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No roads lead to Pilottown, but nary a ship passes it by

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In days past, Pilottown might have been Old Man River's swan song.

One of the last outposts on the soggy banks of the Mississippi before it gurgles into the Gulf of Mexico, Pilottown was inhabited by a family dynasty of river pilots who made their living threading foreign freighters through the narrow channel between New Orleans and the ocean. Every so often, hurricanes would wash their houses downriver. And every so often the townspeople would rebuild. Destructive winds and waves became a fact of life.

During the last few decades, however, particularly after hurricanes Betsy and Camille successively razed the town, many of the old families threw in the towel. They headed toward New Orleans and settled on higher ground. The river pilots' work, however, kept them close to the mouth of the Mississippi. They stayed behind in Pilottown, along with a few dozen other hardy souls who had become part of the pilot fraternity.

Today some might argue that the term ''town'' is too loosely applied to this settlement so lacking in the accouterments associated with cosmopolitan life. It is true that Pilottown has no garbage trucks, no stop signs, no gas stations -- no streets, for that matter. No barbershop, no grocery store, no police station or crime to speak of. Among its modest possessions are a small post office and ZIP code (70081), a handful of houses on stilts, and rather comfortable digs for about 145 commuting pilots. In addition, Pilottown harbors the enviable indolence of a Huck Finn dangling his feet in a fishing hole. And beneath this tranquillity is a fierce community pride.

No roads lead to Pilottown, which rests on the southwest tip of one of the Delta's islands. It can only be approached by boat. Two hours south of New Orleans, Highway 23 ends in Venice, a tiny burg that sells groceries, crawfish bait, and helicopter services to oil companies ferrying roughnecks to and from offshore drilling rigs. From there the ride downriver to the town takes another half hour. Everything -- food, mail, drinking water -- must be imported. Up until a dozen or so years ago, it had to run its own gasoline generator for electricity.

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