Although the location is not confirmed, we are thrown into a bleak, post-apocalyptic setting born of Cormac McCarthy's experience, imagination and skill with words. An unexplained cataclysm has destroyed civilisation and ruined the landscape. The surroundings are desolate and devoid of colour. Ash hangs thickly in the air, forcing the father and son to wear face masks. The ash is so thick, in fact, it has blocked out the sun; the scorched vegetation has no chance of revival.
The book opens as winter approaches – a harsh, cold and dangerous time for which the man and his son must prepare. Setting off on the road, the man's aim is to reach the coast where he hopes to find warmer weather, good people, and better, safer living conditions. Relentless rain and bitter snow impede their journey, forcing them to take frequent shelter beneath a makeshift tarpaulin tent.
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Cormac McCarthy revealed that the spark of inspiration for the story came when visiting El Paso, Texas with his young son. Though many of his other books have been based in the southwest, clues indicate The Road to be set in the southeast of the United States, around the southern stretches of the Appalachian Mountains, suggesting the final destination and hoped-for salvation will be found on the Atlantic or Gulf coast. Raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, this is a part of the world that McCarthy knows well.