The story begins with a man named Earl Middleton, his girlfriend Edna, his daughter Cheryl, and Cheryl's dog driving from Kalispell, Montana, to Florida in a stolen car. Earl is essentially a peace-loving man, though he has committed a number of nonviolent crimes: writing bad checks, stealing tires and cars, and so on. He's hoping to turn over a new leaf once they get to Florida and stop committing crimes, in part because he doesn't want to go back to prison and in part because he wants to give his daughter a better life. Earl also welcomes the opportunity to get Edna away from her ex, Danny, who steals her stuff while she's at work and has to be threatened by Ear—who Edna told Danny went to prison for murder, which was a lie—to clear off.
Earl has stolen a cranberry Mercedes from the parking lot of an ophthalmologist's office— probably the doctor's car—hoping it would be comfortable and get good gas mileage, and the trip begins to feel like a new beginning, an auspicious start to a new life. Then, however, the car began to give them trouble, eventually breaking down outside of a town called Rock Springs.
Edna, meanwhile, is tired and hungry, and she blames Earl for the car trouble, among other things. Earl walks to a mobile home park near what looks like a huge plant, but which turns out to be a gold mine and uses one resident's telephone to call a cab. By the time he leaves the park, the cab has already arrived at the broken-down Mercedes. They go to a hotel, and Edna tells Earl that she wants to get on a bus back to Montana tomorrow; she loves him, but she does not want to stay with him, as it's too likely he'll get caught by the police, and she isn't happy with Earl and Cheryl and a life of motel rooms and stolen cars. Earl thinks it might be a good sign that they saw a gold mine, but Edna says that's not so because it isn't their mine.
That night, Earl goes out to the parking lot to see which car he should steal to get him and Cheryl to Florida, and he finds one full of the things he, too, would have in his car if he ever had his own. He considers how he must look to anyone who might be watching him, how they would probably never guess that he was actually a human being and a father who was just trying to make a better life for himself and his daughter. He realizes, it seems, that most people would look at him and see no similarities between them; they would feel no empathy or even understanding of his situation.