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“What's that, Zöega ?” I asked.
“That's the Geysers, sir,” he replied, as coolly as if it were the commonest thing in the world to see the famous Geysers of Iceland.
"The Geysers! That little thing the Geysers ?"
I may as well confess at once that I was sadly disappointed. It was a pleasure, of course, to see what I had read of and pictured to my mind from early boyhood; but this contemptible little affair looked very much like a humbug. A vague idea had taken possession of my mind that I would see a whole district of country shooting up hot water and sulphurous vapors—a kind of hell upon earth; but that thing ahead of us—that little curl of smoke on the horizon looked so peaceful, so inadequate a result of great subterranean fires, that I could not but feel some resentment toward the travelers who had preceded
me, and whose glowing accounts of the Geysers had deceived me. At this point of view it was not at all equal to the Geysers of California. I had a distinct recollection of the great cañon between Russian River Valley and Clear Lake, the magnificent hills on the route, the first glimpse of the infernal scene far down in the bed of the cañon, the boiling, hissing waters, and clouds of vapor whirling up among the rocks, the towering crags on the opposite side, and the noble forests of oak and pine that spread “a boundless contiguity of shade" over the wearied traveler, and I must say a patriotic pride took possession of my soul. We had beaten the world in the production of gold; our fruits were finer and our vegetables larger than any ever produced in other countries; our men taller and stronger, our women prettier and more prolific, our lawsuits more extensive, our fights the best ever gotten up, our towns the most rapidly built and rapidly burned-in short, every thing was on a grand, wide, broad, tall, fast, overwhelming scale, that bid defiance to competition, and now I was satisfied we could
even beat old Iceland in the matters of Geysers. I really felt a contempt for that little streak of smoke. Perhaps something in the expression of my eye may have betrayed my thoughts, for Zoega, as if he felt a natural pride in the wonders of Iceland and wished them to be properly appreciated, hastily added, “But you must not judge of the Geysers by what you now see, sir! That is only the little Geyser. He don't blow up much. The others are behind the first rise of ground."
“That may be, Zöega. I have no doubt they are very fine, but it is not within the bounds of possibility that they should equal the Geysers of California."
“Indeed, sir! I didn't know you had Geysers there."
“Didn't know it! Never heard of the Geysers of California ?”
“Well, Zöega, that is remarkable. Our Geysers are the finest, the bitterest, the smokiest, the noisest, the most infernal in the world; and as for mountains, our Shasta Bute would knock your Mount Hecla into a cocked hat!"
“Is it possible !"
“And have you great lava-beds covering whole valleys as we have here ?"
“ Certainly—only they are made of gold. We call them Placer's—Gold Placers."
“A wonderful country, sir !"
And so we talked, Zöega and I, as we jogged along pleasantly on our way. Our ride, after we caught the first sight of the smoke, continued for some two hours over a series of low hills, with little green valleys lying between, till we came to an extensive bog that skirts the base of the Langarfjal, a volcanic bluff forming the background of the Geysers. It was now becoming interesting. Half an hour more would settle the matter conclu
sively between California and Iceland. Crossing the bog where it was not very wet, we soon came to a group of huts at the turning point of the hill, where we were met
by a shepherd and his family. All turned out, big and little, to see the strangers. The man and his wife were fair specimens of Icelandic peasantry-broad-faced, blue.
eyed, and good-natured, with yellowish hair, and a sort of mixed costume, between the civilized and the barbar
The children, of which there must have been over a dozen, were of the usual cotton-head species found in all Northern countries, and wore any thing apparently they could get, from the cast-off rags of their parents to sheepskins and raw bide. Nothing could surpass the friendly interest of the old shepherd. He asked Zoega a thousand questions about the gentleman," and begged that we would dismount and do him the honor to take a cup of coffee, which his wife would prepare for us in five minutes. Knowing by experience that five minutes in Iceland means any time within five hours, I was reluctantly obliged to decline the invitation. The poor fellow seemed much disappointed, and evidently was sincere in his offers of hospitality. To compromise the matter, we borrowed a spade from him, and requested him to send some milk down to our camp as soon as the cows were milked.
Although these worthy people lived not over half a mile from the Geysers, they could not tell us when the last eruption had taken place—a most important thing for us to know, as the success of the trip depended almost entirely upon the length of time which had elapsed since that event. The man said he never took notice of the eruptions. He saw the water shooting up every few days, but paid no particular attention to it. There might have been an ernption yesterday, or this morning, for all he knew; it was impossible for him to say positively. “In truth, good friend,” said he to Zöega,“ my head is filled with sheep, and they give me trouble enough.” It was evidently filled with something, for he kept scratching it all the time he was talking.
Many travelers have been compelled to wait a week for an eruption of the Great Geyser, though the interval between the eruptions is not usually more than three days. A good deal depends upon the previous state of the weather, whether it has been wet or dry. Sometimes
the eruptions take place within twenty-four hours, but not often. The Great Geyser is a very capricious old gentleman, take him as you will. He goes up or keeps quiet just to suit himself, and will not put himself the least out of the way to oblige any body. Even the Prince Napoleon, who visited this region a few years ago, spent two days trying to coax the grumbling old fellow to favor him with a performance, but all to no purpose. The prince was no more to a Great Geyser than the commonest shepherd-not so much, in fact, for his finest displays are said to be made when nobody but some poor shepherd of the neighborhood is about. In former times the eruptions were much more frequent than they are now, occurring at least every six hours, and often at periods of only three or four. Gradually they have been diminishing in force and frequency, and it is not improbable they will cease altogether before the lapse of another century. According to the measurements given by various travelers, among whom may be mentioned Dr. Henderson, Sir George Mackenzie, Forbes, Metcalfe, and Lord Dufferin, the height to which the water is ejected varies from eighty to two hundred feet. It is stated that these Geysers did not exist prior to the fifteenth century; and one eruption—that of 1772-is estimated by Olsen and Paulsen to have reached the extraordinary height of three hundred and sixty feet. All these measurements appear to me to be exaggerated.
Ascending a slope of dry incrusted earth of a red and yellowish color, we first came upon the Little Geyser, a small orifice in the ground, from which a column of steam
A bubbling sound as of boiling water issued from the depths below, but otherwise it presented no remarkable phenomena. In a few minutes more we stood in the middle of a sloping plateau of some half a mile in circuit, which declines into an extensive valley on the right. Within the limits of this area there are some forty springs and fissures which emit hot water and vapors. None of them are of any considerable size, except the Great Gey