One of the many interesting places we visited on our recent trip to Iceland was a geothermic field called Geyser. As you may expect, this location is where you can find two geysers. One was the inspiration for the term geyser (which is Norse for gusher). It used to be big and splashy and regular but now only shoots off every now and then. The other is called the butter churn, and it blows its top every two to ten minutes and can be big and bold or little and sputtery depending on how long it has been since it last spewed.
In addition to those highlights, there are several thermal “pots” and caves where you can see boiling water bubbling in the ground. All around the area, between the pots and running over the earth, are streams and rivulets of water. There are carefully cultivated paths between the sites where visitors can safely walk, and the paths are lined with yellow signs spaced every few feet that remind tourists that the water they are seeing is dangerous, since it comes out of the ground at over 100 degrees Celsius, or 212 degrees Fahrenheit, basically and literally boiling.
The spot wasn’t the most beautiful we visited. If you have been to Yellowstone, the attractions aren’t new or different. A geyser is a geyser, after all. Even in Iceland, just a few miles away, there are hot springs that are more prolific and amazing to witness. What made this place unique was the cognitive dissonance I felt while walking through the site. It was odd to see clear, sparkling water flowing over the ground, water that in any other context would be cool, refreshing, and at the very least, safe to touch, but which, in this context, was potentially, extremely dangerous. The urge to reach out and touch it, to let it run through my fingers and over my hand, was strong, even though there were multiple signs warning against it and even though, looking from just the right angle, I could see steam rising off of it.
I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. As we were walking through the thermal field and back toward the parking lot, there was a couple, a man and a woman, who looked to be in their 20s, walking along the path several yards in front of us. The young man was staring at the water running across the ground next to him, and apparently, the urge to touch it was just too much for him. As his companion continued to walk, taking a few steps beyond and missing the fact that he had stopped and squatted down, the man reached out his index finger and dipped the first knuckle of it in the stream of boiling water. He immediately pulled his injured hand out of the stream and up to his face. From my point of view, still a few yards away, I could see that the end of his finger, which had been perfectly fine a minute before, was a bright, cherry red. The man hopped up and trotted forward to catch up with his companion, holding his finger out in front of him, like he was E.T. getting ready to touch Eliot.
While on one hand this guy was a Darwin award winner waiting to happen, I sympathized with him. It was hard to look at all that water and connect with the idea that it was different than any water I had ever seen running across the ground. Sure, water that comes out of a tap or that is in a pot on the stove can be hot enough to scald, but all of my previous experiences of streams are as sources of cool healing and renewal, not harm. My personal history was trying to convince me that what I was seeing was safe to touch, as I’m sure that young man’s was.
A few days later, we visited a beach that sits pretty close to the exact center of Iceland’s southern coast. The location is stunningly beautiful, with large basalt rock formations jutting up from the sea and black sand beaches stretching in both directions. To the right side as you face the North Atlantic, the beach runs along open ground and up to a visitor parking lot, and to the left, it forms a swath, maybe 25 yards wide, between the sea and looming cliffs that shoot up into the sky. This site experiences what they call “sneaker waves.” This is a phenomenon where the ocean waves will continue for some time in the normal, expected pattern that anyone who has visited an ocean will recognize, but then, suddenly, a wave that is two or three times larger will crash, rushing up the beach much further than those that had preceded it. The travel book about Iceland that I had been reading prior to our visit warns readers who go to this beach to never turn their backs on the sea, as tourists are known to get caught unawares by the sneaker waves. Some have even been dragged out into the freezing ocean and drowned. The trouble with sneaker waves is that, try though you might and watch though you may, determining when one will hit is truly impossible. Each wave looks very much like the next until it hits and comes rushing up the beach and it becomes apparent whether it will stop as usual or continue on toward the cliffs.
We and the other 50 or so tourists who happened to visit the beach that day witnessed a good number of sneaker waves. Yet, I watched as many of the visitors turned their backs on the waves. People climbed onto rocks in the surf that were safe to reach one minute and completely engulfed the next in order to take selfies. When a sneaker wave would hit, people would shriek and laugh and run up the beach, as if they were being chased in a game of tag, giving no sense that they understood the peril of the place. As we were concluding our visit and heading up the beach toward the parking lot, with one eye on the sea as our travel book had encouraged, we saw a wave crash and heard the commotion of those between us and the sea that accompanied a sneaker. Looking fully back, it became apparent that this was the biggest one yet, and we turned, put our heads down, and ran up the beach. Our flight was complicated by others between us and dry land who kept stopping to look behind them and watch the rush of water heading for our feet, and I am not at all sorry to say that I kept running and shoving my way away from the wave that, in its final reach, was only a few inches from my boots. While no one was pulled out to sea, a few of the revelers got very, very wet with very, very cold ocean water.
Again, like at Geyser, it seemed that people’s history, what they knew about beaches and their use and existence as places for play and fun, seemed to work against their ability to take seriously the dangers that the landscape presented. In just a few minutes at the beach, it was easy to get lulled into a sense of what the waves would be like and to forget that each wave had the potential to be very different from the last. In trying to make sense of these experiences, I keep getting stuck on the idea of history and experience and the ways in which those things can blind us to something new and, perhaps especially, something dangerous. If all we have ever experienced from an environment is safety, it is difficult to conceive of danger in that space. But, more than that, if we read our surroundings only through the lens of our experience, not considering that things may be vastly different than how we are perceiving them, we may miss opportunities to learn and even to experience something new. Our minds constantly try to offer us context, to make our experiences line up with what we have experienced in the past. This is part of the learning process, coming to recognize patterns so that we are not constantly relearning but can give things a nod, say to them, “I know what you are. I’ve seen you before,” and move on to, hopefully, either a deeper understanding of them or moving past them to encounter new material.
While the dangers of doing this in Iceland are physical and tangible (the same guidebook I referenced before has a section in the beginning called, “Ways Iceland May Try to Kill You”), in other ways, in our everyday lives, the dangers of assuming that everything will be the way it was, the way it always has been, are subtler. We risk missing new ideas, and we may fall into a trap of believing that our past experiences encompass more of the world than they actually do. It is easy and natural to presume that the world works in ways that fall in line with things we have consistently seen and felt over our lifetimes, but we do ourselves and the world a disservice if we take for granted that our experiences are held in common with others, are predicable, and, maybe most importantly, that they will remain true and consistent in other contexts. The pull to do so, to heed our brain’s urging that the water is cool and that the beach is a place of fun and frolic, is strong. If we want to truly experience new things, which is at the heart of remaining a growing, learning person, we have to hold open the possibility that the very things that seem most fundamental to us and to our experiences of the world may not serve us well in every context. We must accept that things in the world have the potential to be radically, mind-blowingly, beautifully, and, yes, dangerously different than what we have known.