The Mississippi River, seen here north of New Orleans, feeds into the Port of South Louisiana, the largest port in the U.S. Port workers here have higher average starting salaries than workers in the tourism sector

WHEN I WAS IN MY LATE TEENS, I WORKED some summers and weekends as a longshoreman on the docks and derrick barges of the New Orleans riverfront. The pay was great, and the work, though hot, was not as hard as people thought.

From that experience, I developed a sense of romance about the Mississippi River. Like Huck Finn, I came to associate it with freedom and frontiers and race and card players and lighting out for the territory. I once tried to write a novel about it, which was truly bad and still sits in a bottom drawer of my desk.

During my

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