Friday was slow at the office and the day too pretty to stay cooped up inside, so on our lunch hour, we decided to take a stroll down to the Clinton Presidential Center to check out the new pedestrian bridge.
The Observer doesn't walk as much as we should anymore, even though beating feet was one of our favorite pastimes in golden youth, when we would routinely light out on foot for some way yonder swimming spot or fishing hole in the morning and not return until dusk. These days, though, we're much more prone to fire up the Mobile Observatory, even for short trips. As with so many things, convenience has become habit. Habit can easily twist into a crutch. We all need to be careful about that.
The Clinton Center Bridge, just opened, is a lovely thing: the old Rock Island railroad bridge, repurposed into a foot-and-bicycle crossing by way of a curving ribbon of concrete that arcs from one edge of the river to the other and yet still allows barge traffic to pass underneath. Dangling, teardrop-shaped lights hover over the center of the walkway. Boxes full of yellow chrysanthemums line the rail — at the personal request of Bill, we've heard.
In addition to offering a whole new Observation spot, the bridge opens up an undiscovered vista on this city we love, and a particularly dynamic one at that, with the traffic bridge and the skyline to the west, and a long, unbroken stretch of river to the east.
The old Rock Island crossing itself is a marvel, a thing of iron and sweat. Given how complicated it is — the giant girders, the uncountable domed rivets, the fact that a section of the gargantuan span was built to be raised up and down — it's humbling and amazing to think the bridge is old enough that those who sank their toil into it have all probably been dead a good 30 or 40 years. We don't give the folks from The Good Ol' Days near enough credit. The things they built are just as amazing as that smartphone a lot of us are lugging around in pocket or purse.
Once we made it to the North Little Rock foot of the span, The Observer figured that it would be just as far to get back to the office if we re-crossed the Clinton bridge and walked back down Prez Ave., so we decided to hike the north side of the river to the Junction Bridge, our fair cities' other foot-and-bike-only bridge. So we walked: past the bike rental place, past the submarine, past the displayed torpedo as long as a Chevy Suburban.
On the Junction Bridge, not relishing the thought of heading back inside so soon, we found the bench that backs up to the elevator on the high part of the span, and then sat staring north down the long, mid-day-deserted span, the concrete walkway canopied by a woven tunnel of iron, where engines once breathed ash and steam. We are prone to getting wistful at still, quiet moments like that. We thought about bridges. We thought about this city, and state, and country.
America, we thought, is a different place than it once was, and it will likely never be the same. There was once enough rail traffic that Little Rock needed not one but three railroad bridges over the Arkansas River. Once, there were enough barges that full time tenders lived atop those railroad bridges, shuttling them up and down, day and night, rain or shine. Once, locomotives hauled the steel, wood, bread and beef of the nation across those bridges, the products of a million hands. No more. All gone. For better or for worse.
It is good, however, that our society has chosen to remake these bridges, even at great public expense, and no matter how much the Regressives among us would complain about it. Those two pedestrian crossings, it strikes us, are testaments to the idea that though things change — fortunes change, realities change, economies change — life goes on, rivers keep rolling, and people will always need to keep their feet dry. They're testaments to something else, too: The importance of knowing that just because something is obsolete for the moment doesn't mean it can't be made useful, beautiful and even vital again.
This is what The Observer thought as we sat on the Junction Bridge, watching the river roll by, sometimes glancing upstream to that other bridge, where a steady stream of bicyclists and walkers were trickling over the water.
Then again, maybe we're reading too much into things. We're prone to do that, too.