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NY Times state of mind

Along with her Chihuahua, Skippy, Oregon native and truck driver Jonnie Castens peers into the distance outside the Ramada Grand Dakota Hotel in Dickinson on Jan. 21.

Two years ago Jonnie Cassens couldn’t have imagined she would be the focus of a video appearing on the website of America’s most-read newspaper.

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Living in Oregon, broke and fresh from burying her grandfather, Cassens was looking to start a new chapter in her life.

“There were no jobs in Oregon,” said Cassens while sipping on a whisky cocktail at a Dickinson establishment recently. “At one point, I had this job in electronics, soldering circuit boards. I was making $11 per hour and everyone was like ‘oh, you’re so lucky to be making $11,’ but that’s the way it is in a place where there’s no money.”

Like others around the country caught between a rock and a hard place financially, Cassens, 38, had heard of the oil boom happening in North Dakota. With $1,000 to her name (inheritance from her grandfather’s will), Cassens packed up her 2002 Suzuki Swift hatchback and headed east to the Peace Garden State in March of 2012.

“It took me about two days to make the decision to come out, but you really don’t know what you’re getting into until you come out,” Cassens said. “I drove out to Bismarck and slept in my car that first night in the K-Mart parking lot. I got a job flat-bedding, but my boss was kind of abusive. I worked there for about a month. I was making good money, but they weren’t taking taxes out. I had four jobs those first few months.”

Though she said she’s always had “man jobs,” Cassens as about to be introduced to a world where was she was the extreme-minority — making a living driving in the Bakken.

“I got a job delivering supplies to oil rig sites in September of 2012,” Cassens said. “It was strange at first, but I eventually got used to it. I noticed that the guys working on the rigs really liked to see a woman. Female drivers here are like Bigfoot — you hear about legends of them. I learned how to talk trucker talk and to just be one of the guys. It can be a really lonely place out here — there are a lot of lonely people working in the Bakken.”

About a year ago, a crew shooting video for a project profiling life in the Bakken approached Cassens about being featured. Over an extended period of time, Cassens met several times with Jonah Sargent, James Christenson, Eliot Popko and Lewis Wilcox.

Titled “Running on Fumes in North Dakota,” a six-minute video — Cassens said the first in a series — featuring Cassens and her North Dakota story first appeared on The New York Times website Jan. 13. As of Jan. 31, the video had more than 21,000 views on YouTube.

“The last time I met with them, they told me that the video was accepted by The New York Times,” Cassens said. “They said, ‘Jonnie, things might get a little crazy for you.’ Since the video came out, it’s been pretty crazy. The comments on the Times’ website have been pretty interesting. It’s making people talk more about the Bakken and what’s really happening here.”

In the short video, Cassens — who said she was depressed at the time it was shot — details the lonely existence of a woman on the road, trying to make a living in the fast-paced, dog eat dog environment of driving truck in the Bakken.

At one point, Cassens refers to the Bakken as “the land of hell,” but she said it was never her goal to badmouth western North Dakota. Cassens said she was merely telling her story, which, she said, is a story that features the good, the bad and the ugly of the modern day (black) gold rush that is the Bakken shale play.

“There is good and bad,” Cassens said. “The economy is unbelievable here, but people think that they can just come out and make a lot of money. It’s not that simple because the cost of housing is so high and the traffic is very stressful. You have to know what you’re doing here — you have to be Bakken smart. Things move very fast and everyone is in a rush. People are still surprised about what’s really happening here, but I think that’s partly because you don’t hear a lot of personal stories.”

Though she said she has encountered hardships directly related to the release of the video, Cassens said she’s planning to stick it out in the Bakken — possibly even trying her hand at hauling crude.

“I encourage people to give it a shot here if they want to make some money — especially female drivers,” Cassens said. “But it’s a different kind of place. I think there is going to be a silver lining to my story. It’s going to work out for me and be ok….I hope.”

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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