By the time you've got a couple of kids and a mortgage and a cat, you find that it really doesn't matter how much a date costs as long as you get one every once in awhile. Sure, everybody likes a night out at some fancy-schmantzy joint with linen tablecloths, but for the Marriage Marathoners among us, it's mostly about the alone time. For those in the first throes of dating passion, however — and I'm speaking almost exclusively to the males of the species right now — there's a subtle art to pulling off the cheap date. Take it from an old hand, young fellas: If you're forced to go bucks-light in the first two or three outings, the trick is to make it look like you've planned the most romantic together-time in the world, and it just so happens it cost next to nothing. That, in a nutshell, is why Pulaski County's Big Dam Bridge — winner of this year's Best of Arkansas award for Cheap Date — is such a godsend for cash-strapped daters. You can't get much cheaper than free (free from an admission standpoint, anyway; the Tea Partiers among us might find the taxpayer-funded construction a romance-busting buzzkill), and it's pretty much the best place in town for strolling hand in hand, admiring the sunset light show over Pinnacle Mountain. A recent trip there around dusk on date night found the bridge filled with the whole spectrum of the human relationship rainbow: teen-age sweethearts, families with kids in strollers, aging Boomers walking their dogs, runners, bikers, young couples and old couples. This writer hadn't been up on the Big Dam Bridge since last spring, we're sorry to say — too hot, we reasoned — but after scaling the ramp at the south end and reaching the middle of the river, my honey and I found something we'd been missing since at least April: the sensation of being outdoors and simultaneously cool. The breeze sweeping down the river valley is constant, and by 7:30 p.m., even on a day that hit the upper 90s, the Big Dam Bridge was a good 15 degrees cooler than the surrounding terrain. Too, as the sun sank behind the mountains and the lights of the drivers along the I-430 span upriver became a constant, crawling glow, we remembered another of the bridge's charms: the Zen-like beauty of leaning over the railing and feeling as if you're suspended there in the wind, a hundred feet above the water like a bird. The fittings on the flagpoles overhead rang slowly like bells. I held my wife's hand. The sky in the west went orange, then blue, then purple. The shoes of the runners went slap, slap, slap on the concrete. Friends chatted nearby about their dogs. Young lovers on the benches smiled and looked at each other in the fading light. To get any more romantic than that will probably involve stealing the Eiffel Tower like a Bond flick supervillain and relocating it to North Little Rock. Walking along the bridge, hand in hand, were Little Rock residents Michael Dennis and Dorothy Lahey. They're a little older, but they looked very much in love — comfortable with one another, in the way that only time and deep understanding can bestow. They said they come to the bridge for a "walking date" two or three times a week, enjoying the space and each other's company.
"It's one of the most interesting and easy places you can get some real exercise," Dennis said. "It's up to the individual how much exercise you get. You can either do it once across and back or you can do it five or six times. I've done this on a bicycle, I've done it on rollerblades, and I've done it walking. It's great."
Lahey said one of the appeals of the bridge is that it's free and open to everybody. "We bring a couple of drinks when we come," Lahey said. "Pack an ice chest with some vitamin water, and usually go out and eat something afterwards. ... Dogs are invited. That's always nice. There aren't any limitations."