Backstory: A river runs through them
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.