Seventeen-year-old Brent Bishop has moved with his parents to Chicago, Illinois. He goes to a party in an attempt to fit in and become popular. He decides to talk to Brianna, a popular girl at the party. She tells him to stop bothering her and to leave her alone. The entire group hears this. Chaz, the party host, mocks him for his actions at the party.
Angered, Brent retaliates and then drives away and tries to kill himself by crashing his car. He crashes into a car being driven by a girl named Lea Zamora. Lea dies in the crash; however, Brent survives the crash. Instead of a conventional prison sentence, Brent agrees to a form of restitution chosen by Lea's mother. Lea's mother tells Brent to build and place four whirligigs at each corner of the Contiguous United States in order to memorialize and carry on Lea's philanthropic ideals. Brent agrees to this, as he feels guilty for his actions. He receives a bus pass and supplies to help him build his whirligigs.
When Brent arrives at Washington he starts to make his first whirligig, an orchestra including a harp. There, he meets a traveler, who plays Go, who teaches him about the movement of life.
In San Diego, Brent wanted to stay at a hostel but they tell him that only foreign travelers can stay there. Brent lies, saying that he's from Canada. He meets a foreign student at the hostel. Before leaving San Diego, he makes his second whirligig, a mermaid.
In Florida, he ponders the concepts of religion. With the help of some children on the beach, Brent makes his penultimate whirligig, a marching band.
His last whirligig was built in Maine, a model of Lea Zamora which spun its arms in the wind. After that he meets a woman who realizes Brent's problems and helps him, allowing him to finally realize he was free.
The whirligigs left behind impact the lives of other people that come across them long after Brent has left that area of the United States.