Faces of the Boom: N.D. puts man’s life back on the rails

Scott Steskal works on Friday as a locomotive engineer for an oil transloading facility in Epping, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

EPPING, N.D. – Scott Steskal hitched rides on freight trains to get to North Dakota’s oil boom.

Now the 51-year-old drives a train at a crude oil transloading facility and is getting his life on the right track.

“Until I got up here, my life was pretty much a wreck,” he said.

Steskal was living in Las Vegas with no job and no transportation when family members encouraged him to look into job opportunities in North Dakota.

He researched how to ride freight trains and found someone to mentor him on how to do it safely.

Steskal left Las Vegas in December 2010 and became what he calls a tramp, hopping on and off freight trains through several states to travel north. People he met during his trip gave him the “track name” of Jesse James.

“It’s really a whole culture,” Steskal said.

He spent a few months in Pasco, Wash., and later Denver doing day labor work before he decided to take a bus to North Dakota. He hitchhiked from Dickinson and arrived in Williston in September 2011.

But he quickly found that getting an oil job with no experience was not going to be easy.

“Nothing was biting,” Steskal said.

Steskal estimates he’s been homeless eight to 10 times in his life, so it wasn’t hard for him to find places around Williston to sleep.

“Pick a bush. I slept there,” Steskal said.

After two weeks, Steskal was about to hop a train out of Williston when Walmart called and offered him $14 an hour to do maintenance.

“They gave me the opportunity to get on my feet,” Steskal said.

In six weeks, he had purchased a car and a camper from someone he met at Walmart.

He continued to look for an oil job, and after about eight months was hired to work for Strobel Starostka, a contractor for the Inergy Crude Logistics oil transloading facility in Epping.

Steskal was back with trains, this time loading cars with crude oil. He has been promoted to locomotive engineer and now drives the train at the facility.

“He’s extremely dedicated and he loves his job,” said terminal manager Bill Baker.

Steskal said he makes $28 an hour with plenty of overtime. He’s now planning a trip to the Bahamas and sending money to his parents and other family members.

“I got here. I had nothing. Now I’ve got something. It’s a share thing,” Steskal said.

On his days off, Steskal often buys meat and cooks for other crew members.

“He’s a microwave chef,” Baker said.

Steskal’s parents, Robert and Joyce Steskal of Arizona, said they had “just about given up on him,” but he’s changed his life 180 degrees since moving to North Dakota.

“He has made such an adjustment with his life,” Joyce Steskal said. “He’s so proud of himself and we’re so proud of him.”

Steskal still lives in a camper but is starting to look for some land to make his home more permanent. He hopes to retire in North Dakota.

“I never pictured myself actually retiring because my life has been in such disarray,” Steskal said. “I feel so lucky to be in the place I’m at.”