BUTTE — Kyle Hoggatt spent more than a month sleeping in his Honda Civic last summer in Williston, N.D., and said it was well worth it.
"When I fold my back seat down, I could almost sleep straight diagonally," the Montana Tech junior said.
He had shown up to land a job working in the Bakken oil field in the Williston Basin, an area booming with drilling rigs.
Hoggatt, who is studying petroleum engineering, said he needed to gain experience. So he showed up in Williston without a job, without a place to stay and without any contacts.
Within days he had landed a job, where he stayed for a month before taking a better position with a different company. He earned some good paychecks to help with school, bringing in $14,000 in the final six weeks of summer.
But, Hoggatt said, most important is that it's a step to help him in his career. He had three internship offers for next summer and took one, which was possible because of the experience he gained last summer.
For Butte residents Keith and Amanda Peck, North Dakota offered opportunity as well, but in their case it is the chance to pay off debts.
They lost their 16-year-old son J.J. Peck to cancer last year after an eight-year fight and Keith said that involved constant trips to hospitals and piles of medical bills. A few months after J.J. died, Keith Peck went to North Dakota and took a job on a drilling rig. The 36-year-old started out making good money and has worked his way up to become the person at the top of the oil rig. He's earning $33 per hour and gets overtime often.
"The only way I could make ends meet was to head there," he said. "We were behind in bills forever. I'm just now getting caught up."
The oil boom
To say that North Dakota's economy is booming is an understatement.
The state is boasting the lowest unemployment rate in the nation at 3.4 percent, compared to 8.6 percent across the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Oil companies are flocking to the Williston Basin, which is centered in western North Dakota and stretches into Montana. And that demand for people to work jobs that pay well is drawing people from Montana.
Jake Hanson of Butte showed up in North Dakota at the cusp of the surge. He said in 2003 no one was drilling in North Dakota and he's glad he got in early. Hanson worked his way through the ranks and today owns a company called Mojo Geological Consulting, where he's a wellside geological consultant, to serve oil producers.
"There was no way to know it was going to blow up the way it did," Hanson said this week in Butte while with his wife Jessica and sons Carter, 8, and Bridger, an infant. "Having some of my skills and expertise is really valuable out there."
Hanson was working on his degree in petroleum engineering at Tech before he left for North Dakota. He said he needed the money to keep going to school and plans to go back so someday he can work in an office job.
But for now Hanson is taking advantage of the chance to make money. After years of working in North Dakota he's moved on to Wyoming, where there's also a lot of drilling.
Keith Peck said oil companies are so desperate for workers that people can put in as many hours as they want.
"The bottom of the line person on the rig makes $27 per hour," he said. "It's a good honest day's work for a day's pay."
The money's good, but the price of everything has been jacked up in North Dakota.
Housing is at a premium. The hotels in towns within the Bakken oil field are booked for months ahead of time and all the homes are taken.
Trailers are snatched up and the area has numerous makeshift campgrounds where people live in campers. Even a bare piece of land is fetching a decent fee from landowners eager to earn money off the oil boom.
Peck said some one-bedroom apartments are going for $1,200 per month — and that's if a person can find one.
His company has provided a trailer to live in. But he shares it with 11 other guys. Peck said it's not too crowded because half of them are out working their 12-hour shift, so the trailer only has six people in it at a time. But he said waiting for the shower or space in the kitchen is a daily occurrence.
When he's working on the rig, the harsh conditions make it tough. North Dakota can be bitterly cold in winter, sweltering in summer and has persistent winds.
"The worst part about it is the elements," Peck said.
Back at home
It can be tough for the spouses of those working away as well.
Hanson is gone from about three weeks to two months. Jessica Hanson said that essentially makes her a single mom for weeks on end.
"I live two lives — one where my husband's here and I have all the support in the world and then I have times when he's gone and I talk to him on the phone," she said. "I raise the kids."
Having her family in Anaconda makes it a little easier. Jessica Hanson said she's considered moving closer to Jake's work, but even by doing that he'd still be away for long stretches and she'd lose that family support.
Amanda Peck said she, too, gets tired of being without Keith while raising four children. Keith Peck works two weeks on and then gets two off.
"I'm pretty much a single, married mom," she said. "It gets hard on the kids, because by the end of it we've established our own routine."
But at the same time, they're happy to have the chance to get ahead. Keith Peck said the money far outweighs the downsides of working in North Dakota and he'd recommend it to any single, younger people.
For them, the tradeoff of moving to North Dakota for a few years is worth it. They're looking at small towns in the Williston area and hoping to save money so they can come back to Montana eventually.
"We're not going to have the family to depend on," Amanda Peck said. "But at the same token he'll be home almost every night."