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Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier

Great American Outpost Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier


Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier


Maya Rao



A surreal, lyrical work of narrative nonfiction that portrays how the largest domestic oil discovery in half a century transformed a forgotten corner of the American West into a crucible of breakneck capitalism.

As North Dakota became the nation’s second-largest oil producer, Maya Rao set out in steel-toe boots to join a wave of drifters, dreamers, entrepreneurs, and criminals. With an eye for the dark, absurd, and humorous, Rao fearlessly immersed herself in their world to chronicle this modern-day gold rush, from its heady beginnings to OPEC’s price war against the US oil industry.

She rode shotgun with a surfer-turned-truck driver braving toxic fumes and dangerous roads, dined with businessmen disgraced during the financial crisis, and reported on everyone in between–including an ex-con YouTube celebrity, a trophy wife mired in scandal, and a hard-drinking British Ponzi schemer–in a social scene so rife with intrigue that one investor called the oilfield Peyton Place on steroids.

As the boom receded, a culture of greed and recklessness left troubling consequences for investors and longtime residents. Empty trailers and idle oil equipment littered the fields like abandoned farmsteads, leaving the pioneers who built this unlikely civilization to reckon with their legacy. Part Barbara Ehrenreich, part Upton Sinclair, Great American Outpost is a sobering exploration of twenty-first-century America that reads like a frontier novel.

Editorial Reviews “Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier”

“An important addition to the literature of the U.S. shale revolution-too often underestimated and misunderstood-Great American Outpost reminds us that the revolution is not just a story of frack fluid and oil production but a story of the human experience. Through Didionesque scenes of the North Dakota boom, Maya Rao evokes America in extremis with glimpses of lives and decisions that are sometimes frightening, sometimes inspiring, and sometimes just nuts.”―–Gary Sernovitz, author of The Green and the Black: The Complete Story of the Shale Revolution, the Fight over Fracking, and the Future of Energy

“From the upper reaches of North Dakota, Maya Rao extracts a potent metaphor for modern American capitalism. Her bracing dispatch from the Bakken reveals the toll of fracking on everything it touches – from the soil of the Great Plains, to the precarious lives of roughnecks, to the remote communities that became boomtowns full of hustlers, dreamers and opportunists. Keenly observed and vividly told, Great American Outpost also has an undercurrent of anxiety that seeps from abandoned oilfields into the larger landscape of our culture, in the form of a question few dare to ask: What remains when the profiteers move on?”―–Jessica Bruder, author of Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century America

“I’m grateful for this stunning work of immersive reportage. Maya Rao tells us a tale from ground zero for modern American capitalism: the North Dakota oil rush, from boom to bust. It’s a remarkable book for right now, mixing compelling portraits with smart, big picture analysis. Rao shows us stories that visiting reporters would likely miss, and the result is a rich, nuanced book that’s a crucial guide to understanding twenty-first century America.”―–Tracie McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table

“With oil at $100 a barrel, greed in North Dakota was manifest and the characters were right out of the Gold Rush, from some of the craziest get rich crooks to the recently paroled who could make $90,000 a year hurling big trucks down two-lane roads. Maya Rao’s description of one of America’s biggest rushes of sheer greed ranks right up there with the great books of the California Gold Rush of 1849 …This is one of the best books in America about working men and women — and life in the oilfields when the lid blows off.”―–Humpy Wheeler, retired NASCAR promoter and former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway

“Maya Rao didn’t just write about the boomtown life, she lived it capturing the hope and despair of a nation of citizens looking for a break. A gimlet-eyed look at the oil, dust, and, most importantly, the people living on our country’s last frontier. This is essential reading for anyone interested in how the American Dream or the American Nightmare can be made and lost in the blink of a two-week pay period.”―–Stephen Rodrick, contributing editor to Rolling Stone

About the Author: Maya Rao

Maya Rao is a staff writer in the Washington D.C. bureau of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and her work has appeared in the Atlantic, Awl, Philadelphia Inquirer, Longreads, and more.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs; 1 edition (April 24, 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1610396464
  • ISBN-13: 978-1610396462
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds

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Reader Review

Ronaele Whittington

The booming northeast corner of North Dakota

May 14, 2018

The author discussed her research on an NPR show which I heard during drive time. I am glad I decided to find and read this book about a contemporary, North American frontier. Since author Rao lived her research along with documenting events, the frontier came alive. This readable documentary deserves a prominent place on the history shelf. Sources are cited with underlining rather than tiny numbers. The underlining made it easier for me to select and trace the notes provided.


Diane H

Interesting episodic tale of the North Dakota oil boom and bust in the 2000s

April 25, 2018

The Great American Outpost is a scattershot memoir of the North Dakota fracking oil boom and its impact on local residents.

In 2011, the first horizontal fracking oil well was drilled in North Dakota. What followed totally changed the laid back farming vibe of the state. Out-of-state workers flooded the area in search of unskilled and truck driving jobs paying upwards of $150,000 a year. Many were criminals, drunks and/or avoiding their child support orders. The jails were so full they had to take criminals to Montana to house them. With so many large trucks on the road, locals were dying regularly in traffic accidents. Enterprising locals upped their food prices over 100%. Housing was scarce. One English con man scammed international investors with a resident hotel Ponzi scheme.

While somewhat interesting, the Great American Outpost didn’t hold my interest throughout. It needed some editing to mine a coherent plot from its episodic stories of North Dakota’s oil rush. 3 stars.

Thanks to the publisher, Public Affairs/Perseus Books, and NetGalley for an advanced copy.



Black Gold: An Investigative Story of a North Dakota Oil Boomtown…..

April 24, 2018

In this stunning masterpiece debut, Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks, and The Making of an Oil Frontier author-journalist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Maya Rao, tells the extraordinary story of the North Dakota Bakken Oil Boom (2010-2015) that centered in the city of Williston, N.D. At the peak of the boom, the area filled with thousands of new arrivals, and has often been compared to the 1849 San Francisco Gold Rush. The Dakota badlands in the Bakken formation contain the largest oil reserves in the U.S. after Texas.

With the price of oil selling for $100.00 a barrel, oil fracking was used to extract oil from the bowels of the earth, each frack was serviced by one to five million gallons of water. Fresh water was hauled in and salt toxin water hauled out. About 2,300 truck-loads were required to service each operating oil well. Unfortunately, investigators found cases of illegal waste water and other forms of disposal which was forbidden by state and federal regulations. Corporate oil companies were fined, fees were paid etc. However, polluted portions of the land were inhabitable and destroyed for future generations.

Large semi’s and industrial trucks clogged Hwy 85 through Williston, and traffic accidents resulting in many deaths were common. The entire area was changing so rapidly with all kinds of construction from man-camps, RV and mobile home parks, strip malls, taverns/bars, gas with service stations and every form of business to accommodate the influx of people arriving from around the globe. All forms of services, food and lodging were offered at exorbitant costs. With the unrelenting sub-zero winter temperatures, snow, the wind-chill factor of the badlands, life was brutal for those living in their cars or small trailers unable to afford basic shelter.

At the height of the boom, the urban research and civil engineering staff were unable to accurately map population growth. Maya was stunned at the level of criminal activity. A charming British con-man disappeared with a fortune stolen from investors from Singapore and other locations abroad; calls went unanswered, investigative authorities were unable to trace or find him. A well regarded business woman was arrested sent to prison for operating drug ring based out of multiple locations and states.

Maya rode in a tanker, the driver offered to teach her to drive a truck and get her CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) so she could get a land a well-paying job at about $80,000 per year. The experienced oil field workers arrived from Texas and Oklahoma: they were “roughnecks” “wildcatters” “tool pushers” “drillers”– the work was demanding, dangerous and very hard. Most of the men were single, respectable and responsible fatherhood was typically measured by child-support payments of sons and daughters the men seldom heard from or didn’t know.

In 2015, with a global surplus of oil, the barrels of crude oil prices began a rapid decline. Corporate oil companies were turning towards pipelines over using truck transport. This would raise serious environmental concerns that are still being addressed. Workers began leaving Williston as quickly as they had arrived. This culturally outstanding work accurately portrays a boom and bust cycle of an all-American town, events and people daring enough to risk everything they had for a better way of life. ** With much appreciation and thanks to Hachette Book Group via NetGalley for the DDC for the purpose of review.


In-Depth Reporting on the Bakken

May 3, 2018

I’ve spent almost my entire life in southwestern North Dakota, only a few hours away from the epicenter of the recent oil boom in the Bakken. And even down here on the fringes of the boom, it’s hard to believe how much has changed in such a short period of time.

Maya Rao spent two years in the Bakken, investigating these changes, talking to farmers and ranchers, oil workers from around the world, oil executives, and government officials. Rao has written a book that brings to light how complicated this boom has been for everyone involved, while keeping an open mind and remaining neutral. The boom was romanticized, then villainized by everyone who has survived it (depending on which side you’re on, of course). Rao is unbiased in her reporting of the issues, making this a perfect read for anyone who is interested in learning what life was and is really like in the Bakken. As someone who lives on the very edge of the oil activity, it gave me a much more clear idea of what happened during the boom/bust to my neighbors to the North. It’s not as clear cut as some would believe, and Rao does an excellent job showing both sides of the story. This is a great book for anyone who is interested in learning about the largest oil boom in modern history, told by the people who lived it.

Connie (TOP 100 REVIEWER)

Vying for that American dream

March 8, 2018

Maya Rao is a talented writer. I was sucked into this story fast and had a hard time putting the book down.

Rao is a staff writer for the Minneapolis Star. From 2012 through 2016 she came to the Bakken oil reserve to interview the people. in mid 2014 she even took a job as a cashier at a local truck stop to meet more of these various workers more intimately. One such person, Danny Witt, is profiled throughout this story. Witt is a handyman/surfer from North Carolina who drove up to Northwest North Dakota to try his luck in the oil business. He was behind in child support payments. With minimal training he was able to be certified as a truck driver, hauling loads of water to fracking sites.

The oil boom from early in the 21st century hit this part of the country hard and fast. The explosion of wealth brought in a lot of money, but that money went to transients whose only goal was to make as much money as fast as possible and then leave. This hit the town of Williston hard. Oil workers were sleeping in their vans and paying high prices for motel rooms. The community couldn’t support the many people and hotels couldn’t be built fast enough. This quick wealth also brought in many dubious characters, from swindlers to fugitives and everything in between. Traffic accidents, job fatalities and crime increased in the area. Hospitals and jails couldn’t keep up with demand. Rao meets many of these shady characters. Some she profiles, others she just gives first names to protect their privacy. Through Danny and through her cashier job she meets other transient workers who live towns in the area: Noonan, Lagnite, Culbertson (MT), Watford City. They all come for the quick money.

But by the end of 2014 the price of crude drops and doesn’t rebound. An oil pipeline no longer requires truck drivers. Jobs shut down, wages are cut, and people leave. Others stay on and take lower-paying jobs. The beer bar in town, developed by Marcus Jundt, can no longer afford paying its servers $20 and hour (plus tips) but the $14 cheeseburger still sells for the same price. Apartment complexes are built, new schools are erected, roads are widened for a population that by 2015 begins to decline again.

The story of the Bakken field is a crash-and-burn story. The transients move on and the locals are left to take care of the polluted fields, hazardous materials left behind, vacant buildings, unfinished construction. Oil companies skirted environmental laws and then hid their violations until there wasn’t anything that could be done. The resentment of the local wheat farmers remains. And Danny Witt’s life is no better at the end of the story.

Rao writes this story with impassioned detail. She passes no judgment on others. North Dakota had seen a similar oil boom in the 1980s. These harder residents, many of Norwegian heritage, know about the harsh living conditions and the demands from the earth. While some of the characters come across as very unsympathetic, many more are just trying to live the American dream and just fail in the end. Seeing the whole picture from Rao’s point of view gives the reader a clearer perspective of what remains when the jobs run dry and people leave to seek their fortune elsewhere.

Emanuel Martin
Emanuel Martin is a Petroleum Engineer graduate from the Faculty of Engineering and a musician educate in the Arts Faculty at National University of Cuyo. In an independent way he’s researching about shale gas & tight oil and building this website to spread the scientist knowledge of the shale industry.

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