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Earning $100K at ‘man camp’

In this Tuesday July 26 2011 phoAustMitchell right takes break with Ben Shaw left Ryan Letho center while working an

In this Tuesday, July 26, 2011 photo, Austin Mitchell, right, takes a break with Ben Shaw, left, and Ryan Letho, center, while working an oil derrick outside of Williston, N.D. With what many are calling the largest oil boom in recent North American history, temporary housing for the huge influx of workers, known as "man camps," now dot the sparse North Dakota landscape. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

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Updated: September 4, 2011 1:08AM

WILLISTON, N.D. — You can almost smell the opportunity along Highway 2. It oozes deep from the sloping North Dakota prairie where oil derricks and natural gas wells sprout among the drying rolls of hay.

People come here hopeful, drawn by the promise of jobs. But they probably also utter a few prayers, or expletives, when they realize just how far from home this place really is.

Or when they see the makeshift villages of narrow metal-sided buildings rising from the plains — temporary housing to accommodate what many are calling the largest oil boom in recent North American history.

They’re called “man camps,” because there’s something else you’ll notice when you arrive in this upper corner of North Dakota: There aren’t a lot of women here.

“The best thing about a man camp? Uhhh, I don’t know. I couldn’t really tell you,” says Jacob Austin, a 22-year-old line cook at a camp outside the small town of Williston.

“I could tell you the worst thing about a man camp: It’s a man camp, and not a woman camp.”

“Welcome to the middle of nowhere,” says Tracy Glover, manager at this camp. A towering denim-clad character with a wide gray mustache, he looks the part of the Old West innkeeper, or maybe the sheriff. Here, he’s a bit of both.

BMW-driving former executives, young men fresh off the farm, or recent college graduates — they’ve all come to seek their fortune, along this stretch of oil country that’s known as the Bakken, where barreling fuel trucks dominate the roads. Parking lots are full of cars, RVs and pickups with plates from states where financial upheaval has shaken many Americans to their core.

“I always say, ‘Oil doesn’t grow where men go,’” Glover tells new arrivals.

This particular camp houses nearly 500 residents. One guy’s shift might start at 4 a.m., another’s at 4 p.m. — those shifts often running 12 to 16 hours, seven days a week, depending on the work and the deadlines.

It leaves little time for the rowdiness that you might expect at a place like this. The men might watch a little TV, shoot some pool or hang out for a chat and a smoke. They use computers next to the laundry room or Wi-Fi on their own laptops to communicate with the outside world, and cell phones, when they work.

Workers pay $400 a month, or whatever they can negotiate, for room and board at the camps.

Matthew Tjaden, a 21-year-old oil worker, has a degree is in recreation and leisure management. When he was in school, he was a Wal-Mart cashier and also delivered pizzas.

Now he makes six-figures working on an oil rig 80 hours a week. “I’ve paid off college and my car. I blew a lot of it, too,” he says, detailing some of those purchases — $4,000 worth of snowboarding equipment, $5,000 worth of clothes, a $3,000 mountain bike.

Target Logistics, which operates the camp, only accepts residents from companies that do drug tests and background checks. There are rules — no alcohol, no weapons, no women in the rooms, no drama.

“There’s a lot of guys who can do this forever, and then there are those who burn out,” Tjaden says. AP

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