"It is a gentle, peaceful place," my father says as we stand at Scoria Point at sunset. A pink sky is turning violet; the red flaming ball casts a crimson light on my father's face. It suits him. His life has been the reflection of passion for one thing only: work. And his work has been laying pipe throughout the American West.
"I have never been in North Dakota," he says. "We missed the boom here in the Bakken." By Bakken, my father means the Bakken Shale oil field, one of only ten in the world that is yielding more than one million barrels a day, kicking off the biggest rush for oil and gas in Americas history.
My brother Dan was one of the men who came to work in the Bakken in 2014 to make money. He worked during the winter on the frack line, washing off the chemicals used to break up the strata below so the oil can seep up to the surface more easily. The brutality of the weather only approximated the brutality of the work. Sixty degrees below zero in howling winds is man against nature; but months alone in the freezing darkness cramped in the cab of a truck is crazy-making.
What began as a dream becomes a matter of survival--for some, as in the case of my brother, just barely.
My youngest brother, Hank, works in the family business in Utah, sometimes Wyoming, often Arizona, laying the pipe that carries natural gas to sub-divisions and homes. He is among the quiet and brave men who make our lives easy when theirs are not.
"I'm proud of what we've done," my father says. "Not many men can say they've walked most of the major gas lines that fueled the American West's development like I have."
We are visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It is the Fourth of July weekend and we are alone, no other cars or visitors in sight.
Teddy Roosevelt speaks of "the doctrine of the strenuous life," and my father sees himself as a practitioner of TR's philosophy. He admires mightily America's twenty-sixth President. Theodore Roosevelt is, after all, a man's man. In our family, the worst thing you can call someone is a "weakling." Turns out this was one of Roosevelt's favorite words. For all I know, maybe Dad stole it from the man himself, who said, "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far." Tempest masculinity, a core family value, was also extended to women and children. Above all, you had to be tough, no complaining; in fact, the fewer words you spoke over-all, the better. Your stoicism was your power. Yet under the brawn was an unexpected tenderness, a sharp sense of humor largely directed at oneself.
My father was and remains a champion of the workingman. Whenever anyone who worked for him died, he was at the funeral. Over lunch recently, my father said, "If I was a young man again, I would work for the labor unions on behalf of the rights of workers." I was surprised. "Union" was a dirty word around our house. But my father has watched the dignity of workers decline as big companies exploit their workforce in the name of profit.
"They are human beings," Dad would say. "It's not always about the bottom line."
"Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground," Teddy Roosevelt said. That sums up John Tempest perfectly.
As we drove into Theodore Roosevelt National Park, my father's focus was on the construction company laying the gravel on the roads. In the midst of watching white-tailed deer forage on the margins of the forest or spotting an elk on the ridge, his eye was on the infrastructure: roads, pipelines, telephone lines, and the expanding oil patch within view.
Banded hills, waving grass, green, green-yellow, rust, sweet clover, cottonwoods, red-tailed hawks, bison, crickets, sage. There is a tapestry to this country that is unique to the badlands of North Dakota. They are not bald and bare like the eroding hills of South Dakota. To my surprise, they are forested with junipers and in some cases pines. Everywhere we turn are harriers and field sparrows, meadowlarks and crows. Magpies hop around us, banking we will leave behind something shiny or edible.
Theodore Roosevelt would have liked Valerie Naylor, the superintendent of his park. (Valerie retired in 2014 after a long, illustrious...