Two young men are traveling through the American Southwest.
Their journey is a classic one. They will begin, on this squint-bright April morning, along the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, and as the day unfolds and the clouds scud overhead they will pass through panoramic landscapes that look like stills from old cowboy movies. They'll float past the saloons of Route 66, and they'll ease along the spiral of asphalt that crosses the colossus of the Hoover Dam, and then, at dusk, just as the towers on the horizon are starting to shine in the desert blackness, they'll roll into Las Vegas.
As with many an odyssey that leads to Clark County, Nevada, the purpose of this journey is also a classic one. The purpose is to score. Well, one of the men has no particular interest in scoring. His name is Bill McMullen. Bill is a 28-year-old Buddhist vegetarian who is devoted to Holly, his girlfriend back home in England. Handsome but modestly sowith no apparent sparks of narcissismBill doesn't seem to carry much with him other than a kind of otherworldly silence. He sits in the back seat and stares at the clouds.
Think of Bill as a guide, a consigliere, to his companion, who is wearing a black cowboy hat and sitting in the front passenger seat with his bare feet up on the dashboard and his fingers constantly cranking up the volume on Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile." This man, also from England, has long black sideburns, a soul patch, black eyeglasses, and a Noel Gallagherstyle bowl cut. His name is Otto Baxter. He is 21, and he is a virgin.
It is not uncommon for young men to think relentlessly about sex, but in Otto Baxter's case that tendency is especially pronounced. Sometimes it is the only thing Otto wants to talk about, and when he does talk about it, his stream-of-consciousness effusions are surreal and explicit enough to make Henry Miller blush. Right now, in fact, while I chauffeur the duo through the desert, Otto is discussing his fondness for strippers.
"They pin me on the wall," he says. "They kiss me right on the neck. I unbutton my shirt. It feels very nice. I had a girl. She was on my willy. She jumped on my willy. It's wicked. It feels nice. I have a huge boner. Straight up. It feels lovely. Yep. I want to do it again. She also put her boobs in my face. One of the strippers grabbed my glasses and put them on her nipple. 'Are you naughty?' 'Oh, yes, I'm very naughty.' 'Come on, big boy! Let's take it down to your trousers! Unfasten your belt and let me pull it down and suck on it!'"
Bill listens to these soliloquies from the back seat and responds, now and then, with a gently corrective laugh or a barely perceptible sigh. "Otto, they didn't do that, did they?" he says finally. "Your imagination runs wild, doesn't it."
"Oh, yeah!" Otto says.
Tumbleweeds skitter across the road. Otto shows no signs of tapering off.
"I like their boobs," he continues. "Yeah. Lovely nipples. Perfect breasts. They're like chicken breasts."
"You've got a tendency to compare things to food, haven't you, Otto?" Bill says.
"Yeah," Otto says. "Burgers with boobs. Stick in an oliveit's like a nipple. And they have legs like bacon. And their bottom is like a steak. And they also have eyes like round biscuits. Actually, their whole body's like a biscuit. I'm hungry for a stripper."
This is Otto's first trip to America, where he is unknown, but back in the U.K. he is an object of public fascination. Drawn to the unusual circumstances of his life when he was a child, BBC TV crews have documented aspects of his upbringing, and a few weeks ago his mother, Lucy Baxter, touched off something of a media cyclone in England when she went public about a topic of great delicacy, telling reporters that she wanted her son to find a woman who would introduce him to the pleasures of sexual congressand saying that she would go so far as to help him track one down. That would strike most of us as little more than a curiosity, a rather drastic case of helicopter parenting, were it not for one simple fact: Otto has Down syndrome.
When Lucy Baxter was a teenage art student, she volunteered with a program for disabled people who were housed in an institution down the road from her school. "I was expecting people who would all be the same and would just be 'vegetables,' which is the term that people use, but they weren't," she says. "They were all much more individual than the rest of us, who have all gone through a bit of a sausage machine."
It galled her that these people, some of whom had Down syndrome and many of whom she befriended, had been forced into limited lives and locked out of public view. "I felt very let down by society," she says. "There were people I got very, very fond of who were shut away 24 hours a day in this institution, and they haunt me. They were just so deprivedsocially, culturally, materially. It's a bit like the Holocaust: I don't want that to happen again, and I will do anything I can do to stop it."