Faces of the Boom: North Dakota native working in oilfield to fulfill bucket list

North Dakota native John O’Connor returned to his home state this year to work in the oilfields. When he’s not working at a salt water disposal well, O’Connor rides his mules in the Badlands. Amy Dalrymple/Forum Communications

GRASSY BUTTE, N.D. – North Dakota native John O’Connor left the state at age 25 because the “doggone winters” were too tough.

Now at age 63, O’Connor is back in his home state to cross something off his bucket list: working in the oilfield.

O’Connor works for a salt water disposal well near Grassy Butte, a job he likes because the location is close to the North Dakota Badlands and it gives him enough time off to ride his mules.

The New Rockford native most recently lived in a remote area of southeast Oregon, where he has a ranch. The solitary lifestyle began to wear on him so he sold most of his cattle and decided to try retiring to Arizona. He lasted one winter.

“It was a terrifying experience,” O’Connor said. “I went to one of those gated communities and I thought ‘Holy cow, these people, a lot of them are my age.’ And I felt like yelling ‘I’m not one of you. I’m not ready for this.’”

In February, O’Connor returned to North Dakota to see what the oil boom in his home state was all about.

“It’s the thing I needed to come and experience,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor works for a salt water disposal well, a location where oilfield waste is injected for safe disposal. O’Connor enjoys meeting truck drivers from around the country.

“You’re kind of like a counselor almost because they live in those trucks and they don’t interact with hardly anyone except when they get out of the truck to load or unload,” he said.

He works eight 12-hour days, living on location near Grassy Butte, and then has eight days off, which he often spends camping in the Badlands.

“The only way I really survive here is on my days off I go into the Badlands and decompress and get away from this crazy highway,” O’Connor said. “I find great therapy there.”

O’Connor hopes oil companies will avoid disturbing the pristine landscape.

“Money is not everything. We can’t develop everything,” he said.

O’Connor rents pasture land for his 18 mules, which he said he rides instead of horses because they’re more sure-footed.

Another reason O’Connor returned to North Dakota is to try to start a state chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of America. He wants to make sure horse enthusiasts have a voice to protect their rights to access North Dakota trails.

“We want to keep trails open for horses, equestrian use,” he said.

O’Connor still has a home in Oregon, where his wife lives and takes care of the few cattle they still own. He’s not sure how long he’ll continue his adventure in North Dakota, or if he can make it through the winter.

“I can’t make plans,” O’Connor said. “Life gets in the way of plans it seems like.”

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