ON THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER NEAR OSCEOLA, ARK. — When black has swallowed the sky from bank to muddy riverbank, Capt. Robert Byrd sits in a fug of smoke in the pilothouse, thinking of lost friends.
In the stillness of the river night, his glass room atop the vessel Patricia Gail is a crowd of voices. The towboat's radio cracks to life as pilots up and down the lower Mississippi consider tough bends, the buoys gone missing, the profit motives of big barge lines.
Deckhands call up from the tow - a 1,000-foot raft of barges this boat is pushing toward New Orleans - to report on the web of wires holding the steel mosaic together. Over it all, the Patricia Gail's twin engines sigh into the turns, as the delicate bell of her ship's clock chimes the quarter hours.
"I sure didn't know," Captain Byrd says slowly. A fellow pilot has radioed to talk over the passing of a friend, a veteran river man. "I just knew I hadn't heard from him in an awful long time."
It is the tired end of a shift. In two days, a fresh crew will come aboard, playful and hungry, and the cycle of towboat life - a life little changed in Byrd's half century on the river - will begin again. But tonight, half of the Patricia Gail's crew of nine has been on the river 26 days. They have slept in five-hour stretches, rising in the cold predawn and falling dusk, or black midnight and disoriented noon, to work six-hour shifts slinging ratchets and coils of steel wire as heavy as 8-year-old children.
This work, river work, is as old as the land it fuels and feeds. Two centuries after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark charted a course west for fur merchants, men like Robert Byrd help to keep trade on America's inland waterways a mainstay of the nation's economy. The 70,000 tons of soy, coal, grain, corn, rice, and slag this boat is plowing downriver could soon mean air conditioning in Miami, veggie burgers in Hollywood, fettuccine in Rome.
Last August, hurricane Katrina revealed much about the nation - including the importance of its rivers. The storm ravaged the Mississippi Delta, closing the Port of New Orleans for two weeks and destroying or delaying thousands of barges. Grain languished in Iowa silos. Bananas couldn't get to grocery stores in St. Louis. Today river men (and a handful of women) are back in their bunks and pilothouses and engine rooms, leading a life that pilot and satirist Mark Twain would surely recognize.
This land was settled by river. Before railroads ranged west across the great plains, before wagon trains made their perilous journeys over the Rockies, intrepid trappers and river rats wove their way into the continent's unmapped heartland on North America's inland waterways.
These more than 25,000 miles of river are no longer the dominant thoroughfares of commerce and culture they were in the new territories - or earlier, when the Mohawks and Delawares and Ojibwas paddled their courses. But they remain superhighways of interstate trade.
Each year, 800 million tons of the raw materials bound for American gas tanks and dinner tables travel to consumers by river, contributing $5 billion to the US economy. Nearly half of these commodities spend time on the Mississippi. Season after season, busy inland ports like St. Louis and Pittsburgh handle more coal and petroleum, lumber and soy, than large coastal ones like Boston and Seattle.
The Patricia Gail is a big new towboat by Mississippi River standards - a "brand-new Cadillac boat," according to first mate Ben Bolden. On this trip downriver, she is pushing the back end of a raft of 35 barges, each carrying 2,000 tons of cargo. Lashed together with inch-thick steel cables, this tow is longer than the Titanic was, and twice as wide. In the tightest riverbends, it could scrape a bank either end.
The boat's crew is divided into two shifts, doubling every job but cook for the 10-day journey from Cairo, Ill., to Baton Rouge, La., and back again. Two novice deckhands take turns manning the tow, each mentored by a veteran mate or watchman. In the engine room, in the belly of the boat, the chief engineer is spelled by an apprentice, while up in the pilothouse, Byrd and a less experienced pilot take turns driving.
All day and into the night, the Patricia Gail has been on a "milk run" downriver toward New Orleans, pausing nearly as often as a delivery truck might to leave or take on coal or grain. At each stop, deckhands hurry to the far end of the tow to meet the crew of a smaller approaching tugboat. There, amid the sweet, fermenting smell of their cargo, the four hands work together to loose the massive cables that lash one barge to the next. The tug draws away a barge or two for delivery to a local mill or river port, often returning with replacements, which deckhands ratchet to the tow so tightly their wires groan like whale song.
"Yeah, they're talkin' a little bit tonight," says watchman Mike Evans.
In a few days, crew members who have been aboard for a month will head home, scrubbed and excited, to their wives, girlfriends, babies, and grandkids. In two weeks the remainder of the crew will begin a month's vacation. But the end of a shift puts a man in mind of partings.
Down in the deck locker, a narrow antechamber where deckhands brood over the tow and watch the clock, the talk tonight is of the passing of comedian Richard Pryor, of Christmasses lost to boat work, of ex-wives who couldn't take the strain of being married to towboat men.
Down in the engine room, the radio sputters to life. Chief engineer Melvin "J.R." Harville Jr., answers. It is Byrd, calling from the pilothouse to tell him of the loss of their mutual friend. Mr. Harville and Byrd brought the Patricia Gail out together - rode her on her first trip out of the boatyard in Houma, La., in 1998 - and have worked her together ever since.
Harville hadn't heard the news either. He lingers with Byrd over the shame of it.
"He's a good man, Arthur was," Byrd says, "a good pilot."
They sit together in silence for a while.
"Come to all of us, though," Harville radios back, by way of good night.
• Part 2 Wednesday: Who works the river.