting on the last 3 years of my life in Western North Dakota.

When I first decided to move here (in short because my cousin offered me a furnished basement to live in, and I was looking to pay off my college debt quickly), I was almost ashamed to admit to my hipster Minnesota friends that I was moving to North Dakota. (In fact, I’m pretty sure I told a lot of people I was moving to Montana because that’s about 25 short miles shy of the truth, and it sounds a lot more mountainous and cool.)


I used to joke that when Lewis & Clark were unveiling the Midwest, they remarked upon the beauty of the Minnesota lakes and trees and marveled at the big sky and mountains of Montana, and figured they needed to put a name to the large piece of nothing in between them – hence: North Dakota.

A week before I left Minnesota, my friend Allie saw a segment on the Today Show about Williston. The caption read “the scum of the earth are all moving to Williston, North Dakota.” After telling her a sarcastic “thanks,” I paused and wondered if it might be true. What if I’m moving to a town full of criminals and roughnecks? I had heard from a few sources that the ratio of men to women was as vast as 75:1. After some thought I stocked up on mace and heavy unattractive sweaters and decided to stick with my decision.

I packed up my little green car and left behind the bright lights and skyline of Minneapolis for the plains and rigs of the Bakken. For the ten hour drive I was nervously tapping my knee, wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into. The only person I knew was my cousin (who is 24 years older than I am – and 24 years cooler) and I would soon learn my T-Mobile phone only got reception in the parking lot of the train station.

I moved to town without a job (which is the case for most of us immigrants), and spent the first few weeks trying to find a good fit. After a desk job with an oil company fell through, I got a job making pies at a small marina 25 miles out of town. It wasn’t the most glamorous job, and at the end of the day I wasn’t making much more money than I had been making in the city. But the few months of experience I had at that little cafe landed me my first big break.

I was looking for a job somewhere in town, but finding the “right” one wasn’t as easy as it sounds. A friend told me a new fine dining restaurant had opened up in town and was incredibly shorthanded. I had never eaten in a fine dining restaurant before (except for Olive Garden one time in high school, if that counts), but I thought it was worth a shot. I walked in for the interview which consisted of 3 questions:

1. Do you have restaurant experience?

2. Do you have black clothes?

3. Can you be back in an hour?

That night was one of the most horrifying nights of my life. I didn’t know anything about seafood, steaks, wine, liquor, cheese, or dining etiquette. I lied my way through the specials (most of which I had to write phonetically and hope the customer knew what word I was saying) and held back tears when a table asked me what kind of “bourbon” we carried. (What is bourbon? Is that a liquid or a solid?). I broke the cork on a $90 bottle of wine and was spared by a kind gentleman from Texas who said he liked an “oaky” taste in his wine.

I miraculously walked out of there with $275, realizing I had never owned a hundred dollar bill before.

Working every night made it hard to make friends, but I was blessed to be working alongside all kinds of immigrants. In fact, only one of my co-workers had actually been in Williston for more than a year. We were all newbies, trying to get a fresh lease on life. Even if we didn’t have a lot in common, we found solidarity in writing our life stories in a boomtown.

My first year here I’d walk through the parking lot of Walmart and count a dozen different state license plates, wondering if there was anywhere else in the world quite like Williston. Even though it was chaotic and crowded, I was beginning to sense there was something special about this place – and it wasn’t just about the money. Maybe the critics were only telling half of the story.

Yes, our crime rates are up – so is our population. My sister Laura (another fellow immigrant) works as a police dispatcher here in town and swears it’s not that bad – and she ought to know! Yes, our strip clubs are packed. But so are our restaurants. And churches. And grocery stores.

Yes, people live in their cars. But you know what – they’re living in their cars to earn a paycheck, not a government check. That has to tell you something about these people! In a society that is growing more and more entitled, how refreshing it is to be around people who aren’t afraid to work for their money! It’s a character trait that couples well with integrity and ingenuity. Williston is a breeding ground for small businesses – I’m in the process of opening one with my sisters! (More to come on that).

Yes, we have the lowest unemployment rate in the country. Yes, our median income is $70,000/year. But we don’t get paid just to show up. I picked up a bartending shift last night and got home at 2am, having not sat down in 10 hours. I’m fortunate to have a job indoors, most of those in the oil patch aren’t so lucky. People here work, and they work hard.

I had coffee with my best friend from high school last week. She just got back from doing the Peace Corps in China and is trying to adjust back to life in Minneapolis. She noted her greatest struggle is making quality friends. It seems in the time she was gone everyone solidified their group of friends and no one is really looking to expand. 25 is not an easy time to make new friends.

The culture in Williston couldn’t be more different. We all know what it’s like to be on the outside. We’ve left family, friends, and communities hundreds of miles away to move here. Our lack of entertainment options magnifies our need for authentic connection with others. My roommates are from Alaska, Montana, and New York. In a lot of ways we are different, but we’re building a friendship on what we share. And it’s real.

Williston is a place of second chances and good people. As an employee of the school district, I watch teachers desperately try to meet the needs of the dozens (if not hundreds) of new students flowing into their classrooms. The churches and non-profits are finding ways to meet the unique needs of this community. The people are willing to lend a hand to help newcomers get a good start.

Because of the Bakken (and Jesus), I was able to pay off $35,000 in college debt in 2.5 years – reaching the finish line the night before my 25th birthday this summer. I took a month off of work to spend back in Minnesota, reflecting on where I’m headed next. About two weeks in, I was ready to get back to Williston. I missed my friends and my job. My house and my church. Even the hustle & bustle of the trucks and traffic.

I stumbled upon a truth I never thought would be mine: this place has truly become home.