WILLISTON, N.D. You can almost smell the opportunity along North Dakota Highway 2. It oozes deep from the sloping North Dakota prairie where oil derricks and natural-gas wells sprout among the drying rolls of hay.
People come here hopeful, drawn by the promise of jobs. But they probably also utter a few prayers, or expletives, when they realize just how far from home this place really is.
Or when they see the makeshift villages of narrow metal-sided buildings rising from the plains temporary housing to accommodate what many are calling the largest oil boom in recent North American history.
Theyre called man camps because theres something else youll notice when you arrive in this upper corner of North Dakota: There arent a lot of women here.
The best thing about a man camp? Uhhh, I dont know. I couldnt really tell you, says Jacob Austin, a 22-year-old line cook at a camp outside the small town of Williston.
After a 12-hour day, he stands on a pile of rocks in the camp parking lot, playing his guitar.
I could tell you the worst thing about a man camp. Its a man camp and not a woman camp.
He pauses, strums his guitar some more and smiles at a female reporter.
Its nice to see you here.
Tracy Glover, manager at this camp, probably doesnt feel the same way. He is hours away from a two-week leave after six solid weeks at the camp since his last break. Hes dreaming about his wife, and his Harley, back in Arizona, where he makes his permanent home. A lengthy to-do list sits on his desk.
But hes friendly as he emerges from his office.
Welcome to the middle of nowhere, he says.
He is a towering denim-clad character with a wide gray mustache who looks the part of the Old West innkeeper, or maybe the sheriff. Here, hes a bit of both.
His greeting is his way of acknowledging the bewilderment he sees on peoples faces when they step into the camp, whether they are BMW-driving former executives, young men fresh off the farm or recent college graduates. Or maybe its just commiseration.
Theyve come to seek their fortune, along this stretch of oil country thats known as the Bakken, where barreling fuel trucks dominate the roads. Parking lots are full of cars, RVs and pickups with plates from states where financial upheaval has shaken many Americans to their core.
The toughest among them will make that fortune. But for some, the cost will be too high the distance from home too much to take the work too difficult. Here, its easy to go a little crazy in a room thats so small you have to step outside to think, only to be reminded how isolated you are under the big sky that rolls in from Montana.
I always say, Oil doesnt grow where men go, Glover tells new arrivals.
Folks in nearby Williston might take exception to his insinuation that there is no civilization around here. But no one would dispute that there simply has been no place to put the thousands of people who are the embodiment of this modern-day rush.
Rent for a house here can run into the thousands of dollars, if you can find one thats vacant. The most desperate among the new arrivals show up and pitch tents in vacant fields or sleep in their cars.
So a man camp like this can be a godsend, an oasis in conditions that can be unforgiving.
This particular camp houses nearly 500 residents. But you wouldnt know it to look around because there is no normal here, says Glover, who manages the camp for Target Logistics, a Boston company that is one of several temporary housing outfits that has come to North Dakota.
By that, he means there is no such thing as a normal schedule. One guys shift might start at 4 a.m., anothers at 4 p.m. those shifts often running 12 to 16 hours, seven days a week, depending on the work and the deadlines.
It leaves little time for the rowdiness that you might expect at a place like this. The quiet is most often broken by the sound of footsteps on the gravel that fills the camp walkways.
The men might watch a little TV, shoot some pool or hang out for a chat and a smoke. They use computers next to the laundry room or Wi-Fi on their own laptops to communicate with the outside world, and cell phones, when they work.
Target Logistics is building another camp near Tioga, N.D., that will have a barber shop, a tanning booth, a hot-tub spa and a 24-hour commissary. Its a sign of what it takes for oil companies to keep good workers, some who pay their companies $400 a month, or whatever they can negotiate, for room and board at the camps.
In reality, though, these men have time only for the basics eating, sleeping and recuperating from work that can be grueling, and dangerous, so they can go back out there and do it again.
If I had a sign at my desk, itd say, Its the food, stupid, says Brian Lash, CEO of Target Logistics. Next in importance: a comfortable bed. He likens the man camp to a hotel, a turn-key city that has everything you would need to live in a remote environment.