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A world not entered by accident

Walking with a backpack mile after mile down dirt roads on the open prairie, people wonder: What are you doing? Where are you heading? Looking for work?

The curiosity makes for some quick connections with those working the drilling rigs, oil well pads, pipeline hubs and more.

This is one of the first well pads I saw on day one.

When I wander over and introduce myself, explaining that I am writing about landscapes of energy in America, I often learn about the workers and the jobs they are doing. On day two, I met two young men who were picking up pipe for a well in a supply yard.

Several times – including at one horsehead pump and on a drilling rig – the conversations led to in-depth interviews about the work at hand and bigger issues of how and where we get our energy. One example of the close look I got came on day five, when I climbed atop a drilling rig with a supervisor who welcomed me. In this photo, a shaker sorts earth drilled from 10,000 feet below the surface.

I will write more about all I have learned later, in deeper stories of longer form. For now, I just want to note how close to the oil field the walking has gotten me.

As a friend wrote in a message to me the other day: “You’ve entered the world that nobody arrives to by accident, which makes you a part of the team by default.”

Yesterday, I passed by this pipeline installation, but – having just walked eight miles – could only muster the gumption to take a photo.

I turned to walk on, when a guy in a hard hat approached me on foot. He’d been on the job only three days, having flown in from his home in Denver. So was I out for a hike? He barely waited for an answer.

He owned property in South Dakota, 16 acres in the Badlands. It had been in the family since the 1880s.

“They sure are uglying this place up in a hurry,” he said. “I just hope to God this never comes down there.”

A truck pulled up.

“What do you do for fun?” said the driver. “Where do you get your beer?”

The man was wearing one of the fire resistant, knight-like hoods that fit under a hard hat. He laughed a lot, and he and his partner said that what I ought to do is go talk to the boss in the trailer – he had stories.

But before I could respond, we all saw the boss hustling across the road 100 yards away, heading toward a big pile of pipe.

“Go talk to him,” the hooded man roared. “Keep him away from us!”

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