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The beginning of the end of McAfee's introspective phase came during a 2002 trip to Nepal with his girlfriend, Jennifer Irwin, now 27. Thumbing through an in-flight magazine, he noticed a story about a new class of go-anywhere aircraft, designed by French aviators, that are essentially hang gliders with motors, props, and wheels attached. Depending on the model, the planes can hit 110 miles an hour or, just as important for this low-altitude sport, a minimum speed of 40 miles an hour.

"We've got to try this," he told Irwin.

"I just said, Uh-oh, here we go," says Irwin, who had known McAfee long enough to understand that his whims often accelerate quickly into all-consuming obsessions. When the couple got back to the U.S., McAfee contacted John Kemmeries, a PAV and hang-gliding pioneer who builds ultralights using parts imported from Europe. Kemmeries arranged lessons for McAfee and Irwin, and both were immediately hooked.

"I learned to fly in a Cessna back in the mid-seventies and it didn't turn me on," says McAfee. "It was like flying a tin can. But when I flew a trike, I thought, OK, this is what flying is supposed to be about. I could feel the air, I could smell the vegetation. It's as close as you can come to being a bird."

Out on the playa, we snack and drink coffee and hot cocoa, gushing about our airborne adventures. "Did you see that herd of mule deer?" McAfee asks Kemmeries, who reclines in his flight suit, his partially paralyzed legs stretched out on the cracked mud. In 1994 Kemmeries' paraglider folded in half and tossed him against a mountainside in British Columbia, breaking his back and leaving him unable to walk without a severe limp.

McAfee looks at least a decade younger than his 62 years, with a tousled mane of hair frosted at the tips, a goatee, and an earring. As we swap stories about the morning's flying, he swoops with his bandaged hand to describe the flight of an eagle that passed under us.

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