Bakken Oil Boom: The Making of a Rich Man

How to cash in on a boomtown before it busts.

Badlands National Park

Where I come from, now, flames light the night sky and the harvest is liquid; radioactive waste is hidden in ghost towns and on reservations. Brine and oil spill by the millions of gallons into water and onto land, and human trafficking has become a rural reality.

Photo by Fotolia/brizardh

Content Tools

“Hooker shop,” my cabdriver says. “I’m going to open a hooker shop.”

“Excuse me?” I say, astonished that he is going to move to North Dakota, my home state, and open a hooker shop near the oil fields. His accent is foreign, thick, beautiful, and I strain to hear his words over the hum of Chicago rush-hour traffic.

“All the men will come.” He grins.

His admission wouldn’t be all that surprising with the illicit activity surrounding the Bakken oil boom, but his excitement does seem bold as he transports me, a single woman, in his back seat.

“Hooker?” I ask again.

“HOO-kah,” he repeats. I close my eyes to fish the intended meaning of his syllables from the air between us.

“Hookah?”

“Yes! Yes! Hookah.” He shakes his head rapidly now that I’ve stumbled upon the right pronunciation, just comprehending that he’s talking about flavored tobacco. “The men will come to smoke hookah and eat nuts.”

He will go to North Dakota within the next few weeks, he explains. And while he’s starting out he will sleep on the floor of his cousin’s Laundromat. He says he should fare well given the low hookah competition in the area. His cousin went north before him and is doing very well, is going to be rich, he says.

“Have you been to North Dakota?” I ask.

“No, no.” He dismisses my question as irrelevant, unnecessary, bothersome even.

Without pausing he tells me about his business plan, about the flavors of tobacco he will carry: blueberry, mint, chai; about the abundance of salty nuts he’ll serve: pistachios, cashews, and peanuts. Communal smoking is a thing, he says, and this thing will appeal to weary oil-field workers.

“Have you tried hookah?” he asks me.

“Never,” I admit. “But I grew up there. North Dakota. My family still farms there.”

I want to tell him that where I come from, the land gives these things: wheat and prairie and sunflowers and barley. Gravel carries commerce there, and the sky reflects a land so flat that the horizon seems illustrated by a fine-point pen. Where I come from, earnest work and loyalty are a language, neighborly deeds a currency.

He seems unmoved by my attempt to connect us through a common land, but I am swept up by him. His hunger makes him not of this cab, not of this time, as we all are when our dreams are palpable. I believe him; believe that he will go to North Dakota, that his life will change, that he will be a rich man. I believe him so deeply I have a fleeting thought that I too should find a way to tap into the prosperity of my home state. I have ideas. I could start a business. Then, the part of me—primal, raw—that is still bound to the North Dakota soil starts to ache. I don’t think this man is wrong, or his desire for betterment is wrong, but something is wrong.

Where I come from, now, flames light the night sky and the harvest is liquid; radioactive waste is hidden in ghost towns and on reservations. Brine and oil spill by the millions of gallons into water and onto land, and human trafficking has become a rural reality. Where I come from, we do not yet know the cost of our good fortune.

“What will you do after you make your money?” I ask. “I mean eventually it will end; things will change.”

“What will I do?” he glances back at me, his eyes dancing. “I will be a rich man!” He grins a flash of abundance and hope. “I will leave.”


Melanie Hoffert is the author of , winner of the 2014 Minnesota Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. Reprinted from Orion (May/June 2015), a bimonthly magazine dedicated to nature, culture, and place.