week 1

                                                 ~ LEARNING TO FLY ~

The phone rang, and I glanced at the caller ID, already knowing what it said, but still
having to look.   A surreal flashback of the last 6 months went whizzing before my eyes as I reached for the phone.....another ring, and more images flashed, with tidbits of information stuck to them as they floated out of view.....ring.  I snapped out of it half way through that third ring, and managed to muster up a coherent 'hello?'.  "Hello, this is John McAfee"  the other end replied in a voice I would know anywhere......which I (of course) proceeded to tell him.  It was an easy conversation of pleasantries and 'reminiscing about the old days' LOL, and then, just like that, I could tell it was time to get to the business at hand.  I explained my hope was to present parts of his life that were fascinating, thrilling and fun, but had been merely skimmed over in the past.  I wasn't interested in talking about Belize (not now, anyway), but instead really wanted to hear the fantastic tales ~ the good, the bad, and the ugly ~ of a life that spanned 62 years of adventures before Ambergris Caye and Orange Walk were on the stationery.  "That would be great" he replied. I could hear the smile at the other end, and that made me happy.  It would be good to hear him laugh. I wondered where he would like to start, and without missing a beat, he said "Aerotrekking" and then explained he remembered me expressing great interest in it.....that was nice.  Actually, I am fascinated by the sport, and plan on taking flight myself.......when I grow a set.  ;)

Jumping in with both feet and rattling off the questions would have been great, but instead,  I clumsily blurted out a couple of silly fillers, feeling unprepared.  Mental note:  next time, we pick the subject ahead of time.  The fact is it didn't take long for me to admit to JM that I'd never actually interviewed anyone before.  I'm sure there was a small chuckle, but in true McAfee style he attempted to ease my nerves with "Well good, then this is your first".  It worked.  Everyone knows the basics, that he and long time girlfriend Jennifer Irwin moved to Rodeo, New Mexico in 2003 after falling in love with Aerotrekking, but I had to ask, it was on my list.....
Jen, JM & Ang Lee
"Have you seen the Wiki page for Jennifer Irwin, the Canadian actress?"  He sounded startled, and replied "No, why?" I explained that someone had erroneously put down as fact, that she and his Jennifer Irwin were one and the same.  We laughed as he assured me that they were definitely two different people. Gotta love Wikipedia.  Back on track he explained that he and Jennifer were on the way back from a vacation in Nepal (2002), when he read an article featuring John Kemmeries, and this amazing new sport of Aerotrekking.  Apparently, they were barely on the ground when he was making arrangements for lessons........ "John Kemmeries is a profoundly good pilot"  JM began, "and a fantastic teacher.  I fell in love with the sport immediately, although it was intimidating and frightening."  "And from that first flight, I flew with John as often as possible, and learned everything I could in anticipation of my first solo."  I asked him if it was difficult to learn, or master. "It took concentration and effort, just like learning to fly any craft, but with JK teaching, it was almost easy"  he paused, then continued "you may not know this, but John lost full use of his legs years ago in a hang gliding accident.  So when he's in the plane flying, he is free, limitless and without restrictions.  He is truly an amazing man, and it would be hard not to learn from him".
After John Kemmeries was sure of his abilities, JM was finally allowed to solo, and wasted no time in racking up the (then needed) 50 hours of flying for his license.  "It took me barely a week"  he said with great pride, making me feel it was one of those personal accomplishments he knew he had worked hard for.

"Nothing but desert, mountains and sky...... lots of sky" is
how JM described this picture -postcard  location, before any of the building began.  And build it for him they did.  By the time it was finished,  there had been miles of electricity run, runways & hangars strategically placed ~ a must for Aerotrekking ~  a gorgeous main house that backed onto the mandatory 'it's hot as hell out here' pool, with it's patios and shady decks, and a guest house that no guest in their right mind would want to leave.
The Sky Gypsy Cafe came complete with Computers, Internet, Movie Theater, Restaurant, games and more.  It could be full, loud and fun.....but would empty at a moments notice, for another impromptu adventure.  And, gleaming in the sun, the beautifully restored vintage Airstreams ~ accommodations for the visiting Sky Gypsies or pilots in training ~ were upstaged only by a vintage car...... the same year of course,  all gassed up and ready to go.

Golden Hawk
John's favorite car?  "The 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk.  In my opinion the most under-rated vehicle......and the fastest ever produced" (a 275 hp V8 if you're wondering).  He laughed, "I'm sure some people will be surprised I didn't pick a fast sports car, like a Maserati, but the Golden Hawk is perfection......except for the 4 1/2 miles per gallon that is"  His Airstream had been owned by Howard Hughes.
Welcome to Paradise
Every possibly luxury had been provided for this rag tag bunch of fun seeking individuals, who ranged from millionaire to pauper ~ from Rocket Scientist to drifter ....although no one cared about that sort of thing.  'Nothing but desert' had been turned into a true Oasis, with a mountain back-drop second to none, and night skies so alive, that simply stepping outside would take your breath away.
McAfee had built a fantasy land for the ballsy adventurers who wanted to do the same thing he like a bird, and the arrival of John Kemmeries assured that everyone would be able to learn from the best.  It seems that 'if you
build it they will come' could not have been more true for JM.   Somewhere in the middle of the flying, fire-side stories and life in the desert, Jennifer Irwin came home with a new that John and the others wasted no time in adding to themselves.  The Sky Gypsies had arrived.........and they had a logo.

'Weather Permitting'.  It's a phrase I learned was the only 'real' criteria considered by Sky Gypsies for 'do we fly today?'  There were no weekends or holidays,  no set times or dates,  just freedom.   John began to tell me about cloud formation, and the thermals rising off the desert floor affecting the way the air moves (and I thought it was all just wind, lol).  "You are basically in the open" he explained, "and weather is all important when you are that exposed".  "It looks like a motorcycle" I interjected, to which he replied "exactly.....and some were more modified than others, meaning no floor on the bottom".  I gasped, and he laughed.

 "So, depending on the winds, and weather in general, it could be a bumpy ride?" I asked, and then wanted to know if that bumpiness made it dangerous to fly.  "The biggest danger..."  he paused for a second "You know that this sport, just like any extreme sport can be dangerous, right?" he didn't wait for me to answer "and there are always risks you assume if you want to participate in something so exhilarating ....everyone who went up knew that."  He continued, "so the biggest danger was due to weather, and most often on landing", he told me the planes were very light instruments, and easily moved.  "If the winds were bad, or had changed while we were flying, coming in to land could present a problem."  He laughed, "but it was an easy fix, just give it full power, climb up again and recoup in the air" I gasped again. "another go round is preferable to landing in the desert, so it was something we all learned quickly".  It seemed JM was on a roll, and he kept talking "it was such an exhilarating sport, we just wanted to fly"  "Imagine being up in the air, and looking to your left or right and seeing a bird, often a Hawk, flying along with you at the tip of your wings, or thinking as you watch him swoop down in front of you,  'he can dive, so can I''s an amazing feeling".   It became quite apparent why 'weather permitting' and learning how to deal with it was so imperative.

Knowing that most of us, the 'earthbound misfits' would never likely get to put on our big girl or boy pants and try this,  I asked John to tell me more about the rush it had to be.  "Oh, it was a rush" he said "imagine every roller coaster and amusement park ride you've ever been on.... at once" "Think of the way you felt on those rides and add them together.... that's what it was like."  "Wow" I managed.   JM continued ...."I would come back sometimes, after flying low...getting as close as possible to the ground while still in control....and I would have to pick stuff out of the wheels."

low-level flying
I started to laugh and asked if he was serious?  "Absolutely.......corn leaves, wheat ears and shrubbery".   He told me about friends who would come to visit, and the rides he and other Sky Gypsies would take them on.  One of his favorites was a route he had perfected using the Chiricahua Mountains, (where Geronimo surrendered he told me), the gorgeous back-drop to the west of the Sky Gypsy complex.  Apparently, the flat patch that perched about 3/4 m above the desert floor was a splendid accomplice, and he said they would be cruising along, and at the right time, he would accelerate, and begin to swoop up this perfectly formed rock right to the top.  "Then, swoosh, over the top, into a dive down the side of the cliff, nose first into the valley".   I could hear the excitement in his voice.  "It truly is a remarkable instrument, unlike anything any of them had ever been in."  And they really loved it I asked?  "It was complete freedom, they called it 'the ride of their lives', which was the whole idea."  He seems to sense I meant more, and adds "I took only those who wanted to go".  I sighed in relief,  like a complete wimp.  John seems very generous with more than just his money......I made a mental note to dig into that later.  For now, I wanted to hear some more Sky Gypsy tales,  and asked about some of the crazier flights I think they might have taken.  The nearest grocery store was 70 miles away, "Did you fly there?" I asked him.  That got the biggest laugh so far, and he said "it is illegal to use a public roadway to land"  he pauses, I try to acknowledge and miss my opportunity. "But the truth is, the plane was not capable of holding all the groceries."  This time I busted out laughing, and John continued "We did fly to a breakfast place for a while..."

Land, Park & Eat
Quickly I asked "Until?"..."Until the townspeople complained was a shame really.  The restaurant owner was more than happy to see us anytime we showed up.   We attracted a crowd who wanted to see the planes & talk to the pilots, and who eventually got hungry."  I wonder if this is one of the places he has built a runway.  "No, we had no runway there, just had to keep our wits together and watch for the telephone lines on both sides during descent."  I wondered to myself if part of the rush was possibly getting tangled up in those wires.......but decided not to ask.  "One of the greatest benefits of these planes, as simple as it might be, is the ability to land in the oddest places, just so you can look at something you saw from the air"

Taking a break?
It seemed the Sky Gypsy life was golden, and with stories of Aerotrekking around the southwest, camping out, enjoying a comradery and lifestyle most of us will never know,  who could argue?  John's own words show the intense connection they felt to the earth as a result.  

Low level flying
"We're flying along and suddenly, a herd of antelope is looking at us eye to eye, and we're in the middle of nowhere, there’s no roads, no sign of man anywhere, and because we’re flying though all of this, it just seems like we’re part of landscape, not just looking at it.  That’s when Aerotrekking becomes pure magic.”  And there seems to be no doubt that they were fully aware of just how lucky they were.

But in 2006, the unthinkable happened.  I took a deep breath and began "You were very close to your nephew, Joel...."  JM took over  "He was like a son to me, we spent many holidays together,  and he loved being here in New Mexico."  "Joel fell in love with Aerotrekking too, and wanted to turn it into more than a pastime.  He learned to fly, took lessons and then got his license."  his voice was sad, and it was apparent this is a wound not yet healed, but he continued  "I wanted nothing more than to see him happy, with a career doing what he loved, and was very proud when he started his own business"  sigh "and that's exactly what Joel was doing when that tragic accident happened."  Offering my sympathies, I told John how sorry I was for his loss.  "It was a huge loss.....I was devastated."  His voice had never sounded like that before, and no article written at the time had grasped the depth of his pain.  "Did it take a long time before you flew again?"  I asked out loud, even though I shouldn't have.  "Yes, it did.... it was hard........and I added a tear to my Sky Gypsy tattoo in his memory."  There was a moment of silence, and I used it to collect my thoughts.  Switching gears, I moved on "Obviously, I just touched on your worst memory of Rodeo, can you tell me your best?"  I wasn't allowed much time to imagine about what stupendous party or out of control gift might come to mind before he said, matter of fact and with happiness back in his voice "Richard C."  "I gave him the ride of his life, more than once" he laughed "I took him on the Chiricahua run, which he loved beyond belief. After landing he said to me 'I never dreamed of anything so profound and amazing' was fantastic."  He explained that Richard was a dear friend from Virginia, who had been there with the Sky Gypsies on several occasions.

That was his best memory?  Of all the excess and exhilaration, people and parties, money and mayhem I could imagine, a friends utter marvel and complete joy was his best memory? Again, little time to process before JM shocked me once again "I'll give you his number, and you can ask him yourself"   And he did.          

I could sense we were getting close to the end, I had kept him talking for much longer than either of us anticipated.  I skimmed over most of what came next, leaving for Belize in 2008 with Jennifer. "It was time for a change" he stated.  I was going to tell him I had read about one of the lawsuits, and couldn't stop laughing for hours.  The thought that a man was too prissy to use the great outdoors when nature called was hilarious to me.  That he wanted to hold John responsible for his falling down was ludicrous.  Deciding to leave that for another time, I asked John about the Sky Gypsy Geoglyph, created by NY artist Ben Sargent for the Art Race.  Had he seen it up close.... maybe flown over it?
Sky Gypsy Geoglyph
 "No, I've only seen the photos you shared...taken by Sky Gypsy B. Alvarius.....his low level photography is amazing."  I agreed and promised to put up the link again here, for anyone who missed his photos before. (In this new group, with zoom ability, B. Alvarius has outdone himself, please go through them all.)  This had been so enjoyable I didn't want to stop....but I didn't want John to re-think his gracious decision to talk to me every week for an in-depth look at his life.  The time had come for one last question...."Once a Sky Gypsy, always a Sky Gypsy?"  Despite being on the phone, I could somehow see the gleam in his eyes as he remembered those days "Always in my heart" he mused "but my flying days are over." Surprisingly, I sensed no sadness with that statement, and I'm glad.  Thanking John for making my first interview so seamless and enjoyable,  I am delighted when he expresses his enjoyment too.  "Next week?" he asked.  This time I didn't miss a beat...."Great, I'll talk to you then."  I have no idea how long the big wide grin stayed on my face after hanging up.

Two days later I had the pleasure of speaking with Richard C. ..... a lovely gentleman with wonderful tales of John, who he's known for most of his life.  "I'm about 10 years older" he told me "and around the time I was 18, I began playing the organ at our church. John's mother and my mother became friends."  There is a great fondness in Richard's voice when he speaks about JM, and he tells me they have remained close over the years, picking up where they left off, regardless of time passed.  He asks me if I know, through all the crazy stuff that has been written, what an incredibly kind person John is?  I start to tell him I am immune to 'it', but he has a story to tell and continues "one time, and I had already been out to see him in Rodeo, but it was a couple of years later, and he called.  I was having a particularly hard time, my wife and other family members were quite ill, and it had all become too much for me.  John said 'come and stay with us for a while' to which I hummed and hawed about leaving the family without my visits to the nursing home.  He then insisted that I needed to come for my own good.  He was right, and it was exactly what I needed."

Chiricahua Mountains
 His voice was full of excitement as he remembered the trip.  "I wish you could have seen that place in it's was electric"  I asked him if he remembered a specific flight with JM.  "We climbed in that thing and took off.  John asked if I wanted to try out some real excitement, followed quickly with 'if you're afraid, I'll go back', but I only laughed.  I couldn't think of why would I be afraid, when I could sail off like a bird, and feel like I did "  They headed for the Chiricahua's and began to climb.  "Up, up we went, climbing towards the sky, and then just as we straightened out, we fell head first into the Animas Valley.  It was thrilling, and unlike anything I had ever felt before.  I loved it"  But what followed next Richard said, was nothing short of spectacular.  John told him he had memorized the curves of a particular canyon, and only he and one other had actually flown it.  He flew above to show Richard how it twisted and turned, with little room to maneuver,  and no room to screw up.   After a couple of fly overs, they decided to go for it.
"You can't talk to me at all, I have to concentrate"  John told Richard, and once they slid down between the rock walls he understood why.  "It was like I could almost touch the sides" he said with pure amazement, "and the most exciting thing I have ever done in my was like I had no fear."  He laughed, then getting almost quiet he said "The way John moved us through there with such precision was fascinating to observe."  They climbed out of the canyon exhilarated and laughing he said, and then John yelled over the engine "who would have thought all those years ago in Salem, that we would be doing this today?"  He said they were both still grinning when they landed, and the pride was evident in Richard's voice as he told me that Jen, upon hearing of their flight said with amazement, "I've never even done that."  And as touched as he was by the whole Aerotrekking experience John had delighted in giving him, he was equally touched by John citing it as his favorite memory.  Richard generously shared some other tidbits about John that will fit in nicely with an upcoming post  (I just can't give it all away at once).  It was really a lovely chat, and easy for me to see how the two have remained close over the years.  I thanked him for sharing such fond memories, and helping me provide a story that wasn't the same old thing, then he thanked me for trying to set the record straight.  All in all, it was a refreshing, sweet conversation, for which I was extremely grateful, and as an added bonus, it looked like Richard had led me to the answer for the question I had filed away for later.  John was truly happy when providing joy to others, especially those with whom he shared a special bond.  Not manufactured, not new.  Thank you, Richard.

Unless otherwise marked, photos are courtesy of Sky Gypsy B.Alvarius .  Check out all his amazing work.

Every week, 'weather permitting', we'll have another unexpected tale of John McAfee for you to kick back, relax, and enjoy reading hopefully as much as I enjoy writing it.  As a bonus, every once in a while, a special guest will join us to put their own spin on it.  Would you like to ask John a question of your own?  Submit it in the comments, and when we talk about the related topic, I will work your question you credit of course, so JM can answer you.   This should be lots of fun, and I hope you guys revel in the opportunity to 'hear it' from John.   Enjoy.  ¯\_(ツ)_/