TIOGA, N.DAK.-Here, in this dusty former farming town about to get its first stoplight, is the new American economy. In a modern-day migration reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, thousands of men who can’t find work have flocked to North Dakota’s bountiful oil and gas fields to labor for giants like Hess and Halliburton and scores of smaller companies. Staying anywhere from a few weeks to two years, they often bunk in prefab dormitories they call “man camps.” One of the largest is Capital Lodge, with 1,850 beds; workers live in 14-by-18-ft. rooms with a bed, dresser, flat-screen TV and Internet access. The nightly single rate of $140 is often covered by employers with meals usually included, a deal that’s tough to beat. But as missed birthdays, anniversaries and school events pile up, men proud to be breadwinners again find themselves achingly lonely and yearning for home.
Before: Mortgage broker Now: Saltwater waste hauler
I was in the mortgage business for 10 years. I made almost $200,000 a year. My business died in 2008. I went broke. I started eating everything I’d saved-my 401(k), savings; I didn’t have enough money to pay the basic bills. I have five kids, three still at home. I saw a report on the news and went online and searched “North Dakota jobs.” They hired me over the phone. I borrowed an RV, came up here in [January ’11] and started working.
Before: Semi owner-operator Now: Welder’s helper
I came on borrowed money-brother, sister, mom, girlfriend. It was scary coming here by myself. I lived in my car in the church parking lot for two months. You pay three bucks to take a gym shower at the park. I found work surface-drilling. They drill the first 90 ft. into the ground, and then the big rig comes. I’d never done it before. The third day I was here, I found they’d put up a flyer in the unemployment office. I went, met the owner, and they gave me the job the same day.
LEARNING THE ROPES
Before: Timber hauler Now: Oil-rig transporter
We take rigs apart and put ’em together. It was on-the-job training. We work on demand: When rigs call, we haul. We start about 7 a.m. and work 10 or 12 hours on location, [usually] an hour and a half away. I work 70 hours a week, with a day or two off. I’m making three times as much on a good week as I was logging. But when you’re home, you’re going a month or six weeks without a check.
FAR FROM HOME
Before: Teacher Now: Assistant camp manager
The first time I was up here, it was rough. I thought I was going for six weeks, and I was here for almost three months. When I came up, my baby [Nyla, 2] didn’t have any teeth. I went back home, and she had three or four. I got Skype so I can watch her progress walking and talking. She changes so fast. It’s hard, man. Skype is good, but it’s not being there.
GIBSON: [When I’m home] it’s like a honeymoon. Me and my dad go fishing; me and my little girl [Sarah, 7] ride four-wheelers. When I was logging, even when I was home, I didn’t have any time for her. When I’m at home now, unless she’s in school, she’s right there with me. She understands as far as “Daddy’s got to go make us some money.” But she doesn’t like me being on a long hitch. [On the phone] she says, “Daddy, when are you coming home?” I say, “Baby, I don’t know yet.” [Earlier this year] I worked five months with only three weeks off so I could walk my daughter [Britney, 22] down the aisle.
GIBSON: On my day off, I wash clothes. There’s not a bunch to do. I don’t drink, don’t run around on my wife, don’t go to bars. I like the small-town atmosphere. But you don’t really make friends in a place like this.
Before: Dairy farmhand Now: Pipeline laborer
I like the socializing, being able to meet different people from different states. I brought my extra TV and my gaming PC. I got my Xbox, play Modern Warfare. I don’t go out and spend all my money on beer and stuff. I did that the last few jobs, and it’s an easy way to blow it.
GUERRERO: I don’t have a life here in the sense that I don’t have my family or friends. I direct a Bible study Wednesdays and Sundays at 8 a.m. My boss knows, so they usually accommodate me. I needed some food for my soul.
SEGURA: I send my whole check home. You stay here for free, eat for free; I’ve gained 10 lbs. There’s guys who got jobs here, not knowing anything, making $30 an hour. I’m not there yet, but I will be. If you can make two grand a week, that’s worth being away from your family. My daughter’s going to need a car pretty soon, and I want to help her through college. I’m not going home until there’s some money in the bank. From rags to riches, man.
GUERRERO: It felt good being able to catch up on bills, not having the electricity or water shut off. I have kids going to private school, and I’m trying to provide an education for them. I bought a car. A lady had an Audi she hit a deer with. I’m pretty handy, so I picked it up, bought some parts on the Internet and put it together. It’s a beautiful car. Eventually I want to start my own business here and bring my family. There are good schools in Minot [80 miles away]. I might be willing to hang my hat here.
GIBSON: The way these booms work, when things slow down, there’s not really the demand for this many employees. You just kind of hitch a ride. When we first came up here, there wasn’t anybody to hire. It’s a little harder to get a job up here now than it once was. Would I go back home if I knew I could make a decent living for my family? Yep, I would. I’m not going to sit here and tell you this is the easiest thing I’ve ever done. But it’s not the hardest either. This is just a little bump in the road.