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My Grandma, the Fracking Matriarch

How I uncovered my secret identity as a would-be oil tycoon.

| Tue Nov. 27, 2012 7:08 AM EST
"Dad would have thought it was something frivolous. Certainly in his lifetime it did nothing."

The Washburn Angus ranch, and the home of the Washburn family, is adrift in the middle of all this. It's a beautiful house walled in by flowers, with a few head of cattle moseying around, flurries of grasshoppers, and a big, dumb, slobbery dog at the door. Still, not exactly a palace considering the riches underfoot: The Washburns own the land that sits so inconveniently on top of my minerals. I wanted to ask them about the changes in this area, about the wells, if they knew who my great-uncle was. But it was Sunday morning, and the Washburns were nowhere to be found. (They still haven't returned my phone calls.) So we were left to explore on our own—outside of any fences, of course. There were a few other well holes on our plot, which I knew from my research were dry—the explanation for how our rights could have gone unnoticed in a desk drawer for more than half a century.

Natural gas flares dotted the horizon and a deep, industrial gurgling resonated through the whole area, but there wasn't a soul in sight, and no other clues as to which of these many wells was the one funneling lunch money to my grandma. So we packed up and left the oil fields in our dust.

The last time Nana was in North Dakota was nearly eighty years ago, as a little girl visiting the relatives who founded our future fracking dynasty. At that time, she says, there wasn't much there besides a few small towns and lots of dust. As anyone who has seen the state's recent fracking boom can attest, a lot has changed since then. Meanwhile, a crumpled piece of paper bided its time. "Dad would have thought it was something frivolous," Nana says, reflecting on our deed's long, dark banishment. "Certainly in his lifetime it did nothing."

It's still not doing much today. But Nana says it's tangible proof of the good foresight of an ancestor. In that way, she says, "it feels like a gift."

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