A towboat is a world unto itself. E-mail and cell phones can keep a crew in touch with family, but it isn't possible to pop off for a brew or a restaurant meal.

Not that anyone would want a restaurant meal. Towboat cooking is legendary. The choices for breakfast on the first morning of a three-day trip aboard the towboat D. Ray Miller were eggs any style, bacon, sausage, blueberry pancakes, gravy and scratch-made biscuits.

"I don't like canned biscuits," said cook Vera White of Ripley, W.Va. "They're a waste of time." During her tour on board, there are always plenty of homemade cakes, pies and cookies sitting around 24 hours a day.

The Miller has a food budget of $3,000 a month, with orders usually radioed ahead to grocery suppliers who pull alongside and unload from their own boats. The orders are heavy on meat, poultry and vegetables. The most popular beverage is milk--about 40 gallons a month.

There is not one college education aboard the D. Ray Miller. Most of the crew is from the river towns and hills of Kentucky, West Virginia and other Appalachian states, where they could not hope to make as much money as they make on the river.

Lead deckhand Paul Fitzpatrick, a wisecracking man with a gray ponytail, came to the river 4 1/2 years ago when his West Virginia plant shut down after 23 years of employment. "I came out here to pay the bills," he said.

The Miller's crew members were invariably polite, often funny and more muscular than most linebackers. And after they get to know you, they display a candor and common sense that can't be taught in college.

Not every boat is as popular as Capt. Garron Sneed's, although today's crews and captains are a different sort than during the bare-knuckle days on the river.

"It's a totally different group of people, not the bikers and misfits we used to have," Sneed said.

Why is it different? "Probably the drug policy," he said. From time to time, special teams contracted by the Coast Guard will show up unannounced at a lock and board for a full round of drug and alcohol tests.

"But that isn't the biggest reason," Sneed said. The lack of good jobs in Appalachia helps attract good people, he said. "The job market and society has played a big role in the kinds of kids we get out here."

There are only two non-smokers aboard the Miller--engineer William Thomas, who was a chain smoker until a couple of years ago, and lead deckhand Gerald Shreve.

Just about all the smokers roll their own. Provision stores up and down the river sell a lot of cans of Bugler tobacco. An $8 can will roll as many cigarettes as a $30 carton.

But no one throws cigarette butts overboard. This is the Upper Mississippi, not just any waterway.