“Whatever fantasy you have about life after children, it’s going to be far worse. You will have to sacrifice your freedom.”
We’re blasting through the heart of the New Mexican desert, accelerating full-throttle along a lonesome two-lane blacktop that stretches pin-straight to the horizon. I’m on the back of John McAfee’s Tanarg iXess speed machine, feeling the power in the base of my spine as the mesquite bushes on either side blend into green blotches. It’s like a quintessential balls-to-the-wall motorcycle moment, but only for another 2.5 seconds. When McAfee pushes forward on the bar in his hands, the triangular wing over our heads pitches up, and with a lurch the road and the desert fall away beneath us. We climb and bank, curving over the scrubland toward the canyon to the west, our shadow sending the jackrabbits below scurrying for safety.
Welcome to John McAfee’s world. Literally: You’re welcome to it. If you happen to find the idea of zipping over a desert landscape at cactus-top altitudes at all appealing, you’re invited to come hang out in the New Mexico desert with John and his band of like-minded companions. He’s built a facility, in fact a network of facilities, to promote a sport that he all but invented and has decided is the most fun on the planet. This, to McAfee, is no small matter. Since amassing a megafortune through his eponymous antivirus software, and then another fortune with a follow-up tech venture, McAfee has chucked the world of business in favor of full-time fun. And to McAfee, fun is serious business.
“What if sex were a secret, and you stumbled onto it? You’d say, ‘I’ve got to get the word out!’” McAfee says. “The advantage of my having achieved some degree of financial success is that not only can I put my resources into the thing I love, I can spread the word.”
JOHN MCAFEE TENDS TO take people by surprise. In my case, literally so. It was past midnight, and I’d spent the last three hours driving east from Tucson to the tiny hamlet of Rodeo, New Mexico. The turnoff from the highway to McAfee’s dirt road isn’t marked, so I made a couple of wrong turns before parking in front of what I assumed to be his house, the only one for miles. As I got out, a sinewy figure emerged from the darkness and shook my hand. “Hi. I’m John,” he said, in a butterscotch baritone. As he ushered me inside his modestly sprawling ranch house, I finally got a look at him. Dressed in jeans and running shoes, he sported a single earring and a tattoo that stretched halfway down his arm from beneath his white T-shirt. His deep suntan was set off against artfully mussed hair with frosted tips. He looked less like a 61-year-old millionaire tech icon than a rock-and-roll drummer who’d gotten lost on his way to the Sunset Strip.
His maverick style notwithstanding, McAfee started out in life along fairly conventional lines. As a kid he rode his bike, played with his dog, and fished in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. When it came time for college he went to a small regional school and picked up a degree in mathematics, which led to stints cubicle-jockeying as a programmer for the Missouri Pacific Railroad and then Xerox.
In the '80s he was working for Lockheed when he came across one of the first computer viruses, the Pakistani Brain. McAfee devised a program to scan for such malicious code and, at a time when the software industry was obsessed with preventing customers from making unauthorized copies of its programs, started posting his software for free. It spread like wildfire. While individual users paid nothing, McAfee charged corporations $1 per computer for support. In that first year, McAfee and two employees grossed $10 million.
The company grew fast, but eventually McAfee became bored and sold off all his shares. (The company, which still bears his name, grossed $1 billion last year.) A few years later he started a new company, Tribal Voice, with a new idea: sending text messages over the Internet. Within three months he had four million users. McAfee sold the company in 1999 for $17 million.
While McAfee was riding up the escalator to wealth, he was simultaneously creating a life of unencumbered freedom. “Ever since I was 22, I’d work for a year, then take off and travel for a year,” he says. He has lived in New York City, Brazil, and Germany. He has traveled through Mexico, living in a van, buying stones and silver and having them made into jewelry to sell to tourists. Later, back in the States, he became infatuated with racing four-wheel ATVs (he has totaled 10 of them) and with making long-distance, open-ocean voyages on Jet Skis (he’s sunk nine).