The book describes, in first person, a 17-day journey on
hismotorcycle from Minnesota to California by the author (though he is not identified in the book) and his son Chris,joined for the first nine days by close friends John and Sylvia Sutherland. The trip is punctuated by numerous philosophical discussions, referred to as Chautauquas by the author, on topics including epistemology, ethical emotivismand the philosophy of science.
Many of these discussions are tied together by the story of the narrator's own past self, who is referred to in the third person as Phaedrus (after Plato's dialogue). Phaedrus, a teacher of creative and technical writing at a
small college,became engrossed in the question of what defines good writing, and what in general defines good, or "quality".His philosophical investigations eventually drove him insane, and he was subjected to electroshock treatment which permanently changed his personality.
Towards the end of the book, Phaedrus's personality begins to re-emerge and the narrator is reconciled with his past.