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On a cold December day, an elderly woman named Phoenix Jackson makes her way along a remote path, narrating the journey to herself as she goes. She traverses different kinds of terrain—hills, forests, swamps, and fields—that test the strength and endurance of her old body. She encounters animals and people along her way, too. Some of these are real; others are daydreams, memories, or tricks of the eye.
One of these animals, a black dog, bowls her over, leaving her lying in a ditch for a while until a hunter, a young white man with a dog of his own chained by his side, stops to help her up. The hunter and Phoenix chat, mostly about her age and where she is going, which makes him seem nice enough, but he's really pretty much a jerk. He sets his own dog off to attack the black dog, and he points his gun directly at Phoenix, which he thinks is really funny. As the two part ways, the hunter advises Phoenix to go home, but she insists on continuing her journey.
The path gives way to town, which is decorated for Christmas and filled with people bustling by Phoenix as they go about their business. Phoenix asks one of these people to tie her shoes, and then Phoenix climbs the steps to a big building and enters a doctor's office where she is greeted by a less-than-friendly attendant.
Luckily, a nurse recognizes Phoenix right away as a grandmother who makes the long trip into the city frequently in order to get medicine for her grandson who is sick with lye poisoning. Even though she doesn't think it will help, the nurse gives Phoenix medicine for her grandson's throat, and the attendant gives Phoenix a nickel in the spirit of Christmas. Phoenix decides that she will buy her grandson a paper windmill to bring home to him along with the medicine.