The drive along US Hwy 80 from Douglas, Arizona, across the AZ/NM state line and up to its terminus at Interstate 10 is about 80 miles. Views are expansive, brush-dotted desert broken frequently by arid, rocky mountain ranges. You are close to the US/Mexico border here… are those mountain ranges in Mexico? New Mexico? No telling.
Now a ranch house appears in the distance, up ahead… possibly within sight of its closest neighbor, likely not. A railroad grade parallels the highway on the left side, abandoned. The rails are gone, even the ties. A ranch road comes in from the right – no traffic. A car, or more likely a pickup truck, passes in the other direction every so often. No traffic in front, or behind.
A pullout just off the edge of the highway memorializes Geronimo’s surrender near here in 1886, and it is difficult to believe that the landscape has changed much since that time. Open, vast, harsh and beautiful.
Around 60 miles from Douglas, homes become more numerous as you approach the NM/AZ state line and the town of Rodeo. Slow down to the posted speed limit and you will pass through town in under a minute. Way up ahead… what is that??? It’s big, it’s new, it stands out like a grain silo in Kansas. And it’s empty.
Thus began our introduction to the saga of a western boom and bust, high finance style.
The first time we drove this road, we were headed to Las Cruces from Bisbee, with no time to stop and examine this middle-of-nowhere anomaly. This trip, we made it one of our first stops. An almost-new building, far from any population center, standing empty on the edge of the highway. Beyond, set far back from the highway, we could see a dirt airstrip, a cluster of hangers, a greenhouse, scattered small homes, and a deep red, two-story, Santa Fe style building. We turned down the dirt road and went to explore.
The red building is the Sky Gypsy Cafe, apparently abandoned. As we slowly circled the building and speculated, a huge, wolf-like dog appeared, followed by woman as curious about us as we were her. Maria.
Here’s the story, as told she told it to us: In 2004, multi-millionaire John McAfee (yes, that one, the one McAfee anti-virus software is named for) came to Rodeo to spend a goodly number of his millions to develop an airpark for “kite-planes”, his obsession at the time. Because the location was so remote, he added a multi-million dollar mansion (with two guesthouses), four climate-controlled hangers, a greenhouse to provide fresh vegetables (not readily available in Rodeo’s two tiny grocery stores) and, for entertainment, the Sky Gypsy Cafe with a 30 seat theatre. The kite-plane pilots – the sky gypsies - could stay in one of 10 restored Airstream trailers in the 15 RV sites on the property. The two-story building on the highway housed a natural foods grocery store and an outfitter. Estimated total investment: $11.5 million. That must have perked up the local economy a bit.
Fast-forward to 2007, when the economy began to crumble, taking John McAfee’s millions along with it. He began selling off properties, cashing out. In August of 2009, the Sky Gypsy Cafe, the hangers, the mansion and guest houses, the art and furnishings – everything, all of it - sold at auction for $1.15 million. The boom went bust. John McAfee took his remaining fortune ($4 million, down from over $100 million) and moved to Belize, where he currently lives.
While we talked with Maria, Billy showed up with another curious couple in tow, a couple who had recently purchased one of the nearby properties and rode their ATV over to check things out. Maria introduced Billy as the new owner of the Sky Gypsy Cafe and complex (house, hangers, airstrip, RV sites). He was young – maybe in his 30’s? – with assorted piercings and a slick pompadour that reminded me of Elvis Presley. He plans to resurrect the cafe and theatre, adding video games to the mix.
All I could think was “good luck with that!” Maybe I lack vision… but where are the patrons for this business?? The Rodeo ranchers? Birders? The grocery store owners? The handful of RV’ers at Rusty’s RV Ranch??? Or is Rodeo a crazy hub of activity during “tourist season” - which would be… when?
Maria’s personal story was this: she and her daughter ran the natural foods store, which she said did well. Maria’s daughter decided to move to Belize (isn’t that where McAfee went?), and Maria didn’t want to run the store alone, so she “let it go”. Now she lives on the property as a caretaker.
We drove off looking at each other with wide eyes and shaking our heads. What a story! I couldn’t help but Google for the details when we got home. The Dream of Icarus in Desert Exposure tells the story of McAfee and the Sky Gypsies before the collapse; the story of the auction made the New York Times.
Browsing around Rodeo a couple of days later, a conversation with a local revealed a few more interesting tidbits (file these under local rumor/gossip): Billy, the new owner of the Sky Gypsy Cafe, used to own the nearby Portal Peak Cafe (where we stopped for lunch after a recent hike). Billy and the owners of the new Chiricahua Desert Museum both bid on the Cafe, and it wasn’t pretty. Friendships dissolved. The other tidbit, which fills in the picture: Maria’s daughter, her partner in the natural foods store, is in Belize with John McAfee – his girlfriend? I understood better Maria’s assertion that the natural foods store was a success – no rent or building mortgage required. When the Sky Gypsies left, so did the majority of the market.
I can’t help but look at that big empty building on the side of the highway in a big empty valley under a big empty sky and wonder… what will it look like in 10 years? In 50 years? Will someone hit on the right business for the location? What would it be? Will the building be dismantled and reconstructed somewhere else, somewhere the customers are? Or will the weeds grow up, the climate take its toll, and one day it will be an interesting artifact of an interesting story of an interesting time in a big, empty space on the edge of Hwy 80?