A mountain biker friend commented recently on how ironic it is that the oil boom is occurring in the most beautiful part of North Dakota: The Badlands. Most of North Dakota is one big flat farm crisscrossed by a grid of gravel roads and shelter belts. Sunflowers yield to soy beans and wheat and back to sunflowers. There’s hardly any topography besides grain elevators, hardly anywhere to get perspective on the land.
The Badlands are different. They rise, eroded, from little muddy creeks and tree-choked gullies. Ridges slump back down, striped with white and gray bands of coal and clay. There’s a million different kinds of grasses, yucca, and little purple flowers whose names I don’t know. And there’s a mountain biking trail that goes smack through the heart of it: The Maah Daah Hey.
Riding the Maah Daah Hey is both a chance to survey the oil patch and to get a sense of what the land here was like long before oil and gas development ever began. Most gravel roads that weave in and around the buttes of the Badlands are much quieter than elsewhere in western North Dakota. Especially in the southern part of the Badlands, many of the oil wells are older, quietly producing a non-extraordinary amount of oil and saltwater a day, so requiring fewer trucks to service them.
It’s still a funny thing to be cruising down a ridge, smelling crushed sage leaves under your tires, when suddenly there’s a strong whiff of hydrogen sulfide and, sure enough, around the corner, a red gravel well pad. The experience reminds me of an optimistic slogan written on the side of a tank at the oil refinery in Mandan, North Dakota: “Industry in Harmony with Nature.” Sometimes I think there should be a question mark there instead of a period.