The book begins with the narrator, Bob, getting ready to leave his hometown in California after graduating from high school:
Pack my rucksack and get out of this place. Like the song says, "I'm leavin' LA, baby. Don't you know this smog has got me down." Taj Mahal, a blues singer. I found his album -- one of those old black discs -- in a box with a bunch of others in granddad's garage. Old record player with it, kind that goes around and 'round. Been listening to them ever since -- all gramp's favorites from the sixties and seventies when he was a kid. Great songs ... despite the scratches.
He said the smog then was nothing compared to what we got now. They didn't have alkali smog back then. We're breathing borax and potash blown in with the dust. Granddad died of emphysema but he never smoked. The doc said some people are more sensitive than others. I got his heredity. Mom and dad coughing, especially when they wake up. Even hear the neighbors coughing. Gotta get outta here. "We gotta get out of this place, if it's the last thing we ever do." Another song -- The Animals.
Animals now are dying even in the zoos. Birds gone.
Like to take all his old records with me, but no room in the rucksack. They'll be here when I come back ... if I come back. Mom and dad will be pissed I just left them a letter. But if I told them, they'd just pressure me into staying again, like they did last time I told them I wanted to go. No money for college. They want me to get some sh*t job here. If I'm going to have a sh*t job, I want it to be at least some place where I can breathe.
Rucksack's pretty heavy. Outta here.
Little bungalow house like the others. Dust on all the window sills. Sand in the drain spouts. Hasn't rained this year. Wind patterns have changed so it rains over the ocean but hardly ever over the land. Grass died, then even the weeds died. At least the dirt won't die. The Great Drought, they call it. I don't know what's so great about it.
Strap the pack on the back of the little Honda 250 bike, spark it alive. So long, Long Beach. Miles of bungalows, fourplex apartments, gas stations, strip malls. Sand on the road, sand in the gutters, sky cloudless but gray. Plenty of water for people who can afford it, but there's fewer and fewer of those. Outta here.
(Bob meets Jane, 77, and agrees to help her with her quest. She is convinced North America's water has retreated into a deep subterranean aquifer, and she is searching for the place where it comes close enough to the surface to access it.)
As Jane drives over the Tioga Pass, the east entrance to Yosemite, the sun is setting over the Sierras, shooting rays of golden light through the haze, shining the clouds pink and violet. With a last gleam it drops behind the mountains and lights them from behind into miles of blue craggy peaks.
We have plenty of time to enjoy the view because her motor home is weak on hills; we're lugging at thirty m.p.h. It's dark by the time we get to the campground. I like it much better here than the desert -- the air is cool and fresh, and I can pitch my tent under a tree.
I wake up several times in the night to the sound of little things falling onto the taut nylon of the tent. Raindrops! I go back to sleep with a smile.
In the morning everything is still dry. Instead of rain, the tent and ground are strewn with pine needles. The tree above me is shedding needles and small branches as it withers. Its bark is gray and flaky, limbs limp.