More long weeks pass as the man and boy keep traveling. They come to a mountain range and the man wonders if they will be able to survive crossing it. He pins all his hopes on reaching the coast, but he recognizes that “all of this was empty and no substance to it.”
They reach the mountains and pass through lifeless forests and burned resort towns. They cross a stream and the man remembers seeing trout there long ago. It gets colder as they get higher, and there is gray snow on the ground. There are still fires burning in the distance, somewhere in the mountains. The man and the boy make campfires every night to keep warm. Sometimes the man stops to cough up a fine spray of blood.
The man’s memory of trout in the mountain streams foreshadows the book’s lyrical ending. All the human survivors wear masks and goggles now because of the ash, but the man still has gotten some kind of respiratory disease. Coughing up blood is McCarthy’s hint that he is dying of something.
One day they walk near a forest fire, and the color of it reminds the man of the sun. He resolves to “make a list. Recite a litany. Remember.” They keep going uphill, looking for the mountain pass, and they are cold and hungry. The man dreams that his wife is sick and he takes care of her. He wakes and remembers the reality of it – he could not take care of her, and “she died alone somewhere in the dark.”
The only real color and light in the present comes in the form of a forest fire, the very thing that has left behind so much ash and darkness. The man only seems to reject his good memories when they come as dreams, as these are the “call of death,” but otherwise he is obligated to bear the memory of color, light, and happiness.
The man remembers the first days after the nameless disaster, and then months later when there were “fires on the ridges and deranged chanting.” Soon there were murders and the dead impaled on spikes by the road. The man thinks about crime and punishment in the world. They keep going up the mountain and their pace slows. Finally they reach the summit of “the gap,” where there is a parking lot for the scenic overlook.
In McCarthy’s bleak vision, humanity devolves into the worst parts of itself when faced with disaster. Only a few “good guys” like the man remain, who are unwilling to murder to survive. It seems that many of the fires that destroyed everything came after the disaster itself. The gap is probably the Cumberland Gap.
The next morning they move on and drink their last packet of cocoa. The man tries to give all of it to the boy but the boy makes them split it. They start traveling downhill and they hear trees falling. The man assures the boy that no trees are going to fall on them. Often they come across trees fallen across the road and they have to unpack the cart and carry everything over the tree trunks.
Though their love is generally silent and based on perseverance and survival, the man does try to show his love in other ways, as by giving the boy the treat of the coke or the cocoa. The boy must trust the man implicitly, but the man often exaggerates when comforting the boy.
One night the boy has a nightmare about a wind-up penguin toy. Four days later they come out of the snow and find a river. They travel farther and reach a waterfall, which amazes the boy. The man jumps into the pool below the waterfall and swims around. The boy takes off his clothes to join him and the man notices how terribly thin the boy is. The boy jumps in and the man helps him as he tries to swim.
This is a small scene of relief in the often oppressive bleakness of the novel and the protagonists’ lives. The boy is a product of the post-apocalyptic age, as he was born after the disaster, so he lives in a nearly constant state of starvation.
They get dressed and walk up to the top of the waterfall, and the boy is frightened by the long drop. They walk through the forest and the man remembers the names of the trees that used to live there. He finds some shriveled morel mushrooms and they eat them. They make a fire and sit eating, and the man tells the boy old stories of “courage and justice as he remembered them.”
The boy’s fear is ever-present, as he gets “really scared” even by the waterfall. The man (and the reader) starts to recognize that the old world is now an alien place – there is little opportunity for such things as courage, justice, and the names of trees in the harsh present.
The man checks for other people, as the waterfall is a “good place,” and he remembers seeing trout in a similar waterfall pool. The boy wants to stay by the river but the man says it isn’t safe, and they have to keep going south. The man takes out his tattered map and points out their route to the boy. They will be following the state roads. The boy asks about them and the man says there aren’t states anymore, but the roads remain.
The man again thinks of trout, foreshadowing the novel’s end. The map is the only thing left to order the chaotic world, and so the man bases his goals (like reaching the coast) on physically reaching a place on the map. The man gives more hints about the nature of the disaster –government in the form of states has disappeared. The only remnant of that civilization are the roads that once connected places that no longer exist.
They leave the river and set out on the road again. They come to a tractor-trailer wedged across a bridge. They have to unload the cart to go under the truck, and it starts to rain. The truck has been there for years. The man searches the tractor, and they sleep that night inside. The next day the man tries to find out what’s in the trailer. He climbs onto the roof and sees that there is an uncovered skylight. He drops a piece of burning paper through the hole, and by the light of the small flame he sees that the trailer is full of dead bodies.
Death is ubiquitous in this setting, and there is no way to protect the boy from the random horror of the post-apocalyptic world. The man has to search every possible place, regardless of danger or fear, because they are so desperate for food at all times.
That night they make camp and a storm breaks over them. The next day they travel through a “haze of woodsmoke,” as a fire has recently passed through. The road is still melted and soft, and they see footprints in the tar. Soon they come upon another traveler shuffling down the road. He seems burnt and wounded, and he just looks down silently as the boy and the man pass by. The boy wants to stop and help him, but the man says there is nothing they can do.
This is the first other human the protagonists have encountered, and they do not speak. The burnt man seems almost ashamed of his plight, as he has been living the same lifestyle as the man and boy, but he has failed. There is also a mutual understanding between the travelers, that there is no help to be given.
As they go on the boy starts crying and keeps looking back. The man assures him that they have nothing they could give to the burnt man, and the boy nods. They cross another river. One day the man takes out his wallet and leaves all its contents spread out across the road. He lingers over a photograph of his wife, but then he leaves that on the road too. The next day the boy is still silent and sad, and the man again tells him that the burnt man’s death is inevitable.
The boy’s extreme sympathy and compassion becomes evident at this first human interaction. Despite being raised in a constant state of fear, danger, and starvation, he always wants to help everyone they meet on the road. The man symbolically gives up the happy memory of the past to the road itself, which has become his hope and means of persevering.
The man remembers the disaster, which is only described as “a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” The clocks then stopped and the power went out. The man immediately started filling up the bathtub with water, and his wife, who was pregnant, asked why he was taking a bath. The man then remembers another day, years later, watching migratory flocks of birds pass overhead and wishing them “godspeed.” That was the last time he heard birds.
This is the closest McCarthy comes to describing the event that caused the collapse of civilization. We never learn what kind of job the man had in his old life, but he clearly was already a consummate survivor, as he immediately knew what to do and gathered water in the tub. Birds are often a sign of hopefulness and the life of the old world, or in this case perhaps the loss of life and the old world.
The man and the boy play cards sometimes and the boy asks questions about “the world that for him was not even a memory.” The boy has dreams about a better life in the south, which the man halfheartedly tries to tame. One night the man watches the sleeping boy and thinks about how the most precious things “have a common provenance in pain.”
To give the boy hope and a practical reason to keep going, the man has built up the goal of reaching the coast and moving south. The man’s extreme love and closeness to the boy is based in their shared suffering and the bleakness of the world. The boy is like a precious, holy figure to the man, the promise of innocence and goodness that was lost and, perhaps, a hope for the future.
One morning the man wakes up coughing blood. He says his wife’s name aloud and feels like he may have said it in his sleep. The boy wakes up and says he wishes he was with his mom – that he was dead too. The man says the boy shouldn’t say that anymore. The man then remembers the night of his wife’s death. They were arguing about whether she should kill herself. The man said they were “survivors,” and his wife said they were “the walking dead in a horror film.”
Even at such a young age, his harsh surroundings cause the boy to feel an existential weariness of life, which the man tries to discourage with optimism and relentless travel down the road. This last memory of his wife illustrates the end of their relationship, but also has far-reaching effects for the man and boy’s lives.
The man begged his wife not to kill herself, but she said she should have done it back when they had three bullets in their pistol instead of two. She said that inevitably they will all be raped, killed, and eaten, and she doesn’t want to wait around for that to happen. She said that they used to talk about death, but they don’t anymore because “it’s here” now. She told the man she was taking a new lover – death.
The woman and the man offer contrasting responses to the collapse of the world. The man chooses to keep hoping and surviving, even if there is no reasonable hope that anything will get better. The fear of constant violence and cannibalism is now inherent in choosing to survive, so the man’s decision seems even more bold.
The man said he couldn’t go on alone, and his wife agreed, saying he would only survive if he lived for the boy. But this was no longer enough for the woman, so she hoped now for “eternal nothingness.” The man begged her again, but she went off into the blackness, refusing even to say goodbye to the boy. The man assumes she killed herself with a piece of obsidian, and he thinks “the coldness of [her suicide] was her final gift.” He recognizes that he had no argument against her reasoning. The next morning the boy had said “She’s gone isn’t she?” and the man affirmed it.
Death is so overwhelming in this world that it is often personified, as the woman describes it as a lover, the only thing that can ease her suffering and give her peace. With her suicide the woman gives in to that weariness and despair that the boy now feels, she escapes the violence and horror of the present, and she tries to take some control of her chaotic life by determining the means of its end.
The man then thinks about how the boy is totally a product of the post-apocalyptic world, and the fact that he was so unsurprised by his mother’s suicide. The man remembers the boy being born by candlelight while they watched cities burning on the horizon. In the present the boy asks the man if he had any friends. The man affirms that he did, but says that they are all dead now. He assures the boy again that they are going south.
The boy is like a new breed of human, one that lives in constant fear and starvation and calmly accepts the ubiquity of death, even when his own mother kills herself. We see that years later the boy is still torn between his parents and their divergent love – part of him wants to be with his mother (escape pain through death), while part wants to keep hoping and traveling with his father.