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Second Steps

I got an unexpected text message yesterday evening from a friend I met in May at the end of my long walk across the Bakken oil field in the prairie of North Dakota.

“Just thought I would check in,” wrote my friend. She and her husband had moved earlier this year from Colorado to work in North Dakota. Her husband was running heavy machinery on a highway project, and the couple were also hosts at the Watford City campground, where I had met them when I camped a few nights. “Hope the writing project is going well,” the woman texted, “and you n family have had a good summer.”

I’ve had plenty of family fun this summer, to be sure, but also a chance to look back at that journey through North Dakota. I have written one magazine article, which will be published soon, and spent time drafting deeper stories of how the oil boom is changing the prairie and the lives of the people who live and work there. I also had a chance to talk about my encounters in North Dakota, including in an interview with New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth program.

I texted back to my friend to ask her how things have been in North Dakota.

“People coming through all the time – some settle here n some move on. Wish all could find work n make a new life for themselves but it doesn’t always happen,” she wrote. “I’m grateful to be getting to know people in town n really feel a part of it all.”

The timing of this exchange out to the North Dakota prairie struck me, as I have also spent weeks this summer plotting a second long walk into another of America’s landscapes of fuel. And tomorrow I will set off to walk roughly 70 more miles, this time across the natural gas fields that have spread during the past several years as companies drill into the Marcellus Formation.

I will set off tomorrow morning on foot into the Southern Tier of New York, heading for Pennsylvania. I will post more details and dispatches here soon as that trip gets underway. For now, I want to share a comment from a dairy farmer I spoke with by phone the other day. I told him that my goal in taking these long walks was to see and feel for myself the many ways in which America’s energy appetite is recasting land and lives. I told the man that, while I have arranged some interviews, I am most looking forward to the chance encounters, such as those I had in North Dakota, that can bring deeper understanding.

The farmer said he was confident I would learn much along the way.

“We all have stories to tell,” the man told me. “Every single human being has a story to tell.”


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