The atmosphere is cold, bleak, dark, wretched, nearly unbearable and uninhabitable. It is the atmosphere of a wasteland. These four men seem doomed. They are being reduced to a primitive existence without the survival experience of the American Indians who lived there before them. Furthermore, the land has been ruined by the climatic conditions created by the atomic war. They are civilized men who have lost their civilization, and they are consequently lost without it. It seems like winter but it might be summer. The poisoned atmosphere has brought about a permanent winter.
Out of the sunset, through the dead, matted grass and isolated weed stalks of the prairie, crept the narrow and deeply rutted remains of a road.
There must have been land warfare in addition to the violent exchange of nuclear bombs and missiles.
The frozen mud still bore the toothed impress of great tanks...
The setting with its atmosphere of desolation and despair plays an unusually important role in this story because the author's intention is to paint a word-picture of the aftermath of an atomic holocaust as a warning. This was the kind of aftermath that many people feared during the Cold War, although few had the ability to imagine it as vividly as Walter Van Tilburg Clark.
When William Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1951 he told the assembled audience:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?
By some miracle, humanity managed to survive that perilous phase of history, but the danger has not completely vanished. There are still enough atomic weapons in existence to bring about the reality Clark envisioned.