10 Years of Scrounging

Here we go again with some more self indulgence. I’ve recently had a short story accepted for an anthology. It’s a horror story that incorporates the 2020 quarantine. I just loved that idea, about a horror story where the fear is compounded by debilitating illness, queasiness, a kind of unsureness of what’s happening. I had fun with it. Try the e-book here, or buy a paperback there.

It’s been 10 years since I was first a reporter in the badlands of the Bakken in North Dakota. The oil boom days. Men flocking all across the country to live in the plains and work the oilfields – the money, that was the main reason for it. It’s always the money. These guys would go and live out there in “man camps” and burn themselves out working on the oilfields. They were so desperate to get me to their paper that they set me up with housing immediately – a trailer among rows and rows of them out in those plains. Business as a slapdash thing. They were just doing whatever at the time. Everything moved so fast they couldn’t see where they were going, and so there was a shitload of crime that came with it all. Just crazy chaos, people doing drugs, crashing cars into fences, stealing.

Then it got really serious. A woman around my mom’s age came into the newsroom in maybe May or June 2013. Sad and vulnerable, wanting everything we could give, no illusions. She was the mother of this kid who had gone missing in the area a while previously. This guy, James Henrikson, was arrested for hiring a hit on the guy, who he came up to the oilfields to work on, business partners, the two of them. I was barely there a month before this and they were organizing a whole day in June or so to look for this guy’s body. I wrote up a quick story and got drawn into it all. Obsessed! Henrikson was on the run then. He was involved with a lot of random business bullshit and other crimes. Criminals aren’t smart. Everyone knew he was behind it even back then. I drove around the desert and made phone calls. I remember actually being afraid of writing about this stuff in the paper – we were the biggest paper in that area. But fortunately nothing happened since, apparently, life isn’t 1:1 with a crime novel I’d be interested in.

One of the guys I worked with wasn’t sure why we were pursuing the case. But I couldn’t quit. This was the most interesting thing bar none. I got some information from the Feds which I put in an exhaustive article back then, and then it got used in this book Yellow Bird years and years later by a writer who put in much more work than I did. That’s a good enough legacy for me. That was a good book. I think you all should give it a read.

The rest of the time back then, in North Dakota, it was a lot of wandering. I’d travel just for the sake of getting out of town. Long stretches of flatlands and nothing. There were mostly a lot of bars and steakhouses in Williston. A ramshackle little town that was ballooned by force because they found gold in the ground. Story old as time. I remember there were murmurs of it being like the Wild West and it was the closest I ever got. My editor sent us out there to interview these oil workers, one a week. Guys whose stories were mostly all just “had to make money, left my family, came across the country to break my back and stain my hands in these fields.” I spent a lot of time doing increasingly dour, suffocating stories about the crime. Traveled a few times to Bismarck to do things – a four hour drive from me then. I think at some point, I’d done everything I could do living in that area. There are reasons people move to big cities.

To pass the time, I’d just hang out at bars, walk the town, hang in my own place and watch movies. Got used to the solitude. The transitory nature of that place made it hard to date or even make friends outside of the small circle who hung together at the paper. Everyone was a transient. From somewhere else and going somewhere else, still. It became a natural state for myself, too, to be always traveling or in motion somehow. I’m still doing it today.

I never really found a home in Williston. It was a dusty little place at the edge of the world and there was a lot of commotion there for a short time. I look back on it fondly, but I remember talking to guys who were leaving that dry old desert wasteland as quick as possible. I had some good times with a few friends back then, driving around, hitting up bars that might as well have been old West saloons. I read a lot, watched a lot of movies. The work days were full of conferences to cover, meetings with old men sitting at tables deliberating over the future, man-on-the-street interviews, lots of days in the courthouse covering random trials and things. That courthouse was something. A great construct of polished floors and quiet, regal courtrooms for the judges – you have to have good places for them to do their work.

I discovered standup comedy there. Imagine that. All the way out to the edge of North Dakota, two hours to the Canadian border, to learn I wanted to do comedy myself. It started in the basement of this trashy dive bar right down the road from me, the kind of place where the wood’s all stained with beer and the daylight made it all look just fucking sad. Nobody under 50 in there except for their dance party nights, and on those, the music blared over shitty cheap speakers. But it was what they had. Bars of that kind exist all over the country in the vast nothing and they’re always so interesting to me, those and the random seedy motels. Just fascinating.

But this guy had a comedy night where he brought in road-dog headliners to do some time, occasionally with some local people. It was fascinating because it was new to me. I’d seen comedies, but didn’t like all of them as well as some. And I’d watched some Robin Williams, some George Carlin, loved Louis CK in college. Watching standup in that dingy bar basement every week, often drunk as shit because there was so little else I had to do. It was just a 10 minute drive home. Don’t drive drunk, though. I started comedy in 2015 when my life was at a much less stable place. That was the genesis, though – a little bar in North Dakota.

I left in 2014 in April. The second to last day there was the most snow I ever saw there. Early April and a blanket of white. I’d set off for a long drive across the country and have some interesting times. Back then, it was always interesting at least. Life with no definition yet. I think your early 20s can be something cool and I tried to make mine that way. And maybe my 30s will be interesting too. I guess all you can do is try.