Russell and Louise Barnwell are in their seventies and have worked their farm near Oquawka, Mississippi, for almost fifty years. Their three children, Sally, Joe and Melvin, live within a fifty-mile radius but have stopped visiting. Sally is in the middle of a messy divorce. Melvin is preoccupied with his job in town at the bank. Joe, the youngest, seems alienated from everyone as he tried to survive on his own farm, but has agreed to let Sally and her two children live with him until she gets back on her feet. Louise mourns the fact that the children no longer seem to care, but Russell is just as happy to be left alone.
When none of their children are able to visit on Christmas Day, Russell and Louise decide—reluctantly, since they've never had much desire to travel—to drive thirty miles to have dinner with their old friends Roy and Ruby Reeves. Russell and Louise arrive to find that neither Roy nor Ruby are even aware that it is Christmas, much less that they had invited guests for dinner. Roy, just eighty, has taken to some strange behavior and has destroyed all their clocks, their calendar and their television. Gratefully discovering that they have left Roy and Ruby's present back in Oquawka, Russell and Louise tell their hosts they will go back and get it, returning in time for dinner—although it's obvious that all Ruby has on hand are a few cans of Spam. Russell and Louise return home for the presents, but on their way back to Roy and Ruby's a fog sets in—literally and figuratively—and soon they are lost . . . or are they?
When the three children discover that Russell and Louise are missing, they begin to worry and start squabbling. Meanwhile, Sally's eight-year-old son, Billy, contacts a dowser named Leon Devine (pronounced Daveen) he had seen on television. Devine, a back-country eccentric, shows up with his tough-talking daughter in a rusted-out station wagon and convinces everyone (except Billy, who was already convinced) that he can find the missing couple by using his forked stick over a road map.
Russell and Louise travel for days, inadvertently escaping the police of one state after another. Russell refuses to admit they're lost, but at some point it no longer seems to matter. Not arriving at Roy and Ruby Reeves' has lightened their spirits and they appear to have less and less concern over their whereabouts. They drive on until the situation begins to wear on them, and all the suppressed anger of their fifty years together begins to surface. When Louise finally has had enough and stays behind at a gas station, Russell has to admit to himself that he has lost his way, and that he must somehow retrace his route to find her.
They arrive home from different directions just ahead of the three kids, who have about given up hope, and the postponed family gathering takes place. The three kids make a big fuss about how they will now stay in close touch so Russell and Louise will never, ever wander off and worry them like that. Russell and Louise ponder this thought, and later that night they stray off once again.
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