Running on Fumes in North Dakota

A young woman, lured to North Dakota for a truck-driving job in the oil industry, shares her agonizing existence in an isolated boomtown.

Link to video

Since around 2006, North Dakota’s oil boom has been a beacon for recession-ravaged Americans. The oil towns in the western part of the state are a land of possibility and opportunity, a “Kuwait on the prairie,” where the American Dream is alive and well in the rural heartland. Or at least that’s the sales pitch that has lured thousands of job seekers.

But Jonnie Cassens, a 38-year-old truck driver who is the subject of this Op-Doc video, offers a different perspective. Unable to find decent work on the West Coast, she moved to North Dakota carrying unpaid hospital bills, student loans and a commercial driver’s license. It was easy for her to get a job in the oil industry, as a contract “hotshot” truck driver — basically a round-the-clock special-delivery driver. When a rig or a pump jack breaks down, a hotshot is called to rush a new part out to a site, often in very remote areas. Jonnie calls it “U.P.S. on steroids.”

The work is steady, but her life has been agonizing. The pay can be lower than expected (her employer says she earned $34,000 last year) and the cost of living remarkably high (a tight housing market has, in some cases, inflated rents to Manhattan levels). Her loneliness is magnified by a desolate landscape that’s dominated by men.

Jonnie’s story calls into question whether hard work and courage can eventually bring a decent living in contemporary America — a longstanding promise this nation makes to its citizens. As it happens, we can’t all be winners. Not even in a boomtown.

Lewis Wilcox, Eliot Popko, James Christenson and Jonah Sargent make up The Cheddar Factory, a production company in Minneapolis. They’re currently completing production of a feature-length documentary that chronicles North Dakota’s oil boom.

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