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The Dream of Icarus

John McAfee is spending millions of his antivirus-software fortune to create a circuit of airstrips for "kite-plane" pilots — based in remote Rodeo, NM. And when they're not flying, there's karaoke.

Story and photos by David A. Fryxell

 

As you shoot through Granite Gap on the eastern edge of New Mexico's forlorn Bootheel country, the Chiricahua Mountains suddenly loom like a herd of slumbering elephants at the far side of the San Simon Valley. As Hwy. 80 flattens toward Rodeo, NM, the ribbon of road itself is the only thing to catch the eye for empty miles. Cell phone reception winks out. Hawks circle torpidly in the hazy currents, the air still warm in early autumn.

Antivirus-software mogul-turned-"Sky Gypsy" John McAfee explains the workings of a "kite plane."

Some 150 miles from the nearest metropolitan area and with a population of only about 70, until recently Rodeo's chief claim to fame was sheltering beneath the darkest skies in the lower 48 states. If you look up "middle of nowhere" in the dictionary, you ought to find a picture of Rodeo, NM.

All of which makes it the ideal location for a software multi-millionaire, whose name is on maybe a fifth of the computer screens in America, to build a cafe serving espresso, quiche and imported soft drinks. To operate a movie theater showing foreign films and pre-1945 Hollywood classics. To house his buddies in gleamingly restored Airstream trailers, each Airstream paired with an antique auto of precisely matching vintage. To host karaoke in the desert night where once only coyotes sang.

And, above all, to indulge his latest hobby and take to the cerulean New Mexico skies in imitation of those hawks — cockpit open to the 70-mile-an-hour rush of air, colorful wings like rainbows on the run, the drab and dusty earth left behind in an airborne dash to the canyons of the Chiricahuas.

"It's the dream that Icarus had — to fly like a bird," says John McAfee, whose last name may be familiar from McAfee software, the second-largest maker of antivirus protection for PCs. He no longer has any role with the company he founded, selling his stake 13 years ago for $100 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. That freed up both his time and his fortune to pursue whatever passion possesses him, which these days is "aerotrekking" in souped-up ultralight aircraft.

"The tin cans people fly in, like Cessnas, are an entirely different experience," McAfee goes on. "We're flying open cockpits, sometimes inches above cows' heads. You can see, hear and smell everything around you, just like birds do."

Paul Grignot, a retired fighter pilot who's become one of McAfee's "Sky Gypsies," puts in, "John says you can actually smell the grass when you fly over it, and it's true."

Grignot, who lives in Florida, is on his fourth visit, spending two weeks flying with fellow Sky Gypsies at the Amigos del Cielo — "friends of the sky" — airstrip and hangers complex five miles north of Rodeo. He's timed his visit to coincide with a weekend fly-in, which will bring 30 fellow pilots — most of the core group of Sky Gypsies, who number about 200 overall and range in age from 11 to 84. Grignot happily relates a recent encounter with a hawk that flew beside his "kite plane," checking him out. The hawk kept cocking its head as if it couldn't quite believe what it was seeing, Grignot says, doing his best hawk imitation.

"The birds themselves notice the difference," says McAfee, whose tangled frosted-tipped hair, goatee and chiseled good looks suggest a bit of the raptor about himself. He's clad in loose-fitting workout wear, only the reading glasses dangling from his neck giving a clue that McAfee is 62. "They detect the birdlike movement, like, 'You are one strange bird.'"

Indeed, most people first became aware of such ultralight aircraft in the 1996 Disney movie Fly Away Home, based on a true story of a man who led orphaned Canada geese on their migration south with his plane.

"Try that with a Cessna," McAfee challenges.

The real "Father Goose" who inspired the movie, Tom Alden, will soon be paying a visit to Rodeo. He might not recognize the aircraft, however, which McAfee says have been vastly updated since Fly Away Home. State-of-the-art kite planes now cost from $30,000 to $120,000.

Popularly known as "trikes," because they resemble oversized tricycles outfitted with rear propellers and wings, the aircraft are also called "weight-shift ultralights." Think of a hang-glider with a 1200cc motor attached. Steering is much like a hang-glider, too, by means of a long bar suspended from the wing at about chest height. A trike needs only a brief patch of airstrip — a fraction of the Sky Gypsies' 7,200-foot dirt runway — to take off or land, and can get airborne at just 35 miles an hour. Range is about 300 miles, or five hours airborne. Depending on the wing configuration, cruising speed is about 45 to 70 miles an hour, with a top speed of 90 to 115 — without benefit of a "tin can" cockpit, remember. It's just you, the hawks and the open sky.

 

The first sign that anything out of the ordinary is taking place in the rough, otherwise empty country north of Rodeo is a lone semi trailer along Hwy. 80. Painted with a scene of a brick-colored building encircled by silvery trailers, the makeshift billboard advertises the "Sky Gypsy Cafe." About three miles farther down the dusty highway, a turquoise 1950 panel van marks the turnoff to the cafe and airstrip. Originally envisioned as a real-estate development around an "airpark," the Amigos del Cielo Airport made an ideal home base for the Sky Gypsies.

Over the past four years, McAfee has invested nearly $12 million in this and a network of other remote airstrips for the Gypsies to trek between, forming an 1,100-mile circuit in all. Sites include Deming plus an undeveloped lease in Truth or Consequences in New Mexico, and Willcox, La Cholla, Pleasant Valley and Rimrock in Arizona. Some flights are no more than a jaunt from Rodeo, where most of the Sky Gypsies base their aircraft and McAfee houses a small kite-plane fleet, across the valley and back. But the real fun lies in "aerotrekking" to one of McAfee's other airstrips for a pilot rendezvous.

The obvious question here is: Why Rodeo, NM, one of the most remote locations in the contiguous United States?

"Why not?" McAfee replies — this is a favorite answer of his. Pressed, he explains that it was precisely Rodeo's remoteness that attracted him. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restricts the flying of ultralight aircraft within urban areas and for as much as 30 miles around commercial airports. So, once McAfee caught this particular flying bug, he and companion Jennifer Irwin spent a total of 17 weeks driving a yellow Hummer across the desert in search of a site removed enough from civilization to plant the Sky Gypsy flag.

"There are other, less-populous areas, in Nevada and Utah, but here you have mountains, desert, playas, canyons — it's so varied and beautiful, it makes every day a different day when you fly," McAfee says. "You could spend a month here and go to a different place every day."

For emphasis, he points to a poster in one of the hangers of a "trike" sunlit against dark canyon walls. "See how the sunrise hasn't reached the bottom of the canyon yet? This is an undoctored photo. This is local."

Southern New Mexico's sunny climate allows the Sky Gypsies to fly year-round. They have to pick their days in the gusty spring — flying in wind speeds stronger than 15 miles an hour is not fun, McAfee says — and stick mostly to mornings in the summer "monsoon" season. "We watch the skies carefully then," he adds. "You don't want to be a butterfly in a thunderstorm." Autumn begins prime flying season, when conditions can be right all day long, the midday summer thermals have cooled and aerotrekking begins in earnest.

Even in clear weather, however, aerotrekking has its risks: A year ago, McAfee's 22-year-old nephew and a flight student flew into the side of a canyon — no one quite knows why — and both were killed. A teardrop added below the Sky Gypsy tattoo on McAfee's right arm commemorates the tragedy.

 

Moving over to the cozy Sky Gypsy Cafe — "the only place in Rodeo where you can get quiche," McAfee points out — he orders a latte. The espresso machine, a gleaming contraption nicknamed "Rosita," is a one-of-a-kind import that the barista describes as "John's pride and joy." Besides coffee drinks and quiche, the cafe serves three sandwich choices, a soup du jour, cheesecake and biscotti, as well as its own brand of coffee by the bag, billed as "The Rarest Coffee on Earth." The back of the cafe's menu reads, "Who needs roads when you've got wings?"

McAfee licks a tuft of foam off his moustache and concedes, "This is all a bit mystifying to the locals."

With a nod of his tousled head, he indicates the entrance to the "Galaxy Cinema," guarded by a movie-theater-style popcorn machine. The 35-seat theater screens selections from McAfee's collection of 6,000 DVDs, which is heavy on imports, art films and early Hollywood, for pilots in-between flights as well as for locals. Admission is free, and showings are advertised at the post office in Rodeo. Recent showings include Man of Flowers, The Rules of the Game, Rain and Wild Strawberries.

The first time McAfee invited locals to a movie, the feature was a film by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa — in Japanese with subtitles, running time three and a half hours. "The only ones who came were teenagers," he recalls, "and they were dumbfounded."

He's since tried to strike a happy medium of films that might appeal equally to Rodeo ranchers and to globe-trotting pilots from LA and similar sophisticated spots.

Nowadays, in any case, folks around Rodeo seem to have accepted the frankly surreal Sky Gypsy complex plunked down in their midst. "People in Rodeo love us. We're this eccentric group of people who frequent local businesses," McAfee says. "We're nondrinkers — we have strict rules about no alcohol because of the type of flying — and reasonably polite."

In nearby Portal, Ariz., he allows, a few "old-timers" are put off by the invasion of the Sky Gypsies and the buzzing of ultralights overhead. "They just don't like anything new. They're like in their early 100s, so change is difficult for them. But we haven't hurt anybody. We're good neighbors."

To get to know their neighbors a little better, the Sky Gypsies have a standing offer of a free flight for anybody living in Rodeo, Portal or Animas. McAfee figures three-quarters of everyone in a 30-mile radius of the airstrip has taken them up on the offer in the past three years.

"Anything strange or unusual, it's natural to be a little suspect," he says, dipping into the day's special beef-vegetable soup. "But once they've tried it and we've flown them over their house, it loses that aspect of suspicion."

 

It's been a circuitous route, to say the least, that brought John McAfee to Rodeo, NM. Born in England, he's made stops in New York City, Brazil, Germany and Mexico, where at one time he lived in a van and hawked jewelry to tourists. But the straight part of McAfee's story, the part that brought him millions and made him a household name for PC owners, began with a degree in mathematics from Roanoke College in Virginia, then jobs as a programmer for the Missouri Pacific Railroad and Xerox.

McAfee got his big break while working for Lockheed in the 1980s, in a development that was bad news for almost everyone else involved with computers. Confronted with one of the first computer viruses, the "Pakistani Brain," McAfee came up with a program to detect potentially infectious code. He charged users nothing, but asked corporations to pony up for technical support. Enough companies paid $1 per computer that McAfee's eponymous startup enterprise, formed in 1986, grossed $10 million its first year. Last year, still a leader in the virus-protection business, trailing only rival Norton in market share, McAfee Inc. grossed $1 billion.

But John McAfee had long since moved on, leaving only his name behind. His second technology startup, Tribal Voice, pioneered the idea of sending instant text messages over the Internet. By the time McAfee cashed out of that company, too, in 1999, his stake was worth $17 million.

He loved startup ventures, McAfee told a reporter for Outside's Go Magazine who was visiting Rodeo recently to write about the Sky Gypsies: "There's no structure, no bureaucracy, just a group of people trying to do something magical." But after selling his second startup, he concluded, "The goal of having enough money is irrational. You think you're free, but you're not. You have obligations, responsibilities, worries and cares. The more money you have, the less free you are. Look at the big yachts you see floating around. The bigger they are, the less their owners use them. Their kids, their friends, their business associates, sure — but not them. Success for me is, can you wake up in the morning and feel like a 12-year-old? You know, when you can go outside, see a strange kid, and say, 'Hey, do you want to play?' Can you get back to that?"

McAfee's efforts to recapture that feeling of being a 12-year-old have included infatuations with racing four-wheel ATVs — he's totaled 10, according to Go — and making long-distance, open-ocean voyages on Jet Skis (he's sunk nine).

Less damaging to high-speed vehicles was his post-Tribal Voice interest in yoga. In 2001, McAfee published four yoga-inspired books — titles like The Secret of the Yamas and Into the Heart of Truth — which he now dismisses as "trash." Yoga simply served as a transition for him, from the high-tech business world to. . . what?

He discovered what on a flight to Nepal with Jennifer Irwin, five and a half years ago. The inflight magazine had a picture of a "trike" aircraft. "What do you think of this?" he asked his girlfriend, showing her the photo. She remembers that her heart "sank," knowing McAfee was already hooked on the idea of flying these birdlike gizmos.

At the time, aerotrekking was "a fringe element inside a fringe sport," but McAfee managed to find an instructor, John Kemmeries, who ran a flight school in Peoria, Ariz., near Phoenix. Since then, in 2005, the FAA made it easier to qualify to fly such ultralight craft, creating a sport-pilot license that requires less training. Most people now can get licensed after just 20 hours of instruction. Experienced pilots like ex-fighter jock Grignot can do it in 15.

After one memorable incident in which McAfee and another pilot were intercepted near Tucson's Davis-Monthan Air Force Base by Air Force Black Hawk helicopters, he began to look for places to fly without urban restrictions. "No one had really developed wilderness areas for these aircraft," he says. "They're much more appealing in far-removed locales."

Soon the Sky Gypsies were born, and John McAfee landed in the unlikely — until you understand the reasons — locale of Rodeo, NM.

 

All the other trappings of the Sky Gypsy complex start to make a surreal sort of sense, too, once McAfee explains the logic. For starters, when 30 or so aerotrekkers descend on the outskirts of Rodeo, where are they going to stay? It's not as though the area has a surplus of motel rooms. Hence the 15 Airstream trailers, one of which was reportedly once owned by Howard Hughes. (McAfee himself stays in a five-bedroom villa he built within view of his own private, 2,300-foot runway. In May, he sold his 10,650-square-foot mansion in Woodland, Colo., overlooking Pike's Peak, for $5.72 million, and now resides in Tucson when not flying.)

The idea of the antique cars was that people staying in the trailers might need wheels when they aren't flying around. Each old car was matched to an Airstream manufactured the same year — so, for example, a white 1957 Chevrolet Studebaker Silverhawk sits next to a 1957-vintage trailer. Unfortunately, McAfee says, the cars took a lot more maintenance than he'd expected, and so only four are still running. Plus the gas mileage wasn't very practical — that Silverhawk gets four and a half miles to the gallon. Even a multi-millionaire has his limits.

Next, all those visitors have to eat, don't they? So up sprang the Sky Gypsy Cafe. And they had to have lattes, right? Enter Rosita, the espresso machine.

It's easy to provision the cafe with canned goods and even with McAfee's favorite imported soda — when the one place on the planet that carries it has the stuff in stock, darn it! — but fresh, high-end produce is a tad trickier. So McAfee built a greenhouse, where the cafe's cook can pluck basil for pesto even in October and tomatoes ripen on the vine in a constant temperature of 75 to 87 degrees, year-round.

Even in southern New Mexico, the weather sometimes grounds would-be aerotrekkers, so to forestall boredom McAfee set up the movie theater, a comfy lounge and game room, and four PCs with Internet access. Though Rodeo remains a black hole for cell phone reception, the local land-line telephone co-op out of Animas was able to hook up the cafe with DSL Internet.

Every Friday night, there's karaoke outside on the deck. The karaoke machine, of course, is state of the art. Even without benefit of alcohol, the Sky Gypsies sing along with an enthusiasm that must make passing coyotes pause to listen and wonder.

"Keep in mind," says McAfee, "that we're in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do."

 

So, properly provisioned, here come the Sky Gypsies! The group's Web site (www.skygypsies.com) writes of members like "a Polish apparition named Pov" and "Jim and Ivan, who lost their last names in a card game." It coyly describes McAfee and Irwin: "John and Jen, who didn't lose their last names but have never divulged them, are the two derelicts. We don't have a clue about them."

The dozen founders of the Sky Gypsies, according to the site, are "ragged individuals, derelicts, social malcontents, dropouts and marginal outlaws. Most of us dwell on the fringes of modern culture. One or two of us might even be orbiting Pluto. What brings us together is a love of kite-plane aerotrekking. Outside of this interest, we seem to have nothing in common."

Grignot, a more recent arrival to the club, says flatly, "We're the weird ones."

Running the Sky Gypsies, "derelict" McAfee insists, is much the same as operating a multimillion-dollar software company. "You have the same personnel problems, without having a human-resources department. You have to coordinate contractors. There's all the politics of any business, smoothing wrinkled feathers."

He pauses to ponder his joke, then adds, "This is a little worse than running a software company, actually."

So does he miss being a software-industry mogul? Behind McAfee, his fellow Sky Gypsies shake their heads in unison from side to side: No way.

"There are days," McAfee says, pausing a long beat before delivering his punch line: "Days I wake up with nightmares that I'm back in the business world."

As the chuckling around him subsides, he goes on, "I don't miss it at all. I keep trying to broadcast that attitude, in fact. The problem with the Western world is that we don't think far ahead enough. People are ambitious, wanting to get ahead in business, and that becomes their life. Then they retire, get a gold watch, and what the heck do they do now?

"I encourage young people to really think about their lives. It's not just about getting lots of stuff right now. Life is a lot bigger than that. You have to recognize opportunity as it floats by."

Someone who's a plumber, for example, might look at life only in terms of opportunities to become a more successful plumber. But what if, McAfee asks, an opportunity "floats by" that has nothing to do with plumbing?

"That requires the ability to change," says the man who's changed from software entrepreneur to Sky Gypsy. "Life is a very fluid thing. Sometimes if you're willing to abandon something you hold dearly on an off chance to grasp what's floating by, you'll be more satisfied. Life becomes a moveable feast."

To make his point, McAfee tells a joke he heard during his one-year stint working for the phone company in Brazil. The natives there aren't known for having a Western-style work ethic, he says. So, the joke goes, a German tourist is walking on the beach and comes across a native man lying on the sand. "Don't you have a job?" the German asks. "Don't you want to make something of yourself?"

"Why?" the native on the beach responds.

"So you can make a lot of money and become independent."

"Why?"

Exasperated, the German tourist answers, "So you can have the freedom to come to the beach!"

At last the native man nods his head. "Now I understand," he says. "That's what I do."

McAfee, who's found his own beach of sorts in the skies above southern New Mexico and Arizona, laughs and adds, "That's the crux of the attitude of Western civilization: You work so you can get something so you can do something, rather than just doing something."

A gypsy twinkle in his eyes, John McAfee says, "Just doing something — that's the magic."

 

To learn more about the Sky Gypsies, see www.skygypsies.com. For more about the Sky Gypsy Cafe and its coffee, see www.skygypsycoffee.com or call 557-0014. The cafe will have live music 7-10 p.m. on Saturdays, Nov. 3 and Dec. 6. A schedule of films at the Galaxy Cinema is at skygypsycoffee.com/nowshowing.php.

 

David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.

 

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