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"Like Hell with the fires out," she thought to herself.

The fires weren't too out, though, she mused. The south Texas heat was just about to overwhelm the air conditioner in her late-model car—and it wasn't even summer, yet.

Even though she had grown up not too far away, this was only her second time in Big Bend National Park. She barely remembered the other time because she had been, what? Seven? Eight? The sight was breathtaking.

Most of the trip had been fuzzy, her mind elsewhere. She had driven it like an automaton and could not now have even told what roads she had taken to get where she was. She had been so out of it that it seemed to her now that she had just appeared here, on the sunbaked road to Big Bend. For the last half hour or so, though, everything had been in such stark detail it seemed almost as unreal as the trip down. She felt like she could see every rock, every creosote bush, every ocotillo. She imagined that, if she looked close enough, she could even see the lizards and snakes that were crouching in the little bits of shadow, loathing the hot day almost as much as she was.

Ellen had left Marathon half an hour ago and had wondered for most of that time why anyone in their right mind would want to live anywhere near where she was driving. It was barren, desolate, hot, dry and it really did look like someone's vision of Hades. Not quite Hell, but certainly not Heaven. Those, she laughed, were its good points.

But then she had slowly crept up to and through the low line of basaltic cliffs and had found herself in a basin more than sixty miles wide with a brooding black volcano in the middle. Though it had been dormant for untold centuries, its rugged crown gave the impression that it had just blown its cap off moments before. It ruled over the surrounding landscape like some sort of behemoth: ugly, grotesque, and fearsome. It was also the most beautiful thing Ellen had ever seen.

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