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So what did you learn on your trek?

Last Thursday, I took the final steps of my walk across McKenzie County oil country shortly after 3:30 pm, when I shuffled into the Watford City Tourist Park and set my pack on the ground. The park is a leafy place with a well-kept lawn and public restrooms with showers. Cherry Creek – a deep brown flow with high grass on its banks – meanders along the southern edge of the campground. The county fairgrounds sit just beyond.

A few minutes after I arrived, I met a woman from Colorado who, just three weeks before, had taken the position of campground host. She and her husband, who works long days operating heavy machinery on the new bypass project east of Watford City, were living in an RV trailer, and they had gotten a quick introduction to Watford City and its changing times.

“People are waiting for civilization to catch up with this wild thing that’s been happening here,” the campground host told me. She said that only three weeks earlier there were drug deals and prostitution in the campground. She called in the police and started taking trouble-makers to task. She told one group of young men they were misbehaving and just had to move on. They did. Now, she told me, “There’s a hint of civilization.”

It’s a theme I saw in many forms in and around Watford City, as longtime residents and newcomers try to sort out what the city will become as the oil industry matures from boom to big business.

On that first afternoon at the campground, though, my mind was still very much on the prairie, the open expanses where I’d had long talks with ranchers, farmers and oil workers and long walks alone to ponder the many layers of the place.

As I strolled from the public restrooms back toward my pack, I saw two men sitting at a picnic table. One was young, with ear phones in. He was rocking to whatever music he heard, one arm drumming a rhythmic pattern in the air. The other man, older, had a 16-ounce beer in his hand.

He called out to me as I passed by and asked how long I’d been in town. When I said only a few minutes, he asked where I’d come from. When I told him that I’d just finished walking 65 miles across the heart of the oil boom on the prairie, he said: “So what did you learn on your trek? Any big epiphanies?”

They were simple questions that embodied a lot of the motivation for my walk. I had set out onto prairie to try to learn some things about one particular place where we get our fuel and to try to make sense of what is happening there.

In the coming weeks and months, I’ll attempt to answer the questions by telling deeper stories about oil country that will be published elsewhere. For now, I’ve returned to my home in the Seacoast of New Hampshire with hundreds of photos, dozens of audio recordings, and of course three more Moleskine notebooks filled cover to cover.

Notebooks.

Notebooks.

I’ll be sure to spread the word when the stories are finished.

Thanks for following the journey this far.

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