Photo of Strukkor geyser in Iceland

A few years ago, I visited Geysir Park in West Iceland, a major attraction in one of the most volcanically active places on Earth.

By convention and history Iceland is a part of Europe although this island nation sits on the newest land on the planet — land that’s being formed as the North American and European plates slowly pull apart. It’s the home of the first geyser, the one that gave every other propulsive plume of steam and sulfur its name. Geysir itself isn’t reliable any more, but the park has another star now, a geyser called Strukkor, which means “The Churn”. It erupts every five to ten minutes or so.

The whole hot springs area smells like sulfur, but that’s not remarkable in Iceland — much of the landscape is steaming and smells faintly to strongly sulfuric.  Strukkor sits behind a casuallyroped-off area, and it at first it seems like not much is happening — like the gathered crowd is for some reason staring expectantly at gray slabs of rock.  Growing closer, I could hear some gurgling and closer still, I could see the sounds were coming from a crater which seemed to be filled with swirling water, all ringed by a rock wall.

Presently, the water in the center starts to rise into a dome. The dome is electric, glowing, neon blue.  It falls back into itself a few times, as if gathering its strength. Each time the dome subsides, the assembled let out small sighs.  Then, finally, the dome grows and grows and suddenly it blows a plume of white steam and clear water  high into the air. There are whoops and applause and cheers in many languages. (I happened to be standing near a French contingent so I heard “oh la la la la la.”)  And then water rushes back into the crater, and also out and down the rock. And then the whole thing starts again.

That was pretty cool, but the highlight of the day for me was nearby — a hot spring pool called Blesi, “The Blazer”, a name I assume it earns due to its amazing heat.  Blesi is an entire pool of that remarkable blue water of Strukkor’s dome, and it is the bluest blue I’ve ever seen, the Platonic form of blue. (I am slightly obsessed with the color blue, as careful readers will no doubt recall.)

Blesi is undisturbed by eruptions, and does not draw a crowd, so I stood over her a long time, letting the sulfur steam pass over my face. I wondered about that pure blue color afterwards. Was it a reflection of the sky? It seemed unlikely, a nearby pool, which was of a cooler temperature, was clear and I could see down to gray rock. I heard someone explain that the blue was due to the presence of algae, but the high temperatures made that seem unlikely.

Later, I consulted The Geography of Iceland, and learned that waters in high temperature geothermal areas contain blue-grey boiling clay, “the color due to sulphur compounds of iron which form when sulphuric acid dissolves the rock.”

It’s the last week of the year, so I’m in the mood to confide.  It’s curiosities like that — and their eventual satisfaction — that keep me traveling as much as I do.  There’s something wonderful to me about knowing that the bluest blue I’d ever seen was, in fact, boiling clay.  I find it equally wonderful to know that Mister Clean products are Meister Proper in Germany, as I found out in a jet-lagged wandering through a drug store in Frankfurt one time, or that a good way to dry mushrooms in Shanghai is to dump them on a plastic tarp on a busy sidewalk. My life would be the poorer if I didn’t know that Hackensack, New Jersey used to be called New Barbadoes, or that sick immigrants to the United States were first quarantined in Staten Island Marine hospital.

I’m sure I could find out much of what I learn from (or because of) traveling with access to an internet connection and a good library. But if I didn’t travel, I wouldn’t know what little things to wonder about.

“Details are the thing. God preserve us from commonplaces,” Chekhov once wrote.  I’m with him. And I wish you a fascinatingly detailed 2010.

From the Perceptive Travel webzine: Strange Sensations in Iceland