The Promised Land?

Amy Dalrymple used to be on The Forum’s education beat when she was in Fargo.  I came to like Amy from my interactions with her on that beat.  When she shipped off to become The Forum’s reporter in the patch I was nervous for her (of course I would be, as my risk lens is always  present and scanning for hazards).  I wondered how sweet Amy would fare in the Wild West, but soon any concerns I had were put to rest as it became clear that Amy was going to be just fine making her way in an area that had layers upon layers of human interest stories and hard-hitting news to report.

I regularly read Amy’s articles in The Forum.  I think she captures the realities of the oil patch without judging or being preachy.  I think this takes a great deal of journalistic integrity to accomplish.  I would judge.  I would be preachy.  I think many folks would struggle to report without bias from the patch.  Not that I am a reporter or have anything but anecdotal experience to make that assessment – that is my bias showing through.

At any rate, Amy has an interesting story in The Forum today (part of her Faces of the Boom series)about a family living in Williston – the Whitcombs – and their appreciation for their newly acquired home rental.  The Whitcombs (Paul and Marcia) and their four children spent two years in an RV until recently when they fortunate to get into a rental home that has four bedrooms and a den.  The Whitcomb family came to North Dakota from Arkansas so that Paul, who used to be an over the road truck driver, could get a job where he could spend more time with his family.  Paul started working in the patch and now both he and his wife have oil-related jobs.  Paul’s brother Ryan (who is on disability) came from Washington state recently came to live with the Whitcomb family to help with the kids and expenses.

The story is essentially about the gratitude the Whitcomb family has for finally having a home their family can settle into.  This may not be news other places, but in a housing shortage the likes of which Williston is suffering with, a home is hard to come by.  And note, it does not come cheap either.  The Whitcombs were able to get into this home because the previous tenants could no longer keep up with the cost of the rental property – a cool $4,000 a month.

I must confess, I about fell off my chair when I saw that figure.  That is an awful lot of money for a rental property.  I shudder to think what portion of their income has to go toward rent.  I know there is a lot of money to be made out there, but with this level of rent inflation I wonder to what extent it all becomes relative with cost-of-living expenses.   When I hear a $4,000 a month rent price tag I think of places like New York City or the Hollywood Hills, not Williston. I understand the premise of charging “whatever the market will bear” – but where is the conscience in this type of rent inflation?

Williston has become a part of the promised land -the land that through oil will meet everyone’s needs.  Or so I am told.  I am not buying it.  In my mind it has become an exercise in perversion…a distortion that has multiplied so many times over that it has become difficult for those in the midst of it to remember what normal should mean.

The Whitcombs are the faces of the boom – a nice family trying to take care of each other.  The oil brought them here and has shaped their North Dakota experience.  They are living in the promised land, but how much promise has it really shown them?  They endured two years and two winters in a 33 foot RV – two adults, four kids, four small dogs, a cat, a bird, and a rat.  They are grateful now to be in a home where they will be better protected from the elements and have room to move around, but that home comes at a premium.

I wish the Whitcombs well and I thank Amy for bringing us their story.  There is more in her article than just a portrait of a grateful family, there is the capture of a distorted reality that permeates the oil patch and reshapes the reality of those who flock there for a better life.  The American Dream is theoretically woven through it all, but is the current reality in the oil patch the dream families like the Whitcombs originally aspired to?  I wonder.

Day one thousand two hundred and eighty-eight of the new forty – obla di obla da

Ms. C