November 10, 2014. Because of the oil boom, I was going to have to make a Bakken run. Stanley, North Dakota, required my presence. Photos could be taken; it wouldn’t be all bad. In fact, I found myself looking forward to it.
My personal history was turning out to be a bit remarkable after all, taking me back to my roots in a sense. In 1981-1982, I’d jumped out of white collar work and dived headfirst into the oil patch, taking employment as a truck driver for Halliburton. We were based out of Glendive, Montana, at that time, but a lot of our work was in North Dakota. I drove an eighteen wheeler, hauling dry cement to cementing jobs throughout the Williston Basin. Getting Laid off by Halliburton during a terrific oil slump in October of 1982 led to an eight month gig as a derrick hand on the workover rigs with Western Oil Well Services, also based in Glendive and working extensively in North Dakota.
Then, after being out of the industry for more than twenty years, I found myself back at it again in December of 2006, this time on Colorado’s western slope, hauling fresh water to drilling rigs and waste water to disposal sites during Colorado’s natural gas boom.
By April of 2009, with the Colorado job Obamafied into oblivion after the Energy Hater in Chief came to power, it was finally time to “retire”…if what I do these days could be called retirement.
In September of 2009, however, the oil patch began sending me money. I’d inherited a batch of mineral rights from my late father, rights that had been in our family since at least 1912 but which had always been considered worthless. So worthless, in fact, that when my Dad had them, he tried to sell them…and could not find a buyer at any price. I’d held them for twelve years when that first magic telephone call came, a call from an oil company representative wanting to lease my rights and send me money. The USA had finally developed the technology necessary to profitably extract oil from shale. The Bakken boom was on. I’d drawn the long straw.
In early 2012, however, a “minor glitch” raised its head. One of the two oil companies to whom my rights were leased had begun drilling in Mountrail County. They came across some rights I owned there, but the title wasn’t clean; they knew I owned the rights, but they could not send me the monies that were being earned from oil sales until the paperwork was cleared up.
What was the problem? Well, simply put, the Mountrail County stuff had been overlooked when my Mandan Indian step-grandmother’s Indian estate was probated. The process to fix that problem wound up having to go like this:
1. The Aberdeen, South Dakota, BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) had to ask the New Town (North Dakota) BIA to ask the Tribal Court in Billings (Montana) to modify the estate. (After my title curative attorney and I provided them with the necessary evidence to indicate this was needed, of course.)
2. Once the probate was modified and the Court approval posted in the BIA records, the Aberdeen BIA then needed to ask the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) to issue what’s called a mineral fee simple patent, commonly referred to as a fee patent, which transferred the mineral rights to my white man grandfather and his heirs–which in the case of these particular rights means me and me alone.
3. Once the fee patent was issued, I needed to get it recorded by the County Recorder in Mountrail County, North Dakota. That’s in Stanley, North Dakota.
4. Once the fee patent was recorded, I needed to get a copy of the recorded document to the oil company, at which point they would feel safe in releasing the money that had been building up “in suspense”.
It had taken a good two and one half years to get most of that done, but I now had the fee patent in hand and had forwarded it to Mountrail County via Priority Mail. Unfortunately, three weeks after I’d sent it off, it had come back with a note saying the $10 recording fee I’d included was not enough; they needed another three bucks.
Well, poo. I looked at the calendar. Calculated turnaround times. If I simply mailed the document back again, there was just about zero likelihood that everything could be processed in time for the oil company to release my funds before year end. If it went into the New Year, I’d not be a happy camper for several reasons, one of those reasons being the Obamacare tax that goes up another one percent next year.
I needed to drive up to Stanley and short circuit the slow mo process. It might not work, but it was a chance.
Besides…road trip! I hadn’t really hit the highway in nearly six years.
My wife agreed. We made a couple of phone calls, arranged to have a friend of the family stay with her while I was gone. I did the chores, washed thirty pounds of old monsoon mud from the car’s wheel wells, packed, covered a few other necessary details, tried napping, gave that up as a bad idea, and headed out…at 10:41 p.m.
Yeah. Weird time to start a border to border journey, right? I hadn’t even run back to town to gas up the Subaru Outback. Fortunately, the Chevron at Bisbee had left one pump operational when they’d locked up for the night.
With the tank topped off, I was good to go.
Off on Highway 80, through Douglas, Arizona, up through the eastern edge of Cochise County and then into New Mexico, hooking up with I-10 east. From there, taking the Highway 26 cutoff via Deming and on north, the mighty vertical snake of Interstate 25 pointing toward daylight and beyond.
Naturally, there had to be something along the route that cracked me up. It didn’t take long to surface, a sign at a rest area that, not far from a sign warning travelers to Beware of Rattlesnakes, tried to deny any responsibility for children who might get injured.
I’m pretty sure they meant to print a sign that said “YOUR” children…or did they?
The day chugged along. Soon enough, Albuquerque and Santa Fe and Raton were behind me. Colorado felt like home. There, Walsenburg, the eventual home town for the Flywheel Ranch characters in my western fiction novel, Tam the Tall Tale Teller. There, Highway 50 branching out of Pueblo, not a road to follow this day but the route that had led me to Pam so many times in 2006-2007, spending what free time I could with her and the cats at our rental home near Ordway.
Interestingly enough, my newest novel, or at least the start of one, features Colorado Springs and Cheyenne Mountain with a bit of Denver thrown in for good measure. As the expected storm rolled in, or rather as the Subaru and I rolled into the storm, not a blizzard by any stretch of the imagination but plenty of temperature drop and a smidgen of snow with deteriorating road conditions, several things happened.
I tried the windshield washers and went immediately blind. What they sell as windshield wiper fluid in southern Arizona is obviously not antifreeze-friendly; the liquid had squirted happily onto the glass and flash-frozen solid.
Good thing I’ve driven blind, or mostly blind, uncounted times over the past umpteen years and something like two million miles…but the next few thousand miles were going to be interesting. A couple of cans of de-icer spray cans should do it, right?
With Colorado behind us, the Subaru and I stopped for the night at Exit 7 in Wyoming. The Quality Inn had a room…but when I went back out to the car to unload my luggage, I nearly broke the key trying to get into the vehicle. We’d lived down south too long; the Subi had forgotten how to work its frozen door locks in the six degree weather. Luck was with me; the back hatch lock yielded.
But I’d not dare lock the car again until we got back to warmer weather.
There would turn out to be a couple of repercussions from that decision. Number one, I managed to let our camcorder get stolen. Where? Um…somewhere in Wyoming, South Dakota, or North Dakota. That narrows it down. I know I had it with me in the Cheyenne motel room and got it back to the car when I left–but I never saw it again, and didn’t miss it until I got back to Cheyenne, two days and nearly fourteen hundred miles later.
The other item was minor, just a teensy nuisance, really. All the way north from Cheyenne, that back hatch refused to re-latch fully. It was only half-latched, bouncing along, the red “latch open” light flashing fitfully on the dash.
But it was all good. The truly critical items were all fine, protected and unmolested and raring to go…and so was I. True, I’d not been to bed at all the night before, but supper and a bath and four hours of sleep found me wide awake and eager to get on with it. By 2:00 a.m., Subi and I were cranked up and rolling north.
It’s that Road Warrior blood. The Fever never really leaves a fellow, you know.
I got up, dressed, took my stuff out to the car, went back for one last check of the room, walked past a full length mirror–and started laughing. To save a trip, I’d stuck my cowboy hat on top of my parka-covered head and then forgotten it was there.
The predawn run started ugly enough, nine below zero and slick spots, spitting snow here and there–but well within my skill level. Cranking away from I-25, taking Highway 20 over to Lusk, then catching Highway 85 north. Eighty-five would take me all the way up to Williston, North Dakota, if I chose to go that way. The other option would be running lesser roads from Belfield, eventually entering Stanley from the south on Highway 8.
But first, gas at Lusk. Nippy out there, as the locals manning the convenience store counter pointed out. Those pumps dispense fuel ver-r-ry slowly; it took a while–and the shutoff valves don’t work. Rather than fix them, management has chosen to paste stickers on the pumps telling drivers that consumers are responsible for spills.
Cheaper, no doubt. Whether or not it would stand up in court is another matter altogether. Not that I cared; all that mattered to me was the fuel’s availability.
The road between Lusk and Newcastle was slick enough to keep me alert. We rolled on into daylight, heading toward the Black Hills.
The Black Hills roads were pretty well snow packed, common sense requiring travel speeds of no more than 30 mph through some twisty curvy sections. Which was definitely awesome; this part of the country is home to me in many ways. But that’s another story. I made it on through, deciding to fuel up and catch breakfast at the Millstone Family Restaurant in Spearfish before tackling the big open country daylight run the rest of the way to Stanley, North Dakota.
Pam and I have history at that restaurant. In 2007, when we were living in Sturgis, we stopped at the Millstone for lunch one day–and a bat flew in the door, freaking out in the kitchen and also freaking out the wait staff.
Good times, right there.
Finally the pivot point: Belfield, North Dakota. Here is where the true photo tour of the Bakken oil boom activity in North Dakota begins. I’m puzzled at the truck stop; the Trapper’s Kettle Restaurant used to be in the stop itself but is now across the street in its own separate building. Many a cup of coffee went down this dog tired truck driver’s throat in the early eighties in this restaurant. I grab lunch, grumble to myself about the loss of tradition–I liked the restaurant better the old way even though the huge bear trap that now hangs on the wall is interesting–and head on north, deciding to run the secondary road route north. I’ll be able to loop around through Williston on the way back, which will allow me to cover Dunn County, Mountrail County, and McKenzie County, the three counties in which I currently hold mineral rights.
We’re in oil country now, and it’s obvious. Most of the traffic is, to the patch-experienced eye, oil related. Locations sporting rows of production tanks, the marks of completed and producing wells, abound. Drilling rig derricks sprout here and there, not great city ghetto clusters but at least one of them in sight more often than not. Gas flares begin to appear, at one point half a dozen or more in view at the same time.
The real photo tour begins.
Not all of this route is pulling oil from the Bakken formation–there’s no way to tell at a glance whether we’re seeing shale oil activity or old school production–but one way or another, it’s all oil. That, and natural gas and also water, but not water you’d care to drink.
As the Subaru and I motored more deeply into Bakken country, the positive effects of the oil boom became visible and obvious. For example, every intersection with a traffic light sported brand new standards painted a bright yellow color. “See me!” They announced boldly, “This is what you get when you develop energy! Drill, baby, drill!”
Most of the photos on this page were taken one handed through a dirty windshield while driving along relatively narrow two lane roads. I didn’t have time to stop and get out for every photo op, and besides, there was seldom any shoulder to make a safe stop possible, anyway.
Sunset was hitting by the time we crossed a little tip of Lake Sakakawea and rolled on over through New Town, North Dakota. The windshield was badly smeared, the traffic through town was bumper to bumper oil field, and taking pictures was neither easy nor advisable. In fact, while in the New Town area, I took just one photo.
I blew out the lights in Stanley, North Dakota. That is, the power outage hit just as I was rolling into town at 6:00 p.m. local time. Who’s to say the town wasn’t so excited to see me that it blew a fuse?
The Black Gold Suites hotel had power, presumably from backup generators, but they didn’t power the elevators (necessitating a three floor hike up the stairs, no big) and they didn’t last long. Within 30 minutes or so of my arrival, everything shut down. My room was in pitch darkness except for a bit of stray light filtering in through the window from distant street lights (still working) and the headlights from a few vehicles here and there. The heat was down, too, obviously.
No problem. I needed sleep, right? Part of my travel gear, thanks to Pam’s insistence, included a survival blanket. I threw that down on top of one of the two queen sized beds and crawled under the covers. I’d be good down to single digit temperatures this way; it seemed unlikely the power outage would last long enough to drop the room below that.
It didn’t. The lights and heat came on at 9:00 p.m., give or take. At 9:38 I got up, hit the head, cranked the heat a bit, and went back to bed.
At 4:40 a.m., I was up and at ’em. Hot bath with book; living large and loving every bit of it…except the tub. Our clawfoot slipper tub at home is so short in the bottom that my knees are up in the air most of the time, but the slanted back is so-o-o comfortable. Still, I’d beaten the morning shower rush, had all the hot water a fellow could want.
By 7:30 a.m., I was parked beside the Mountrail County Courthouse, waiting for the bureaucratic ensemble to arrive. At 8:00 exactly, inside the building and only mildly disoriented, I asked a lady who was walking by, “Where’s the Recorder’s Office?”
“Right there.” She pointed to the near corner, right in front of my face. I followed her inside, agreeing when she remarked, “You’re an early bird!”
True that. There was no one else in the place except for employees.
My contact arrived a minute or two later, looked over the fee patent paperwork, and promptly led me next door to have a piece of paper stamped by the Auditor…but I did not manage to get the fee patent recorded on the spot. It was explained to me that (a) this big ol’ stamp from the Recorder’s Office would be added below the Auditor’s stamp, but that (b), “We have hundreds of documents to record. We can’t be jumping yours up to the head of the line.”
“Of course not,” I agreed affably, inwardly screaming, “No-o-o!” Here I was being told it would take “another three or four weeks” to get the official recording stamp onto the document. That would be enough to guarantee I’d not see my money before year end. Hello, extra Obamatax. Dirty ritzen rackenfrack.
On the other hand, the lady doing the work was clearly a perfectionist. It might not be done swiftly, but it would be done right. In the end, that was the most important thing.
I did stay cheerful and, after getting a receipt for the recording fee, headed back out–oops! A few steps down the hall, it dawned on me. I pivoted, retraced my steps, stuck my head back in the door.
“I just wanted to tell you thanks for all the help. It’s appreciated!”
The five-woman staff, to a gal, looked both surprised and pleased at this. I’m guessing it’s not every day a member of the public expresses appreciation for their work.
All righty then. I’d done all I could, and to the best of my ability at that. The lady who had my paperwork knew we were trying to avoid that extra Obamatax percentage and buy a house for a step daughter (who needs one for sure) with the lump sum payout that’s waiting to be released from suspense. She knew the deadline dates I’m looking at and she had even made a point of asking about the key date by which I must get a copy of the recorded document to the oil company. She was clearly thinking, trying to figure out a way to help us out without compromising her principles.
Time to let it go, head on home.
We’d take the western loop this time, Highway 2 to Williston, then south on Highway 85.
Back to the photo tour.
And then…the oil patch, most of it anyway, was behind us. I stopped once more at Cheyenne, grabbed six hours of sleep, and couldn’t wait to get out of there. On south through Colorado and down into New Mexico, where I called home. Pam told me that the woman we’d hired part time as her companion and light housekeeper (my wife is disabled and also in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease) was not earning her pay. I got off the phone, then called back five minutes later to let her know I’d already fired the offender. It’s simple enough to do things like that at 75 miles per hour when you have speed dial.
I turned off into the brush on our property, several hundred yards from the house, at 2:49 a.m., not wishing to disturb Pam’s sleep. She’d feel my presence soon enough. There was moonlight as I stepped out of the vehicle for a moment to take care of business, reveling in the glory of being home. I’d made the 3,397 mile round trip in four days plus four hours, an even 100 hour total. Not bad for an amateur.
Pam called me at 3:49 a.m., her first words being, “Where are you?” She knew I was close. I fired up the Subaru, rolled on up to the car’s usual parking spot, and headed in to sit with my wife, bringing her up to date on the details of the trip. Gato cat, being part Siamese and quite vocal, let me know it was about time I got back.
Now, let’s see if this page with the monster batch of images will load properly….