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You are going to walk through oil country?

The other day I called the McKenzie County planning and zoning office to get a detailed map of townships. I told the woman who answered the phone that I planned to walk roughly 70 miles across the oil fields and she got upset.

“We have the highest rate of deaths, and most people don’t walk,” she said, meaning, really, that nobody walks. In North Dakota oil counties, the Associated Press reported, traffic fatalities climbed 350 percent in the past decade.

Yesterday, on the flight into Bismarck, the man sitting next to me, who has spent his career working oil and gas well sites in North Dakota, Texas, Utah, Colorado and elsewhere, just laughed. “People are going to throw stuff at you,” he said with a smile.

I explained to my neighbor that I was walking to slow down my own pace of movement on the prairie and the interaction I would have with this natural place that is changing so fast.

Gear and empty backpack before the walk. Bunkhouse. North Dakota. Gear and empty backpack before the walk. Bunkhouse. North Dakota.

I told him that I want to be exposed to the wind and rain (though hopefully only a little). I want to sleep out where I can see and hear the gas flares. I want to feel – at a safe enough distance – the rumble of trucks that have turned dirt county roads into highways. (Hundreds of trucks of water are needed just to frack a single well. And with little pipeline infrastructure, all that oil has to be hauled away.)

I want to happen upon scenes: oil workers hanging out after a shift on the rig; farmers hustling to get their wheat planted after a cold spring; ranchers branding young cattle.

I told my neighbor on the plane that if I approach all of this on foot, uncertain where I’m headed next, it will make for better encounters, better conversation. It will make for better reporting.

I know this because I’ve done some of it before. I walked across the island nation of Dominica in 2002, for example, for a story for The Boston Globe. And in 2005, I joined Gandhi’s great grandson and hundreds of marchers from across India for a walk recreating Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March on a route that led to the Arabian Sea.

In preparation for my North Dakota journey, I’ve called a few farmers and ranchers along my general route. Each seemed skeptical of my plan at first, but soon enough agreed that this is a way to get a sense, from the perspective of people and place, of what is really going on in the Bakken. After only a few minutes in a single phone call, I’ve been offered a place to pitch my tent along the way.

Each of the farmers – second- and third-generation landowners in the area – has confirmed that if I stay well off the road and stay alert, I should be safe. One U.S. Forest Service Ranger, who raved about the beautiful country I will see, said: “I think you should be fine as far as traffic is concerned.”

So sure enough, once I explained all this to the man sitting next to me on the plane, he nodded and said, that yes, it’s just about as good a way as a person could have to understand the story of North Dakota in this moment. He looked down at the prairie below, then told me: “You’re going to see some incredible stuff.”


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