Todd Melby and the stories of Western North Dakota’s oil boom

Photo by Ben Garvin for Black Gold Boom.

It’s easy to see why people tell their stories to Todd Melby.

We sat down earlier in the week to chat over a couple beers as he was passing through town on his way home to the Twin Cities from Williston, where his work on the multimedia documentary project, Black Gold Boom, is based (an excellent new interactive documentary, Rough Ride, went up last week). He’s instantly likeable, an eager listener, and is quick with a joke.

“I’m comfortable around everybody, pretty much,” he says between bites of fish and chips. “I ask questions, look people in the eye, I’m respectful, and I’m not judgmental.”

He makes it sound so easy. But that demeanor is probably the biggest asset he’s had at his disposal these last 10 months talking to the characters that emerge from the larger story of the oil boom in Western North Dakota: roughnecks on the drilling rigs, locals who’ve watched their landscape and economy change almost overnight, opportunists who’ve wheeled in mobile kitchens in an effort to make a living off of hungry oil field workers, and plenty more.

Melby had an early interest in radio, working at Hettinger, North Dakota’s KNDC as a teen before moving on to study broadcasting in the Twin Cities. He eventually began working as a freelance journalist and radio producer, covering stories like the Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty presidential bids and setting up a non-profit production company, 2 Below Zero, with his wife. In 2011, he received a grant for the Black Gold Boom project through the Association for Independents in Radio’s (AIR) Localore program, set up camp in a basement apartment in Williston, and starting venturing out with a microphone in hand.

The results have provided the richest narrative we have of the Bakken oil boom. There’s the story of Jayce Mitchell and Logan Bice, stepbrothers who moved to North Dakota to find work and pass the time roping a dummy steer in a truck stop parking lot. There’s Geoff Swenson, an oil field worker who describes falling asleep at a Home Depot because of his grueling, 80-hour work week. There’s Bobcat John, who came to North Dakota to sell knives to oil field workers and got his name from when he used to own a bobcat. And on and on they unravel, the stories of dozens of people whose lives are now intrinsically linked to the oil and who live the day-to-day lives that the rest of the state, country, and world sees largely in the abstract. We’re pulled into their orbits, artificial boundaries are torn away, and we’re reminded that our commonalities are just as significant as our differences.

Melby has been living that life too, in a way. He splits his time between Williston and his Minneapolis home: two weeks on, a week off, mimicking the schedules of oil field workers. He describes the busy traffic that, somewhere around Mandan, gives way to the open North Dakota landscape he remembers from his youth. He talks about Wal-Mart as a hub for social life. But, mostly, it seems like he simply wants to share the stories of the people he’s met, working people looking to make their way amid both the opportunities and obstacles that the boom has presented them, immersing himself gonzo-style in the process. In one of my favorite Black Gold Boom scenes, Melby hops into a car with a group of guys cruising around Watford City. On their insistence, he shoves a dip of Grizzly chewing tobacco into his lower lip … and vomits on the street shortly thereafter.

One of Melby’s favorites is the story of Ben Audet, a Minot native who he talked to while Audet was bowfishing along the Missouri River.

“Ben is making $120,000 a year, and he’s 22,” Melby says, a tinge of wonder in his voice. “Twenty-two and $120,000 a year. And, so he claims, he’s dating a model from another state who happened to be on a photoshoot in Thailand. Ben Audet is livin’ the f—–’ life, right?”

He contrasts that story, one of enviable opportunity, with those who have found life in the oil patch either changed beyond what they remember or potentially dangerous. It’s a sentiment he’s captured through the activist music of Kris Kitko and the story of Nathina St. Pierre, who keeps several weapons in her truck to ward off the increasing threat of aggravated assault.

Throughout our conversation, I’m constantly reminded that everything we hear about Western North Dakota–the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, the thrilling economic news, the skyrocketing growth, the lights and flares viewable from the International Space Station, all of it–has people at its core. People doing what people do, which is making their way the best they can.

Towards the end of the evening, after Melby and I paid our respective tabs and make our way over to the exhibition opening of a friend, we share a laugh over a tweet by a pair of oil field workers at Oil Patch Problems (@patchtrashprobs): “Just using my billion dollar automated industrial equipment to extract dinosaur blood from deep in the crust so you can sleep at night.” Here, sipping red wine and nibbling on fine cheese in downtown Fargo, we might as well be a million miles away from what’s happening on those rigs. And yet, it’s another example of just how inextricably linked we all are.

It’s a powerful realization, and a realization that only comes through the power of a good story.

Image via Melby’s Black Gold Boom Flickr stream.

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