My Atypical Day in a North Dakota Man Camp


The term ‘man camp’ appears often on this blog.

Before you start thinking all kinds of weird thoughts about where I live and work, I wanted to share a play-by-play of my day. Every morning is a new adventure — thanks to the many characters attracted to the golden promise of an oil boom — but last Tuesday was especially interesting, with hunger strikes, chicken sacrifices, TV crews, javelin throwers, drug dealers, and more.


Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

5:30am: Wake, write. This precious hour of free time passes too quickly. Must wake earlier. Or write faster.

6:30am: A heat lamp reflects red off 70s tiles and wood panel walls. Every morning my bathroom becomes a darkroom, much like the one in which my parents would develop black-and-whites for their newspaper in Nebraska. Sometimes, while showering in the darkness, as warm water rolls off my skin, I imagine myself a photo in revelation.

6:45am: My hair is damp under my company baseball cap as I cross the parking lot toward the cafeteria. The work trucks are long gone, leaving only the personal cars to incriminate the rags-to-rich-sters of their struggles. Exhibit one: out-of-state plates. Two: backseats full of clothes and non-perishables to survive until the first paycheck. Been there, slept there.

6:46am: Scan key card, enter cafeteria. There’s a line at the serving window, shit. My fourteen minute breakfast is now ten. Men perma-stained by oil, with fingernails like tiny half moons of black, sit around tables according to their company: the brown button-ups at one, the blues at another, and so on. Despite my white polo gestures of comradery are nodded back as I scan the room. I grab a banana on the way out.

7:00am: Assign reservations to hotel rooms (my new ‘mancamp’ is a hotel that accepts walk-ins and workers alike). All transactions, all requests, all complaints pass through me. I am the command center, the brain. Through various electric impulses — email, walkie talkie, phone — I sort and disperse information
to housekeepers and chefs like a friendly fleshy processor. I don’t hate this work.

9:15am: Boil water in my electric kettle, drink yerba mate. Euphoria enters my veins.

10:00am: A guest’s many visits to my front desk — to refill coffee, to check mail, to ask the address — are thinly veiled loneliness. He talks, I listen. In a former life he flipped multiple houses, multiple times. Multiples of zeros left and returned his bank account fatter. In this life it’s been a month since his last paycheck. He is down to his last $200.

12:45pm: I phone an old friend. Five years have passed since our house-size parties in our tiny apartment and roadtrips to Mexico to eat cactus. Much has changed, we have changed. Soon I’ll meet his beautiful wife and son and sleep in his teepee under the stars. Life would be boring without crazy friends.

2:00pm: “Do you prefer English or Spanish?” After being English-bombed all over the Spanish-speaking world I always ask this question to bilingual Latinos here. The wild-eyed Cuban responds in Spanglish, cutting the pleasantries to tell me his five-year-old has been on a hunger strike ever since he arrived to North Dakota. “Maybe I’ll go to la casa to tell him to eat.” Skype instead, I say. He has never heard of Skype and asks how to plug into the internet. Shocking syllables. I instantly and silently begin planning how to give him my old laptop without upsetting his integrity. As if reading my intentions, he invites me to sacrifice a chicken across the highway in a SanterĂ­a ritual. Friday evening we pow wow with orishas.

3:15pm: I’m ecstatic like a Justin Beaver fanboy as I enter Maria Hinojosa’s reservation into the computer. Latino USA — a news and culture radio show I listen to — booked a weekend to film a show about Latinos in the North Dakota oil industry. In a follow-up email I offered my services. Fingers-crossed.

6:30pm: For the first time in weeks, I leave the hotel. My mission: a haircut. The stylist’s son ranked 18th in the world in the javelin throw, won a Nike sponsorship, and is competing in the World Athletics Championships in Moscow. “He just sets goals and chips away at them,” says the sweet lady, chipping a quarter inch off my top. She’s a rancher; we talk oil. She is paid a thousand dollars a year by an oil company that extracts millions from below her property. In sweet lady terms, I tell her she got screwed. “They’ll use eminent domain to get it anyway. Happens all the time. Best not to fight.” Eminent domain, I argue, cannot be used by private companies. I was wrong.

7:20pm: I order a $3.50 taco in the only Mexican restaurant. Only in an oil boom can they charge this much for food this bad. Once you know an authentic taco, substituting lettuce for cilantro becomes unacceptable. A blessing, a curse.

7:50pm: “It’s unfair, pot prices should not be inflated by the boom.” I find myself sharing a Guiness with an ethical drug dealer in the local bar. And by drug dealer I mean: a mild-mannered farm boy in jeans and a collared shirt who sells a plant to friends on the weekend. I’m not buying, or even smoking, but I am fascinated by the underground big business of drugs, the top three — cannabis, cocaine, and heroin — alone trade at an estimated market value of US$600 billion dollars a year.

9:30pm: Lift weights, listen to The Conquest of the Americas.

10:20pm: Shower, read, sleep. It was a good, strange day.

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