Editor’s note: This article is a reprint from the blog Confluence that St. Paul-based author Dan Gjelten writes with his wife, Lisa Burke.
On a summer night in 2015, my wife, Lisa, and I were in the audience of an outdoor music festival called Eaux Claires, just outside of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. We were waiting for the final act of the day — a band called The National — when Wisconsin writer Michael Perry stepped out on stage to say a few words to the crowd.
This is what he said:
“If you hold yourselves still and silent now, you can feel that river running behind you, running through the night, running through all time. It’s good to have music near a river; there’s this idea of baptism, of absolution, no matter what you believe. Better yet, it’s going to have music near a place where two rivers come together, a confluence — for what are we but a confluence — a confluence that lives and breathes, a confluence of dream and song, a confluence of 22,000 beating hearts. And so here we are, cradled by a river in a sanctuary of sound, craving consecration, exaltation, on bended knee, seeking benediction.”Writer Michael Perry
The two rivers were the Chippewa and the Eau Claire, and on that beautiful night, Perry’s words had an impact on us. We felt the truth and the community at that moment, coming together with others, our dreams, our beating hearts, the rivers merging behind us, and the music, all under the sky and stars.
Since then, the word confluence has been important to us. We seek community, and we see the magic in the often random blending and merging and intermingling of ideas and nature and music and food and art and people. It has been, in some ways, the quality we search for most in our days. That its original meaning refers to the coming together of two rivers is also significant — when two rivers merge, a greater river is created, and that is true of the other meanings of the word, as well — something new is created at the confluence.
We started our blog, Confluence, in 2018 as we were planning our first long tour by bicycle. Our hope was that we could use it creatively to document our experiences and the mixing and mingling of bike travel, the sights and sounds and smells of nature, the food we eat, the music we listen to, the words we read, the strangers we meet. Confluence is a perfect name for this blog.
A couple of weeks ago, Lisa noticed a new hotel in Hastings (a town about 40 miles southeast of us on the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers) called The Confluence, so, obviously, we had to visit, and we had to ride our bikes there. (More on the hotel in a bit.) We wanted one more overnight bike trip this season. The leaves are starting to change and the prairie grasses are colorful and plumy. The trails occasionally are covered with acorns or walnuts, but it is a beautiful time of the year to ride.
We’ve ridden to Hastings several times, using a couple different routes. This time, we decided to follow the river on the Mississippi River Greenway, which we knew would get us close to the town.
The Mississippi River Greenway (not to be confused with the Mississippi River Trail or MRT) runs from downtown St. Paul all the way to Pine Bend Bluffs, a Minnesota Scenic and Natural Area. Pine Bend is odd. You are on a high bluff looking east over the Mississippi River Valley and seeing some of the best views of the river in the area, but right behind you, on the other side of a fence, is a huge refinery. So, we just don’t look that direction. (To be fair, the refinery owner has partnered with Friends of the Mississippi River to preserve Pine Bend Bluffs.)
Earlier this summer, a friend told us that it wasn’t hard to make the connection from Pine Bend Bluffs to a Dakota County park near Hastings called Spring Lake Park via a couple of miles on a gravel road, and that once in Spring Lake Park, you can ride right into Hastings. We decided to give that route a try.
The Pine Bend Bluffs trail ends abruptly at the border of the park, so we followed our friend’s advice and got onto a past-its-prime asphalt road going downhill (we rode by a number of conflicting signs saying bikes are prohibited, then bikes are welcome, then that the road was closed and under construction — it wasn’t.) After crossing a couple of gnarly railroad tracks, we were on a well-packed gravel road for about a mile and a half, and we arrived at Spring Lake Park.
We had heard of this park but had never been there, and seeing it was the first delight of a day of delights for us. As we rode into the park, we came upon a sign indicating that a herd of BISON is there and giving us the rules for BISON WATCHING. This was news to us and we agreed that it has to be the closest herd of bison to our house. I stopped to chat with a couple of very nice park volunteers who had more information about the bison — 14 of them, they said: 10 adults and four yearlings. The babies were to be culled out and moved elsewhere as this is a breeding herd and they don’t want any shenanigans between related individuals. I asked how likely it was that we’d see any (it is a big park) and they said they hadn’t heard of any sightings that day. (Also, buffalo and bison are two different animals. Look it up.)
We were, at this point, about 10 miles out of Hastings, and the ride through the park was just wonderful — a little hilly but with great views of the river (Spring Lake is a wide spot in the Mississippi, just south of Grey Cloud Island). We noted Nordic ski trails that we hope to return to next winter. As we exited the park, we came upon a crazy sculpture garden with lots of interesting metal animals.
The last couple of miles down the hill into Hastings are on the road, but there are good shoulders and the riding is just fine. As we coasted into town, we got our first sight of the new hotel.
We were surprised when we saw these words on the west side of the large building: CON-FLU-ENCE: (def) THE FLOWING TOGETHER OF TWO RIVERS; A GATHERING PLACE. Surprised because, the header of our blog, which Lisa designed in 2018, says: “CONFLUENCE def: a coming and flowing together, meeting or gathering” — uncannily similar to what we were seeing on the building. We wondered if the marketing team for the new hotel Googled “confluence” and found our page and, well, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I guess. (I’ve reached out to the marketing person at the hotel to see if I can learn more about how they came up with their design idea.)
The recently opened Confluence Hotel is a beautiful re-imagining of an old factory building (it was the H.D. Hudson Manufacturing Company, which made hand-pumped sprayers) into a 77-room hotel, meeting/event space and restaurant right next to the river and almost under the Highway 61 bridge. The hotel is a couple of miles from the actual confluence they are referring to: the place where the Mississippi and the St. Croix (which forms the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin) meet and merge. This confluence is interesting, as the color of the two rivers is different — the St. Croix relatively clear and the Mississippi more coffee-with-cream colored.
The developers of the Confluence have done an amazing job of designing the common spaces and rooms, using reclaimed wood and honoring the old infrastructure. The high ceilings of the rooms are exposed joists, very nicely painted, for example. Tables out on the patio are made of slices of trees that are beautiful, and a staircase inside is made of huge slabs of hardwood.
When I made the reservation, I’d asked for an early check-in, as we wanted massages at the local “wellness center” — Pure Serenity. The only time we could arrange a couples massage was at 3 o’clock, and we obviously wanted to shower and change clothes after our 40-mile ride. They kindly gave us an early check-in at no charge, and we had time to clean up and get over to Pure Serenity. We were the only people there.
Erika, the owner, took us into her “salt room,” with pink salt walls and several inches of coarsely ground salt on the floor, like a sandbox except with salt. The spa claims that “the natural properties of salt are antibacterial, antimicrobial, antifungal, antiparasitic and antiviral” and that just being in there and breathing the air is beneficial to your health. The room was lovely, with dim light and soft music. I don’t know what to make of the claims, but will attest that the massages were great and that we felt really good (and kind of cleansed) afterward.
We’d planned on dining at the hotel. We’d been dodging storms all day and more were coming so we thought it would make sense to stay in and experience the food at the new restaurant. The hotel hadn’t started serving dinner yet, but from 4 to 8 p.m. they do serve small plates and drinks. We decided, after reviewing the menu, that we could make a meal out of the appetizers and ordered the walleye dip and crostini, avocado toast with shrimp and, best of all, an heirloom tomato salad with balsamic. The food was terrific, and we ended by sharing a whiskey by the fire.
We retired for a wonderful night’s sleep in our king-sized bed and after a slow waking in the morning, we walked down for breakfast. We were served by the same young woman who had served us the night before, and the room was full of happy people, many of whom seemed to be locals who were checking out the new place. After breakfast, we loaded up and wheeled back to the lobby (after chatting with one of the staff about our bikes) and then had a nice conversation with the director of the hotel.
We rode back up the hill away from town and the river, and decided to take a slightly different route back to our house, across the Mendota Bridge and into Minnehaha Park with a stop at Sea Salt for a snack, then up the river on the Minneapolis side and home. From leaving our house on Saturday to returning on Sunday was only 28 hours, but it felt like a real vacation, away from screens and worries and rich with the beauty of autumn as the plant world is colorfully winding down before winter.
We’ve ridden by many river confluences in our travels. The confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia is very dramatic, as is the triple confluence of the Ohio, the Allegheny and the Monongahela in Pittsburgh, and, of course, most often, the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi, just a couple miles from our house in St. Paul. But this was the first time we’d stayed in a hotel called Confluence. It reminded us of the word’s importance to us and of its multiple meanings. It was a sweet way to wind down this biking season.
All photos by Dan Gjelten