— He dropped out of north suburban Richmond-Burton Community High School, and a few years later Andy Turco found himself staining decks in the summer, plowing snow in the winter and going without work for a month or two in between.
Nearly homeless, he saw himself on a dead-end path.
Then he talked to a buddy working here, in a barren corner of North Dakota, where an ugly-sounding word — fracking — has driven oil from the ground and pushed unemployment down to 0.7 percent. That's right: seven-tenths of one percent.
Turco sold his car, hopped in a van and drove west.
Today, he's earning nearly six figures working about 90 hours a week on a drilling rig, one of many Chicago-area transplants who have joined thousands in a remote region experiencing an oil boom while much of the country tries to shake off a recession hangover.
"It is the best thing I ever did; no doubt about it," said Turco, 24, who arrived in Williston in October 2011. "I'm finally living an adult lifestyle, instead of a teenage dropout lifestyle."
And it's all thanks to fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, a relatively new and controversial drilling technology in which highly pressurized water, sand and other substances are driven into oil-rich shale thousands of feet deep, creating cracks that release the oil deposits and send them up the well.
Illinois, particularly its far southern counties, is dealing with the early stages of fracking, including the legislative wrangling over it. On Tuesday, a coalition of grass-roots groups citing health, safety and environmental concerns descended on Springfield to call for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing and a reconsideration of what the groups call "an industry-backed fracking regulatory bill."
In Williston, a town that sprouts from rolling, windswept plains and crystal blue sky about 65 miles south of Canada, fracking flourishes, bringing with it thousands of jobs, explosive population growth and an array of consequences.
With a population experts place somewhere between 38,000 and 42,000, Williston is the fastest-growing "micropolitan area" in the U.S., the city's 2012 impact statement reports. In 2010, Williston's population was less than 17,000.
That explosive growth created a housing crisis, and oil and drilling companies responded with "man camps," temporary housing shells that resemble military barracks and trailer parks. Also, a village of hundreds of trailers, recreational vehicles and semitrailers covers a large swath of land north of town.
Monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment, if one can be found, is about $2,500. Houses can rent for $5,000 a month.
Traffic is heavy with large pickups and semis that generate a great deal of dust and mud. The local
The city, the impact statement notes, is "ground zero" in the largest oil rush in the lower 48 states.
Tapping into the prosperity requires north country fortitude. Turco lived in the Wal-Mart parking lot for several weeks, even though he found a construction job shortly after arriving. He then bounced to an oil field job "where I was knee-deep in mud."
For those first months, he had neither a car nor a cellphone. A better oil job allowed him to move to a trailer. Now, he's worked his way up to the dangerous but well-paid job on the drilling rig in which he logs 121/2 hours a day for two consecutive weeks then takes off two weeks. He and his girlfriend, Melissa Tate, of Bozeman, Mont., share an apartment with a roommate, Ian Hernandez, 24, who like Turco is from the
"I have an oil-field lifestyle," Turco said. "It's a different life experience. It's kind of cool to learn about a new job that no one else knows about."
Amy Drehobl took a distinctly different path to Williston. After graduating in May 2011 from Eastern Illinois University with a degree in elementary education, she couldn't find a teaching job.
By last spring, Drehobl, of
"I had nothing to lose so I applied on a Wednesday," said Drehobl, 24, "and I had a job by Tuesday."
She moved in August and teaches eighth-grade math at Williston Middle School, but she isn't completely enamored with Williston. The closest mall is a 21/2-hour drive. Crowds make grocery shopping "an all-day thing." The drive-thru line at
But she's dating a North Dakota guy, who has introduced her to ice fishing and shooting, and she has enjoyed building the middle-school cheerleading squad.
"Truthfully," Drehobl said, "I think I would have liked the town a little more before the boom."
'Less danger here'
Drehobl has heard conversations and seen reports about Williston being particularly dangerous for women, but she doesn't worry.
"We think it's a cute little town," she said. "In fact, I think there's less danger here than back where I'm from."
But the staggering population growth has led to a sharp spike in calls to police, with nearly 16,000 coming in the first 10 months of last year compared with an annual total of about 6,000 just three years earlier.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, in releasing crime statistics in July, noted that although the number of crimes had increased "in a worrisome way" in some western North Dakota oil-patch counties, population in those areas also increased substantially.
"The chance of anybody being a victim of an aggravated assault (in western North Dakota) really is about the same as it is across the rest of North Dakota," Stenehjem told Forum Communications at the time.
Rachel Ressler, who was raised in North Aurora and started work in July as a planner with Williston, said she "always" feels safe. While earning her master's degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she lived in
"It's certainly less dangerous overall," she added.
Ressler, 24, isn't only part of the rapid influx of humanity to Williston. She is also working to accommodate it.
Ressler is working on subdivisions, zoning changes, a development zone and plans to spruce up the northern gateway to Williston, while taking questions from residents. "It's an interesting mix of what I would learn at a nonprofit in Chicago and at a city and at a development organization."
She said she had final interviews scheduled with
"This was a good time in my life to do what I thought was interesting," she said. "I didn't mind taking an adventure. I didn't mind going someplace new."
There has been some adjustment, however. She misses being able to walk or use the "L" to get almost anywhere. The closest
"Some days … I want to be able to go get a good drink with fancy alcohol in it at a dark bar," she said, laughing, "or eat in a really nice restaurant."
The Hawks exception
Long before the boom, Williston and Chicago had a very prominent kinship.
Damien Williams, 21, of Naperville, discovered that connection about two months after he arrived in April. He was driving on Phil Jackson Way, then passed Phil Jackson Fieldhouse at the high school.
Williams traveled to Williston after graduating from Naperville North High School in 2009, trying community college and working as a server at a restaurant in Westfield Fox Valley mall. He was earning $40 to $50 a night when told the store was closing.
His father was working in northwest North Dakota as a carpenter and persuaded Williams to give it a shot. The younger Williams found a job cleaning oil pipe in a machine shop and moved his way up to machinist.
He works six days a week, for a total of 66 hours, and salts away $700 a week in savings, he said. His employer provides his living quarters — a hotel room he shares with a forklift operator from Oregon.
"I don't regret a day, and I wish I would have come out here a year earlier," Williams said, although he, like many, notes that the cost of living, crowded conditions and overwhelming ratio of men to women can be difficult.
He enjoys his job, but the hours can be tiring. He loves the economic benefits and the scenery, but deeply misses his friends and family. Fun, he said, amounts to going to work and going home.
Hitting the bars gets old and can lead to messy, even dangerous encounters with rowdy men whose new, fat paychecks encourage them to overindulge, Williams said. On his day off, Sunday, he does laundry, shops at Wal-Mart and hangs out with his dad.
Williams conceded that his is a lonely life, but the economic benefits and the career potential — he's already been promoted twice — have convinced him that he'll stay here for decades.
"This is now my home," Williams said. "I've gotten used to the realization that Chicago's not home anymore. It's just a big city. This is where I plan on living the next 20 to 30 years."
Turco also envisions himself in Williston for the long term. A few days ago, he received a state certificate establishing Turco Enterprises, a deck restoration and painting company he and a friend hope to get on track soon, to complement his drilling income.
But he wears a Chicago Bears T-shirt under his work gear, complains about the absence of deep-dish pizza and can't wait to visit Chicago again.
After his shift ends, he typically grabs dinner on his one-hour drive back to his apartment, hops in the shower and is asleep by 8:30 p.m. for his 3:30 a.m. wake-up.
"I usually can't wait to get home and by the time I get home, I can't wait to go to sleep," he said one night after a particularly grueling shift.
He does make one exception.
"If the Blackhawks are playing, I'll go without sleep," Turco said. He was covered in grime, smoking a cigarette. His cat Koomie meowed for attention. "When I work days, I'm not missing one game. I don't care if I have to be up till 11 and be tired all the next day."