Ah, yes, the new North Dakota.
A minor oil spill here and a "minor" oil spill there, a barroom brawl tonight and a domestic homicide tomorrow, a wellhead natural gas explosion in Tioga and an oil train derailment and fire in Casselton. Traffic fatalities now so frequent in northwestern North Dakota as to have ceased to be news. A man living in a Dumpster and bodies dumped in Dumpsters. Prostitution now punctuates the landscape as densely as oil flares, and prostitution-related violence is filling our emergency rooms. Drugs, drug gangs, drug wars. In fact, nearly pandemic drug use among potential workers, according to the oil industry experts themselves, represents the "biggest roadblock" to a more robust development in the Bakken oil fields.
How do I know these things? I read it all in the Tribune. On the night before I wrote these words, I went to the Tribune website to look up something entirely unrelated. But the harmless little thing I was looking for was buried under a slurry of horrifying stories about what North Dakota has become in the last decade. Take a look for yourself. It's like seeing your nephew for the first time in a couple of years. His parents look on him as the same old Ralphie, but you instantly notice that he is 6 inches taller than when you last saw him, he has some chin hair, he wears outsized jeans jammed well down on his hips, his voice cracks when he talks about the Super Bowl, and he catches himself about halfway into the F-word. Compare copies of the Tribune (or Dickinson Press, or Williston Herald, or Minot Daily News) from Feb. 16, 2005, and Feb. 16, 2014, and, as Shakespeare puts it, "hark what discord follows." You can say goodbye to the sleepy old family farm homeland we once were.
When I was growing up, if there were three murders in North Dakota a year we regarded it as the coming of Sodom and Gomorrah. We may have been boring, and we all fretted about depopulation and rural decline, but we were an astonishingly peaceful and neighborly place with a very high quality of life that somehow made up for the dearth of social amenities. Back then, if someone in our acquaintance locked his car doors at night we regarded him as a nervous Nellie.
In the past eight years, the quality of life in North Dakota has soared and plummeted at the same time and from the same cause. We are rich (on the whole, though unevenly), but anyone who tells you we have not lost anything worth keeping has apparently drunk the crude.
Here's what I learned in 30 minutes at the Tribune website on Tuesday night.
North Dakota Highway 23 west of New Town was closed for seven hours last Saturday after an oil field worker by the name of Huan Son of New Iberia, La., collided with two semi-trucks and a pickup. He was attempting to pass a semi on the crest of a hill. He wound up getting himself killed, causing an oil spill, harrowing the lives of the three other drivers (none, apparently, injured) and damaging their property, and tying up traffic on one of the Bakken's key oil arteries for seven full hours. People don’t usually pass on hills unless they are filled with reckless testosterone, drunk or so frustrated by the antlike pace of traffic that they take what at first seems like a calculated risk. None of the four drivers involved in the wreck have been identified as North Dakotans.
Ten years ago, this would have merited banner headlines in the state’s newspapers and it would have dominated the coffee klatch salons in North Dakota Cenex stations for days. By now, it is just a nub in the news. It has gotten to the point that I don't even read through such stories anymore. We just shake our heads and move on.
Meanwhile, a "routine" trailer court homicide investigation in southeast Mandan has proven to be the tip of a criminal underworld iceberg. It all began when a man named Alex Lansdon was found dead of multiple gunshot wounds on Jan. 27. As the web of felonious activity widened, investigating officers found methamphetamines, psilocybin, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a 9mm handgun, $5,400 in cash and four cellphones. Hmm, what cottage industry must this represent? Two men and a woman also were charged with terrorizing and felonious restraint. They had apparently lured an unnamed woman to one of the defendant's homes, assaulted her, held her against her will and threatened to kill her and her children. The principal suspect apparently called a friend in search of rolls of plastic with which to wrap her body once they killed her, and bleach and gloves so that they could scrub away the evidence. They actually boarded up a door on the house to prevent the woman from leaving. She says they assaulted her with a stun gun. In spite of all this, she was able to escape the next day.
When you get to the "we'll kill you and dispose of your body with Saran wrap" stage of drug trafficking, you are no longer merely supplementing your income as a night clerk.
In related news, a 67-year-old Missouri man by the name of Marvin Lord has been charged with facilitating prostitution at a north Bismarck motel. Motel employees called the police after observing Lord meeting strange men in the motel lobby, escorting them to his room and then waiting in the lobby for them to return. A 41-year-old Chinese woman in his company has been charged with prostitution. As is usual in such cases, she pleaded not guilty. Lord claims they are married. He told the judge they have been in North Dakota "a little over a week." The Chinese woman has a valid travel visa. She has not been named because it is possible that she is the victim of sex trafficking.
Sex trafficking. In North Dakota. In North Dakota! IN NORTH DAKOTA.
Last Sunday, Minot police arrested five men alleged to be operating a prostitution ring in the Magic City. It need hardly be said that these crimes — brought to light by deliberate sting operations — are merely the tip of the prostitution iceberg. That such activity is one of the "growing pains" of the oil boom goes without saying.
Is all this your idea of North Dakota?
Stories indicating that the state of North Dakota is losing $1 million a month in natural gas (flaring) taxes, that Amtrak trains can hardly pierce through the glut of oil train traffic on our beleaguered railways, that a Watford City man has been charged with eight felony counts of gun possession (related to murder and mayhem in Spokane, Wash.), that state game wardens can hardly keep up with the poaching epidemic, or that it is going to take a couple of years to clean up the September 2013 Tioga oil pipeline spill, are now considered too "minor" to hold our collective attention.
Words matter. To call these things growing pains is a form of economic and linguistic obscenity.
(Clay Jenkinson is the Theodore Roosevelt Center scholar at Dickinson State University, as well as Distinguished Scholar of the Humanities at Bismarck State College and director of the Dakota Institute. He can be reached at Jeffysage@aol.com or through his website, Jeffersonhour.org.)