WILLISTON, N.D. – Jonathan Heaton’s four kids are old enough to understand that Dad has to be in North Dakota to pay the bills.
Once when the truck driver was home, his kids brought him their piggy banks to try to get him to stay in Utah.
North Dakota’s Oil Patch is full of fathers working thousands of miles away from their families, some out of desperation after losing work back home.
“You realize that if the bills are going to get paid, this is what you’ve got to do,” said Heaton, who has been hauling water for oil companies for two years.
Heaton, married with two sons and two daughters, ages 11, 8, 6 and 4, was self-employed as an insurance agent in Utah before the recession hit and he decided to work in North Dakota.
“We were desperate. My business was crashing. I had a lot of bills piling up,” he said while waiting for his truck to be repaired in Stanley last week.
Heaton typically goes home every six weeks, but the work in North Dakota is inconsistent and he once went six months without seeing his kids. He frequently calls and texts his family, which is how he plans to celebrate Father’s Day this year.
“We’re always on the phone,” Heaton said. “But it’s not like being there.”
Heaton, who lives in his truck, writes letters to his wife and kids in journals he keeps in his sleeper cab. He shows them to his wife when he’s home and is saving the letters to his kids for when they’re older.
Heaton’s family has visited him in Stanley, but they’re not interested in relocating to North Dakota because he’d be working long hours while his wife would be far away from her support network, he said.
He appreciates the photos his wife texts him but sometimes they make him miss home even more.
“They’re out having fun and on vacation and I’m staring out a windshield,” Heaton said.
One year and seven months
Mike Wolf of Salem, Ore., found himself near Williston’s Amtrak station one day this spring while missing his twin daughters.
“Spur of the moment, I just jumped on the train,” Wolf said. “Didn’t even have bags.”
When he got there, Wolf’s 14-year-old girls didn’t recognize him. He’d lost a lot of weight working long hours on North Dakota drilling rigs for the last 1½ years.
Wolf, who sold cars in Oregon before the recession, found a high-paying job in North Dakota’s oil industry with a casing company, allowing him to pay child support and then some.
The job gave him the option of taking seven days off after working 28 days in a row. Wolf always meant to go home, but instead he opted to keep working.
“I got caught up in the money,” Wolf said.
When he abruptly quit his job to visit his daughters, Stevie and Savannah, he mentioned that it had been 1½ years since he’d seen them.
“My daughter said ‘No Dad, it was one year and seven months,’” said Wolf, who gets emotional as he tells the story.
After a “big old hugfest” and spending some time with his daughters, Wolf returned to Williston.
“The trip back on the train just killed me,” he said.
Wolf now has a job he loves, repairing small engines on rental equipment at a Williston hardware store. He plans to visit his daughters more often.
“I already told them (his employer) if I need time off, I need it,” Wolf said.
Wolf also has a son, 23, who is working in North Dakota as well. His daughters would like to visit this summer, but Wolf lives in an RV and doesn’t know what they’d do while he’s at work.
“I don’t want to bring them out here,” Wolf said. “They would be so bored they’d hate me.”
When John Scaife starts to feel down, he pulls out a photo of his 7-year-old daughter holding a diploma.
The St. Louis Park, Minn., man moved to North Dakota about 1½ years ago after work in Minnesota became scarce.
Scaife does concrete work in Williston, which allows him to help pay for his daughter’s private Christian school tuition in New York, where she lives with her mother.
“I give her the material things she wants and the best education,” he said.
His daughter, Seyi, recently graduated from her class with top honors. When they talk on the phone, she reminds her dad to drink water and cover his head while working outdoors.
“This girl is so smart, she’s telling me what to do at work so I don’t faint,” Scaife said.
“I feel alive when I hear her voice.”
Scaife hasn’t seen his daughter since 2009. Money is tight, and he’d rather spend the money on her education than a trip to New York. Scaife said he hopes one day his daughter will understand what he did to make sure she could be comfortable and happy. This week she will turn 8.
“It’s really tough but I pray to God that someday we’ll have the time to celebrate her birthday,” Scaife said.
David Korte of Anchorage, Alaska, has a special clock in his truck to keep track of the various time zones where his family members live.
His family includes four children ranging in age from 28 to 16 who live in Alaska and on both coasts. Korte came to North Dakota last year and is in Williston working on two major construction projects, the new recreation center and a renovation of the former junior high school.
He frequently sends money to his family via Western Union.
“I’ve been pretty lucky. I’ve always managed to provide for my family. I try to put them first,” Korte said. “I’d rather send money home to them and sleep in the truck.”
Korte often video chats with his youngest daughter, Lilly, who has Asperger syndrome. She sends him pictures of her pet ferrets and Korte reminds her to clean her bedroom.
“She’s very unique in a lot of ways,” Korte said. “I miss her more than anything.”
Korte, who now sleeps at a Williston church, keeps two envelopes of family snapshots in his glove box and takes them out when he’s feeling lonely.
“It’s sad sometimes. It’s hard,” Korte said. “I’m pretty close to my kids, I love them a lot.”
‘Come home, Daddy’
Tom Stull, a project coordinator for a construction company that does work in Williston, flew home to Lakeland, Fla., last week so he could go to the beach with his son.
“I wouldn’t miss Father’s Day. I’ll miss my birthday, I’ll probably miss my anniversary, but I won’t miss Father’s Day,” Stull said. “I have a 3-year-old little boy and it means the world to him every time I come home.”
Stull worked as an architect for 10 years until he got laid off. He switched fields to work in construction and was transferred to North Dakota about 1½ years ago.
He now makes enough money that his wife could quit her job and stay home with their son, Jayden.
Stull talks to his family daily and video chats with his son at least three times a week. Sometimes if his son and wife are lying in bed while chatting, Jayden will pat his father’s pillow.
“He says ‘Come home, Daddy,’” Stull said. “That will rip your heart out.”
Stull’s goal is to work his way up in his company, which could allow him to spend more time at home.
In the meantime, Stull makes the most of the little time he gets at home, which comes about every six weeks.
“People say, ‘I can’t believe you work on the road,’” Stull said. “My comment is I do what I have to do to provide for my family, but I appreciate my family more. If I get an hour with them, I appreciate that entire hour. People take for granted the time they have with their children.”
A photo gallery of other fathers working in North Dakota is available here.