The story opens when T.S. receives a surprising call from the Smithsonian Institution. Apparently, someone has submitted T.S.'s scientific drawings that show how the Carabidae brachinus beetle expels boiling secretions, and he's won the prestigious Baird Award. (Of course, T.S. knows all about the Smithsonian's second secretary, Spencer F. Baird, who in the 19th century increased the institution's "collection from 6,000 to 2.5 million specimens before he died in Woods Hole.") Unaware that T.S. is just a boy, the museum administration invites him to give a speech and begin a fellowship in Washington. "All at once the preposterousness of what was happening fell into place in my mind," T.S. tells us. "I didn't often remember that I was twelve years old. Life was too busy to dwell on things like age, but at this moment, faced with a great misunderstanding fabricated by grown-ups, I suddenly felt the full weight of my youth, painfully and acutely."
In the wildly digressive chapters that follow, T.S. describes his "hoboing" cross-country adventure to the nation's capital, without money, without transportation and without telling his parents. Not to worry, though: His getaway suitcase contains "two sextants and one octant," along with his "Harmann Radiograph," "a Berenstain Bears handkerchief" and "underwear galore." He advises himself to "get some makeup and change your complexion. Buy a top hat. Speak in an Italian accent. Learn to juggle."
He thinks of himself as reversing the trek of his cartographic heroes, Lewis and Clark, but we see him in that long line of alienated young Americans that stretches from Huckleberry Finn to Jack Kerouac. "I did not belong here," T.S. says, echoing their sentiments.
With a break-your-heart mixture of deadpan humor, childlike anxiety and cerebral enthusiasm for all things (phone cords, pants, pirates), T.S. reflects on his brief life as he travels across the country, hidden inside a new Winnebago ("The Cowboy Condo") being transported on an eastbound Union Pacific freight train. "One need only whisper the phrase 'bustling railroad town' to raise my blood pressure a notch," he says.
But woven through his delightful anecdotes and tangents is the story of his childhood, his alienated parents and the ranch where they all live together in silence. These dark details emerge slowly, mostly in the marginalia, as though they can't be spoken straight out, but we learn early on that T.S.'s younger, much adored brother was killed six months earlier. No one ever mentions him, and the parents have withdrawn deep into their grief, leaving T.S. adrift, feeling unloved and guilty. His mother -- whom he refers to only as "Dr. Clair" -- rarely leaves her study; his stoic cowboy father makes it clear that he has no use for an effete, cerebral son.