Editor's note: Columnist Lee Benson is spending the week bicycling west to east across Utah, from the Nevada line to the Colorado line. His columns will reflect what he sees, hears and experiences along the way.
DUCHESNE Want to get rejected over and over again?
Try this: Ask a motel clerk in the Uinta Basin if they have a room for the night.
I got an upclose and personal introduction to the eastern Utah oil boom when I rolled into the Uinta Basin earlier in the day than planned. It wasn't that I'd set any speed records on the 15-mile climb from Helper to the top of Indian Canyon, but that gravity took over on the 29-mile descent and before I knew it, I was in Duchesne before lunch time.
I thought I might as well go ahead and throw down another 30 miles or so along U.S. 40 before the thunderstorms started and stay in Roosevelt for the night. But before cancelling the room I'd reserved weeks ago at Duchesne's lone motel, the River Inn, I called all three Roosevelt motels and received the same answer three times: no vacancy, no vacancy, no vacancy ...
So it was back to Plan A.
And it turned out the River Inn was having a special on its $45 rooms. They're going for $80.
"We fill up pretty much every night," said the desk clerk with the take-it-or-leave-it air of someone who was not bluffing.
The Uinta Basin, from Duchesne to the Colorado border and beyond, is one place that is not wigging out about the high price of gas, or the high price of anything else, for that matter unless you want to use "wigging out" in a positive way.
About four years ago, when a gallon of gas started exceeding $2, the vast oil and natural gas reserves buried below the basin started looking very profitable. The drilling has been going pretty much nonstop ever since, to the point that there are now thousands of wells operating around the clock, producing both crude oil and liquid gas in unprecedented volume.
It's little Saudi Arabia out here, but with greener surroundings.
The "No Vacancy" signs at the motels in Duchesne, Roosevelt and Vernal they're especially prevalent Monday through Thursday when the various companies that service the oil fields gobble up most of the rooms are just one indication of the boom. Another is the traffic along Highway 40. I can personally attest that large trucks carrying not just oil, but everything from trackhoes to outdoor toilets to double-wide trailers, constantly whiz by.
Luckily, the highway's shoulders are wide.
The population is growing so fast it's hard to keep track. Brad Hancock, the city manager for Roosevelt, said that water connections in his town and surrounding countryside have doubled since 2004 from 1,200 to 2,400.
"Our infrastructure is stretched to the limit. We've got people living in tents," he said. "There might be a few high-end homes for sale, but anything affordable is gone as soon as it's on the market."
But for all the growth, crime isn't up.
"Nobody has the time," smiled Hancock. "Everybody's busier than all get out."
Oil field workers, who run the gamut from manning the drills to driving water trucks to serving as roustabout gofers, work long hours seven-day, 12-hour-a-day shifts
followed by seven days off is typical and make healthy wages, anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000 a year. And no one asks for a college degree.
It's not the basin's first boom. There was a peripheral oil boom in the 1940s, just after World War II, when oil was discovered nearby in Rangeley, Colo. Then in the 1970s, the Uinta Basin had its very own boom, coinciding with the Arab oil embargo.
But then the price of crude dropped, most of the wells were capped, and that boom went bust.
Carolyn Duke remembered the previous heydays when I arrived in Vernal and checked into her motel.
Carolyn has owned the 44-unit Antlers Motel on Main Street for 63 years since 1945.
She remembered when the last oil boom filled all her rooms in the 1970s. She also remembered when it bottomed out in 1985 and Vernal had 800 homes in bankruptcy foreclosure.
"The motel made $243,000 for the whole year," she said. "I'd have been shut down if I hadn't owned the place outright."
Now, she makes that much in a month and a half.
"This is by far the biggest yet," she said. "It's growing so fast, it's scary."Especially if you need a place to sleep.
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.