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The New Pioneers

Starting over in North Dakota.

Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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I meet 25-year-old Kaley Keane as we wait for our luggage at the airport in Minot. She’s returning from visiting friends in sunny California to Tioga, a tiny town with plenty of drilling activity about 85 miles west of Minot. As the rain and wind blow in a typical prairie gale, the power in the airport flickers on and off, stopping the baggage conveyor belt. Kaley looks at me, then at the clock, and sighs. “I guess I won’t be getting to work today,” she says, her voice mixed with relief and exasperation. A job is better than the alternative, but sometimes it’s hard to get excited.

Kaley has worked in Tioga since August 2012. She’s originally from Arizona and went to college there. I ask what her major was.

“The first time, the second time, or the third time?” she laughs.

She started as pre-med. Then she switched her major to “psychology and linguistics.” Then to philosophy. Kaley eventually left school without a degree, though she says she’s just 12 credits away from earning her bachelor’s online. After school, her attempt to start a paralegal business in Arizona failed. Suddenly, Kaley found herself with no college degree, no prospects of gainful employment, and a staggering $70,000 in student loan debt.

“So I started looking online,” she tells me. “I said, ‘Where’s hiring at the highest rate right now?’ Found a whole bunch of articles about North Dakota and then some websites that were like recruiting sites.”

She found a job as a receptionist at a man camp, those groupings of dorm-like lodgings for temporary workers that flank the highways of the Bakken. She still lives in the camp but has a better job in payroll for a subcontractor. It still wasn’t much money, not any more than she might be making in Arizona.

“But I didn’t have to pay any bills,” she says. “All of my money went toward paying off my debt. So that was a big load off my and my mom’s shoulders. She was practically supporting me by that point.”

Kaley smiles and adds, “I am only $12,000 away. I took a big chunk out of it. I’m pretty proud of that.”

With all the talk about the easy money to be made in the oil boom, for most people here it’s just that: talk. The prairie didn’t promise riches to Per Hansa and the homesteaders, but it did promise a chance to build something new for their families. That’s what North Dakota is offering now.

“I’m not here to get rich,” says Michelle Westlund. “I want to be successful and make money to pay my bills, but I’m here for my husband. I’m not here as part of the whole oil boom thing.”

Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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