The man wakes in the woods to the desolate, gray, gloomy world around him. He pushes aside the tarp and stinking blankets and rises, checks on his sleeping son, and reflects upon a dream he had in the night. In the dream he holds the boy's hand, leading him into a cave where there's a lake and, on the far shore of the lake, a pale, translucent, naked creature.
At the first sign of light, the man leaves the boy to study the land around them. He thinks it is October, but hasn't kept a calendar for years, indicating that the world has been in this desolate state for an extended period of time. He and the boy are moving south where the man hopes the winters will be easier to survive.
He returns to the boy and readies the tarp for breakfast, setting the pistol on the cloth in front of him. He reassures the boy that he is there, that he hasn't left him alone.
Then, they return to the road, pushing a cart loaded with their supplies and belongings. Each of them carries a knapsack that holds their essential things should they have to abandon the cart and make a run for it.
At a gas station, the man finds very little. He finds a phone and dials the number of his father's house, just as he'd done in his earlier life, but there's no phone service anymore. He is able to decant a bit of oil for their lamp before they leave and continue their walk south. They crest over a hill and look down upon roadways and a burned house, billboards that now mean nothing. Everything is dead and covered in ash.
The next day, they descend into the city. There are no signs of life here, just burned buildings, cars covered in dust, and a dried corpse in a doorway. The man tells the boy that he should be careful about what he looks at and what he puts in his head, because once those memories are there, they won't go away, especially the bad memories. The man recalls a day from his boyhood, spent with his uncle on a lake in a rowboat. They dragged a stump across the water's surface and didn't speak a word the entire afternoon or evening. The man believes this was the perfect day from his childhood.
From the start, McCarthy establishes that the man and boy exist in a future where the world as we know it has been destroyed. The landscape is ravaged, little life survives, little hope remains, and danger is ever present as the man and boy make their way south along the road. This danger is evidenced by the care they take in keeping their cart hidden on the side of the road, and the rearview mirror they have attached to the handle to see if anyone is approaching them from behind, and their constant states of lookout for signs of smoke or fire.
Throughout the novel there is a strong focus on the bond between father and son. The man sees his son as the only remaining sign of God's existence; without his son, the man has no hope for the future. Their mutual desires to live and die depend solely on one another.
Another theme that emerges at the start of the novel is that of frames, or skeletal shapes. In the city and along the road, all that the father and boy see are the shapes (or remains) of the old world. They see the frames of cars, barns, and houses, and they see the physical remains of dried and decaying human bodies. McCarthy's writing style reflects this sparseness in that he chooses to write in fragments and he keeps the father's and son's dialogue very choppy. The language of the novel reflects the skeletal and barren landscape through which father and son must travel.
Additionally, the theme of dreams emerges in this section. There are dreams that the man has at night, the dreams (or flashbacks) he has during the day. Examples of these flashbacks would be the man's memories of phoning his father's house or spending time on the lake with his uncle.