As I ride into the wind on these rolling prairie hills, fires burn on either side and the asphalt melts in the sun. Big trucks, carrying oil, or water, or supplies, or maybe just men… roar past, rushing to the next dollar.
While the papers are still claiming an economy in decline, North Dakota’s Western oil mining flourishes. Towns that have seen this rise and fall before – who’s broken railways and rusting grainers speak a silent story – are being built between the highways, the tarmac telling them now.
A sheriff vehicle pulls me over and mentions the several complaints he’s received – I need to ride further to the right. There’s no shoulder, and he know’s it, but I get the warning anyway. A woman who has lived in the area several decades says “Oh, these oil workers just think they own the roads!”. Campgrounds are filled with out-of-state trailers, yellow toothed men with gypsy blood, migrating to what work they can find.
A new technique being used in the Midwest means we can now not only drill down, but also out. One mile deep, and one mile across. That means a lot more oil. Apparently North Dakota now has access to more of the liquid gold than all of Saudi Arabia… and with 109 drilling stations in this region alone, it’s easy to believe. I’ve cycled past a lot of them, and it’s a potent reminder of the efficiency of the bicycle. Struggling on a hill, sweating in the sun, I remind myself of how little I need to go so far… knowing every mile I cover is an innocent, petrol-free distance, powered by granola and avocados.
When this boom will end is anybody’s guess, but that it will is a certainty. And then what? Which ghost towns will stand, crippled, as the only evidence of a temporary industry fueled by our insatiable thirst for oil, once as vital to our system as red blood? And what will come next? A new phase? A return to the past? Or just a barren abused landscape boiling under the same sun? I look down and see my legs moving in motion, and smile at the simplicity.