16 October 2012


That's one word that describes a lot of North Dakota. But the picture doesn't always look like this. In fact, from that vantage point, you could spot several oil pumpers - those hydraulic metal machines that look sort of like a fat-beaked bird continually dipping it's snout into the soil - out in the middle of wheat fields, and behind this sign there were miles of pipeline laying on the dirt, waiting to be assembled:

 No Hunting. But you can grade a swath of this field and lay a natural gas pipeline.

Natural gas isn't the reason there's a boom in North Dakota. People are getting rich here from oil, which lies within a rock formation called the Bakken, about ten thousand feet beneath the earth's surface. But when the oil is pumped out, after some very precise drilling and hydraulic fracturing, natural gas comes up, too, and can be worth trapping if you have the means to transport it. So far, that's a big if. Most oil companies just burn it off because the infrastructure does not yet exist to transport it, and as a result, most oil wells have flares beside them - a small pipe coming out of the ground with a continuous flame on the end. The flame can range from the size of a small person to the size of a small car. (Tonight, as I was driving across the prairie in the dark, I saw a particularly large flare whipping and lapping in the wind right beside the road, silhouetting an oil storage tank nearby. The flare was so large that I thought the tank was a house on fire, and I changed lanes to avoid it.)

I'll be here three more days. So far, I've run into people who love and hate what oil is doing to this land and the culture. At a bar in Palermo, North Dakota tonight, a woman told me that a few years ago, her town had 75 people including livestock. Today, the town is strewn with campers, RVs, and tank trucks. The bar parking lot had literally nothing but rows of brand new, dusty pick up trucks. Inside, there was a hand-written message taped to the wall that prohibited getting mouthy with the bartender and fighting - a message that would have been meaningless a couple years ago.

Yet residents who aren't profiting from the boom are still trying to hang on. Locals crowded the bar tonight, and it's only Monday. When I sat down, the bartender introduced me to every person there, including the mayor, who was wearing overalls and swore like he was in the navy. A farmer walked in wearing a black cowboy hat and passed around his phone that showed pictures of his new twins on it, born last week eight weeks premature. Over the course of two hours, three different people bought everybody a round of drinks. For a second, you could forget that there was even an oil boom. But then a tank truck rolls past the window on the tiny two-lane highway, and you remember: this is North Dakota, and like it or not, there is one hell of a boom going on.

10 October 2012

Prairie Arrival

Three days on the road, and I find myself whisked from a Chicago hotel room six stories high to a basement in a house on 2nd Avenue, Williston North Dakota. What we passed through to get here:

Space. The folds of white rock whittled away by the Mississippi to the scattered patches of Minnesota forest to space,

                        wide                                                                            open

space. Prairie stretches in all directions away from us here, the hills long and slow to rise, the grass covering the land in one ubiquitous color. The sky turns purple in autumn noon light and the land under sun looks like molten gold.

Also, cows.  Like this one in New Salem, apparently the world's largest Holstein.

I'm here for the boom, like everyone else. But instead of mining oil, I'm mining stories. Black Gold Boom is a project run by radio producer Todd Melby - he talks to people doing interesting things in the oil patch and makes radio and multimedia stories about them.  And I'm here to help.

From Williston, North Dakota.

01 October 2012

Chicago, the Wild Wild West, and in the meantime

Well, it's gearing up time. In three days, I make a trip to oil country - western North Dakota - which, I've been sternly reminded by many a concerned friend, is STILL THE WILD WILD WEST.  I know.
And it makes me excited.

But first, a detour through Chicago for the Third Coast International Audio Festival, where radio geeks run wild with headphones around their necks, where story lovers congregate to let each other in on their favorite storytelling secrets, and where, for three straight days, the largest (and dare I say coolest) gathering of radio producers will mingle, exchange advice, and generally kick ass.  Chicago!

I think the first time I became aware of Chicago (since it wasn't on my 1st grade state capitals quiz) was in middle school when we read the poems of Carl Sandburg. Trains. Steel. Blues. Lights in the dark and railroad tracks.  I associate these things with first learning that funny word that I've read since is actually a derivative of the Great Lakes Indian word for onion.

But back to today. I'm on track to air my first radio story for WUTC (Chattanooga public radio station) this week, a piece about the Muslim community. Sadly, I won't be able to hear it since I'll be on my way to Chicago, but hey, I'll be on my way to Chicago! And to listen to radio!

In other news, I've been working on an audio story about the local restaurant, Zarzour's, which is, as someone put it "Chattanooga's version of Cheers." And I was lucky enough to share some thoughts and ideas with Pradip Malde's Lens and Landscape class a couple weeks ago about multimedia storytelling, which turned out to be a great, even inspiring experience. And before that, I was invited to speak to Cindy Potter's 6th grade class to talk about clouds around the world and even got to sing them a song.  Cindy (Mrs. Potter) has since shared with me that one of her students was so inspired, she has started making time lapses of clouds in her favorite places. 6th graders! What cool people.

So friends, there will be more, soon. I just acquired a new lens and I've been photographing all sorts of boring unimportant things trying to get used to the feel of this new appendage. So keep reading! I'll send you word from the land of Carl Sandburg, trains, the WILD WILD WEST. Thanks for reading.
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