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Outside Big Sur, California, sundry hitchhikers and vagrant hippies are rounded up by the police, dropped off in town and warned to stay off the beach. One young woman, Chay, is immediately attracted to Gary, a college student spending his summer hitchhiking up the coast. Chay accompanies Gary into Carmel, where they enjoy a round of bread they can barely afford while sitting in a romantic park. Although Gary is slightly more conventional than the free-spirited Chay, they grow close quickly, and after a day on the beach spend the evening with two men who are heating soup over a campfire. The four sing and laugh throughout the night and in the morning, Gary makes love to Chay. Back on the road, he states that he never turns down a ride, knowing that each new experience enriches him in ways he could not have imagined. Later, two men in a sports car, Smitty and Simp, nearly force them off the road, prompting Gary to shout an obscenity at them. Smitty and Simp pull their car over and, after demanding an apology, offer a ride, which Chay accepts in the spirit of Gary's earlier statement. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that the two men are dangerous, and Smitty taunts Gary that entering the car was the stupidest thing he has ever done, then threatens to rape Chay. When they pull in to gas station, Gary and Chay jump out. Gary insists that she run but she refuses to leave him, and as they argue, Smitty throws Gary's bag out of the car and the men speed off. Gary collapses on the ground in relieved laughter and the couple take to the road again, thrilled at their escape. They now head to San Francisco, passing many other hippies on the road, luxuriating in each other's company and the beautiful countryside. Later, a woman named Thelma and her two young children, Donald and Judy, offer the couple a ride. Judy soon admits that she is searching for her fifteen-year-old runaway daughter, prompting Gary to ask if perhaps she should allow the girl to live her own life, and triggering a rage in Chay, who is disgusted with Thelma's rough treatment of her children and conservative ideology. Suddenly, Thelma pulls the car over to inspect the site of a car accident she witnessed days earlier. Realizing that Thelma had failed to stop to help the accident victim, Chay attacks her as selfish and evil, and Thelma slaps Chay and drives away with her children. Gary comforts Chay, who states that she cannot accept every ride, as some are less worthy than others. They are interrupted by a trucker, Diesel, who has stopped to relieve himself and now gives them a ride in his semi. Gary and Chay are delighted by Diesel's voluble sociability until they stop at a truck stop and Gary notices that the trucker is lusting after Chay. As Chay dances to the jukebox, Diesel offers Gary fifteen dollars to allow him to sleep with Chay. Shocked, Gary demurs, and when they later stop at a warehouse where Diesel drops his freight of oranges, Gary demands to Chay that they leave. Despite her reluctance, he follows Diesel and announces his intention to depart, but Diesel locks him in the back of the truck and drives off. As Gary struggles in the dark, he hears Chay and Diesel making love. The next morning, they release Gary, and he strides off in anger, followed by Chay. She urges him to forget about the past night and travel on with her, and when he demands to know what happened, she states that Diesel forced her to have sex and she stayed to protect Gary. Knowing that she is lying but deeply in love, Gary paces silently. They sit for hours awaiting a ride, and when a convertible finally stops, Gary hesitates only briefly before joining Chay. The car owners are Jack and Lynne, a married couple with three children at home. They entice Gary and Chay to share their beer, and soon the foursome is drunk and raucous. Stopping to swim in a lake, Jack fondles a willing Chay while Lynne seduces Gary. Jack is at first jealous of Lynne's attentions and spiteful of Gary's education and potential future, but soon is distracted by his desire for Chay. After an afternoon of sex and drinking, the four drive to a roadhouse in Santa Rosa, where Lynne runs in wearing only her underwear and dances on the tabletops. Chay follows her and, in the ensuing revelry, kisses several of the male patrons. Spotting her, Gary is appalled and tries to pull her out, but she orders him to let her go. Jack storms in and grabs Lynne, causing the bar owner to throw the foursome into the pool in back. Bedraggled and sobered, they struggle back to the car, where Jack and Lynn fight bitterly and Gary sits in silence. At the Russian River, Jack and Lynne bid them goodbye, and as he awaits another ride, Gary tells Chay that she is not as free as she believes herself. "You made up your own rules so you don't have to deal with people," he tells her. In the morning, when a man stops to pick them up, the two say goodbye tenderly and Gary climbs into the car, leaving Chay behind.