Back in the days when the American West was wild and untamed, young men would traverse the country to prove themselves and older men would undertake the journey to reinvent themselves. The lure of a new life and better opportunities drew men to cross the continent into unknown territory. In North Dakota, the promise and the lure of the American West live on.
Young men come here to kickstart their lives while older men come to begin anew. And, just like in the days of yore, the women either remain at home or follow in support. Instead of homesteading in log cabins and traveling in covered wagons, the modern day pioneers come by pickup and find lodging in all manner of trailer – from tiny things barely larger than a walk-in closet to monstrous fifth wheel trailers that are larger than my first apartment.
Regardless of what size trailer someone may inhabit, everyone has a story to tell. Everyone. They share it with the willingness and ease of a policeman giving directions to an old lady. Some almost wear it on their shirt like a badge of honor.
There was Scott from Maine who had a thriving business until the economic crash. He managed to hang on for a few years until he finally had no choice but to close up shop and give up everything he’d worked so hard for. He found rebirth in North Dakota as a drilling rig worker.
Then there’s 23 year old Kami with her tales of sex abuse, a mean ex-husband, cancer of the pituitary glands, and relentless physical abuse from her foster parent that she suffers from epilepsy. Hard work is her savior and steadying hand.
Or twenty something Chad from Northern Michigan where good jobs are as scarce as the trees are plentiful. North Dakota was his escape from an unappetizing future of $10 per hour jobs.
These guys are tough. Hard workers. No messing around here. One wrong move on an oil rig and lives are lost. At the end of the night, the guys take taxi’s home from the bar because a DUI will mean the end of their time here. Pot smoking is verboten with all of the drug testing. More than that though, these guys are here to work. This isn’t summer camp; this is about buckling down and making money so that when the time is right, they can move up or out.
Still, there’s an underlying vulnerability here that, perhaps because I’m a photographer whose method and goal is to connect, is shared so readily. Whatever the reason, I’ve learned so much here that I can’t help be touched and changed. I came here expecting a wild west of testosterone gone rampant. What I have found instead is a story much more tender and inspiring.