Op-Ed: Photo essay: The haunting cycle of opportunity and destruction in the American West

The American West is littered with the remains of old boom towns, often deserted as quickly as they were settled in pursuit of the next gold strike, silver lode, coal seam or lumber stand. Boom and bust is a recurrent phenomenon in American history, one that has forged our national character and defined our migrations.

I have always been interested in these places: the hard labor, raucous living, loneliness and enormous optimism that fills them up, and the echoes and remnants left behind when the din of voices goes quiet.

Today, the discovery of shale oil and the technology to extract it has given rise to a new crop of such settlements on "the Bakken," a geologic formation that underlies North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. This is the new industry, and places like Williston, N.D., are the new boom towns.

In what's left of the mining town of Bodie, Calif., or Silver Peak, Nev., you can see the possible future of Williston. Not that Williston will become a ghost town, but certainly it could. The Bakken towns are vulnerable in a number of obvious ways: fluctuations in the price of oil and little investment in the permanent, long-term housing necessary to build a lasting community. For surely one day, 10 years from now or 100, the oil boom in North Dakota will be over.

These photographs are a meditation on the haunting cycle of opportunity and destruction, the tale of dreams sought and abandoned that wends its way through American history and the physical landscape of the country itself.

Abandoned gas station, Silver Peak, Nev.

24-hour automated food stand near Watford City, N.D.

Rusted railroad tracks, Cherry Creek, Nev.

Fresh-laid highway between Minot and Williston, N.D.

Collapsed building, Bodie, Calif.

House in tow near Grassy Butte, N.D.

Overview, Bodie, Calif.

Outside Watford City, N.D.

Storefronts, Bodie, Calif.

Row houses, Williston, N.D.

Advertisement, Goldfield, Nev.

Advertisement south of Watford City, N.D.

Rusted cars, Goldfield, Nev.

Trucks, Tioga, N.D.

Inside out, Coaldale, Nev.

Inside out (drill rig control room), Tioga, N.D.

Mine ruins, Cherry Creek, Nev.

Drill rig near Watford City, N.D.

Freight cars, Cherry Creek, Nev.

Oil cars, Epping, N.D.

Valery Lyman is a New England-based photographer and documentary filmmaker at work on, among other things, a project about boom towns in U.S. history and mythology.

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