Remembering Cowboy Carl: The Other Man in the Hat

“People think the life of a cowboy is some sort of Wild Bill shoot-em-up wrangler type. But a real cowboy finds himself sitting in a saddle for weeks on end under big skys with silent mountains as he moves along no faster than the pace of a cow eatin’ grass. Out there, a fella can think a thought the whole way through. That’s when the real pace of the world starts to reveal itself in the slow flow of nature.” – Cowboy Carl

Cowboy Carl Brucker, a retired Marine and local cowpoke, had his camp set up on the outskirts of the east side of Black Rock City with the door facing outward toward the Razorback Mountains. This is how he always camped. After two decades of working with the Department of Public Works (DPW), his camp had become a regular destination for those seeking a quiet moment with the “Other Man in the Hat” — the Camp Chaplain, if you will. 

“How do you stay way out here all by yourself, Carl? Don’t you get lonely?” asked a wayward seeker of knowledge who sat in front of Carl’s campfire while waiting for the grounds of the cowboy coffee to cool and drop to the bottom of the pot. The morning sun was starting to shine on Carl’s Airstream trailer. 

“Hell, I’m not out here by myself,” he replied. “See this fire? It’s surrounded by all the dead friends I have. I’m never alone out here. It’s just quiet enough so I can hear ‘em.”

Cowboy Carl (Photo by Chris ‘Taz’ Petrell)

Cowboy Carl really was a cowboy. He started poking cattle in the early 70s and had all the hard-boiled wisdom that comes with understanding that world. His eyes weren’t shrouded by the clutter of overthinking things. He was our DPW guru; our poet laureate; our Father Superior; our sympathetic uncle that bails us out of jail.

He waltzed into our lives in 1997. The county road grader we’d hired to gouge a road through the prairie brush to the Hualapai Flat, where that year’s event was to be held, came to a halt due to a teepee blocking its way. Out jumped a naked man wearing a cowboy hat and holding a coffee pot. This was Cowboy Carl. 

Little did we know… 

Burning Man was a lost puppy fumbling on wobbly legs back then, too naive to know how little it knew about desert living. Carl was amongst the first of the locals to show up. He would calmly roll up in his white Ford pickup truck, get out on “cowboy time” and slowly stroll over to us “city folk.” We’d be struggling with a barbed-wire fence or trying to clack together some shade or pound in a T-bar stake, mostly unsuccessful. 

“Oh boy! You mushroom-smokin’ hippies sure could use a pointer or two!” he would say. Then he’d saunter back to his truck to get the wire pliers or fence pounder, or whatever proper tool we had never heard of, to show us how a rancher would do it. Burning Man had much to learn about living in the high prairie of Northern Nevada, and Cowboy Carl was willing to lend a hand. The locals of that time mistrusted and shunned us and would rather we disappeared. But the honest heart of Carl could see through the skepticism. He quickly picked up on our soul. We just needed to acquaint ourselves with dust and desert living, one truck tool at a time. 

Fence Construction Manager Cowboy Carl ‘hates these damn radios’ but makes an exception to announce that the 9-mile fence is complete, 2006 (Photo by CameraGirl)

In the seasons to come, Carl became a member of the DPW of Black Rock City, building and managing our trash fence. He stayed with us for the next two decades until he stepped down from the Fence Manager position to take care of his ailing aunt in Florida. Over those years he taught the DPW how to work and build in the desert and this in turn set examples for the rest of Black Rock City. It could be argued that Carl Brucker influenced the entire Burning Man community on desert living best practices, one “mushroom-smokin’ hippie” at a time.

Carl influenced us in so many more ways than just teaching us how to mend a fence. He spoke from a genuine core of truth, even when it hurt. But he always had a deep humor that would make even the surliest ones grin at the ridiculousness of life. He was a cowboy crack-up that provided an endless fountain of quotes that only he could get away with. Our daily regret was not having a pen and paper around to capture the pithy quips that were like sulfur spring water. Most everyone had a Cowboy Carl quote of the day, many unrepeatable when taken out of context, but always peppered with spiritual gems. When once asked how he does it, he replied — in the same metered drawl — without a pause, “I just open my mouth and shut off my brain.”

One good example was what he said of a crew member having a rough morning after a late night: “That fella looks like he got shot at and missed and shit at and hit.” The rugged wisdom never ended. 

There were two things Carl never stopped being: a Marine and a devout Catholic. At any given time if you were to step into his Airstream trailer, he would have a Catholic radio channel soothing the room. He was on the path to becoming an ordained priest in the past, but poor eyesight due to cataracts prevented this. Though he was unable to read the Bible, he never lost faith and it remained at his core as a foundational guide to his wisdom. The other main spoke of his wheel was his life as a military Marine. 

“A fella never stops being a Marine,” he would say. “It boils into your body fat like beef tallow!” 

He trained with the Navy Seals and spent six years on Special Forces Reconnaissance. He spoke little of his troubled memories of war but carried their impact; he once divulged that the ghosts of war haunt him still. Having the dichotomy of military and religion influencing his life gave him the steel and perspective he thrived on and carved the paths of truth we followed. 

He once told a nervous crew member he had just gleaned from the commissary, “Don’t cha worry, greenhorn. I never knew if I should be a priest or a Marine. Looks like you’re getting a bit of both, kid.” 

Cowboy Carl (Photo by Chris ‘Taz’ Petrell)

It was that two-sided wisdom mixed with his genuine country charm that led Carl to being our unspoken Camp Chaplain. He was a sympathetic ear to any who felt themselves to be a misfit or struggling with the hardships of living. His Airstream trailer door was always open as a capsule of truth and always with a fresh pot of cowboy coffee. He wouldn’t pull the punches and give it to you straight, but somehow did so in bites you could chew. He was brutal when you needed it, but had a safe cushion to land on. One by one he had won the hearts of us all. 

Carl had no trouble fitting in with our ratty gang. If we were raging through the night, he was right there with us. If we were wearing clown wigs, there was an extra one for him. If we were booty-shaking on a dance floor, Carl was doing the “Cowboy Bop,” as he called it. A high school homecoming king could only wish to be this popular. He wasn’t a hard liquor drinker — “I haven’t had whiskey since 1979! Whaddya tryin’ to do? Get me into a knife fight?!” — but Carl would swill on a jug of wine from time to time. Word would travel fast when he did; we were in for a fun night! 

And all this time he was still working on that bridge between us and the new desert world we were learning to live in. Through his introductions, we would find ourselves sharing friendly conversations and cold beers with locals on opposite ends of political spectrums; conservatives and liberals finding the common ground that we always had. And now after two decades, the strange bedfellows of the Burning Man community and the local salt of the earth thrive, setting an example for the unseen possibilities of communal harmony. So much of this was from the planted seeds of our good friend Cowboy Carl Brucker. 

Kahil Gibran wrote a piece titled “The River Cannot Go Back.” It speaks of how a river cannot escape its fate of spilling into the sea. 

“It’s not about disappearing into the ocean, but of becoming the ocean.”

It does not die but simply gives up being a river. But at the same time, the river is never forgotten. It has carved deep paths in the earth. Sometimes even grand canyons! Cowboy Carl was our river. His truthful flow carved a twisted pass through the mountains of struggle for us to follow. His canyon runs deep and his high banks of wisdom will be our guide. He was our guru of understanding. He was our Other Man in the Hat. 

Rest easy, good friend. You have won a place in our hearts forever.

(Photo by Brian Kelly)

Cover image of Cowboy Carl, 2012 (Photo by Rich Van Every)

About the author: Tony “Coyote” Perez-Banuet

Tony “Coyote” Perez-Banuet

Tony “Coyote” Perez-Banuet has been coming to the desert to build and strike Black Rock City since 1996. A professional musician for over twenty years, Burning Man culture was an easy shift for him. He co-founded the Department of Public Works of BRC in 1998 and has been the City Superintendent ever since. Known as the “Bard of the Desert”, telling stories around the campfire is among the things he does best. He has been blogging under the moniker of “Coyote Nose” for many years, and he is Burning Man’s first Storytelling Fellow.

51 Comments on “Remembering Cowboy Carl: The Other Man in the Hat

  • Belledozer says:


    Thank you for the read Coyote

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  • President says:

    Some of my favorite moments with Cowboy Carl came from pre-season shenanigans in Gerlach and building the fence on playa. I don’t even know how to do him any justice with my words, he was so beyond any comprehensible tribute I could give him here. Thank you Coyote to putting words to the indescribable man that is Cowboy Carl.

    I will be raising a jug of red wine in the desert for you old friend!

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  • Bill Kennedy says:

    “That fella looks like he got shot at and missed and shit at and hit.” ❤️❤️❤️❤️

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  • Sandman says:

    Thank you, Tony. This captures his spirit so beautifully! Beautiful portraits, too.

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  • Richard Lee says:

    I got a ride from Carl once. Didn’t say much which was just fine. Good man. Never wore belt.

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  • Davyy says:

    I love the story.I wonder, will I be remembered in any such way?

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  • Geomom says:

    Thank you for this tribute, Tony.

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  • Christopher Schardt says:

    I remember Cowboy Carl quite well from my year in the DPW (2000)! We were once talking about someone we met who was rather agitated. He said, “She was busier than a cat covering shit.”

    Very sad to hear he’s passed, but know that if anyone can handle that, he can.

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  • Twan says:

    beautiful words for a unique and beautiful man. I first set eyes on Cowboy Carl standing next to me at a fire on the Playa in 1997. In 1998 when I started working closely with Pepe Ozán and his Burning Man Operas, and over the ensuing years, I had the pleasure of getting to know him a bit more, year after year. After a 12 year absence, I went back to Burning Man in 2018 and had the unexpected and absolute pleasure of running into Cowboy Carl again. I was so pleased to get caught up with him again. It was one of the high points of 2018 for me. That turned out to be my final year on the player, and the last time I would ever have the privilege of being in Carl’s presence again. RIP, dear man. You were one of a kind. Thank you Tony for the beautiful tribute.

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    • Tony Coyote Perez says:

      The days of Pepe’s operas are a special part of our story. I danced in one of Hell’s levels in ’96 – never to be forgotten! Thank you for the words!

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  • Stealth says:

    What a well-told story about a beloved man. I almost feel as though I’d met him after reading your piece. Wish I had. Sorry for your loss.

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  • Emily Koch says:

    Horse pussy!
    We’ll miss you.

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  • Shannon "Toughie" Smimble says:

    And now I’m crying at my desk. Wonderfully put Coyote. Thank you.

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  • William Craddock says:

    Get somebody that’s 10% the cowboy or Marine Cowboy Carl is on his worst day into the Oval Office of the White House. Bam ! All national and international problems nation or worldwide would become history within 6 months, probably less !

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  • Cleu lady says:

    Cowboy Carl was a regular visitor to Cleu Camp. He would pull up in his truck and our man in the hat, Gian, would come out to greet him. They would talk and laugh, and Carl would get his clue for the day, a card with a quote from the mystics, scientists, and artists who inspire us. Even though he had a fence to go check, Carl was never in a rush. A visit from Carl reminded us all to take our time in the desert heat, and to enjoy every moment of human connection, joking and talking about any upcoming weather, just waiting for the next dust storm. Carl was at-one with his surroundings, in harmony with life on the city’s edge.

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  • Deij says:

    This is beautiful, thank you for sharing

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  • Diane Storm says:

    Beautiful words for a beautiful man.
    Thank you Coyote.

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  • NK Guy says:

    Beautifully written! Thank you.

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  • Katie Sutherland says:

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute! RIP Cowboy Carl

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  • John Curley says:

    wonderful job, Coyote, thank you!

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  • Juno says:

    Superb tribute for a superb human. Thanks so very much for putting this into words, Coyote! Carl will be missed by so many, myself included.

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  • Rita Volkland says:

    Touching tribute. <3

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  • jack haye says:

    Thank you tony. he will be with us, in our hearts always and especially at those times when the ancestors dance across the playa…

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  • Great Grey says:

    Great tribute! He will be missed! Too bad that most “spectators” during event week did not have the foggiest idea that this soul existed! For several years our staff camp set up crew helped Carl’s team put up fences around our camp. What a joy to work with him and his guys…. No nonsense/steady pace/get the work done with periodic gems of wisdom.

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  • Moze says:

    A fitting tribute Tony. I only met him a few times but I felt his air of importance to our community and his good nature.

    Rest in Peace Cowboy Carl.

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  • chooch says:

    A wonderful tribute and celebration of a good man and the bridges we can build if we follow his example and slow down enough so that we think a thought the whole way through.

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  • Sista’ Fruitloop says:

    Beautiful tribute. Thank you ☺️

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  • nurse says:

    I love Cowboy Carl. We shared a meal at the back the commissary in 2019. It brought me to tears, sharing a warm moment with him, appreciating our friendship of some 20 plus years.

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  • Rigger says:

    Cowboy Carl… thankfully he would shut off his brain and speak… to me.. Thank you Carl…. Rigger…

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  • john jensen says:

    I attended a Fence building weekend in ’00 or ’01 at the morning meeting Cowboy Carl started up on the importance of The Fence. “I pulled enough feathers out of that fence to rebuild 50 Goddamn chickens a day”

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  • Farmer says:

    Thank You Tony! I met Carl in the late 80’s, he didn’t change in the time I knew him.

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  • Magdalena Mccann says:

    I met Carl at the crack of dawn, as you must, cleaning up the trash fence, two early morning people not that much into people but into the desert. Not a whole lot said but a huge amount shared. Thankyou Carl. You and I shared the desert the way we like it, not too many people, just a few special ones.

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  • ChooChoo says:

    I regret that I had but scant time to experience this legend, but I came up on him in the middle of a phone call one time to hear “well I better catch up with that son of a bitch before he gets lost paintin’ his goddamned toenails or somethin’.”

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  • Heather Gallagher says:

    Oh, how I loved that man. Carl was the OG cowboy to me. Every star in an old western movie wished they were as cowboy as Carl. He wasn’t just comfortable in the desert, he was a part of it.

    When Carl talked, it was slow and deliberate, as he was not a man who wasted words, and he was also a funny and frisky fella with a deadpan delivery. I think half the DPW would get up o’dark-thirty on Fence Day just so we could be on Carl’s crew for the day. “I don’t know about all this art and techno music, but you folks got 8 miles of fence up before lunchtime, and that any rancher around here has got to respect.”

    He used to tell me about the collection of “local lady friends” who were all the old church ladies in the area who were “after a piece of his action.” He once gave me a pair of his old jeans that had developed a few holes in them. He said “I knew they’d fit you perfectly CameraGirl, and that was the only way I would ever get you into my pants.”

    Carl was no spring chicken when I met him over 20 years ago, but somehow he was timeless and eternal. Every once in awhile I would wonder for a brief moment how long we’d get to have him around. I always gave him a kiss on that hardened cowboy cheek and made sure he knew I was a fan. The feeling was mutual, as he thought I was “quite the peach.”

    Carl’s character and cowboy drawl are forever etched into my consciousness, and that pair of jeans? I’m keeping them forever too.

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  • Sugar Moon says:

    What a beautiful tribute to an incredible man.
    Thank you.

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  • Olof Ohlsson says:

    I love this I love every one thank you for me to be able to read and learn i love everything and every single person in this world I love you very very much ❤️❤️❤️

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  • Olof Ohlsson says:

    Thank you Carl ❤️

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  • Tom says:

    This was a lovely tribute. Thank you for writing it, Coyote.

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  • AC says:

    This was a wonderful read, thank you so much for sharing! I wish I could’ve met this person!

    I’m sorry for your loss, and what appears to be the world’s loss as well.

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  • Magnificent says:

    “The River Cannot Go Back.”

    This was a beautiful tribute to a man who left his mark in the community.

    Thank you

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  • Adam Taylor says:

    Wow. I met Carl at my first burn – 2016 I think it was, (its all a bit blurry now) I think it was him – looked a lot like this guy and was in am airstream facing the desert on the edge of town. I felt a strength and magic in his presence that I couldn’t adequately describe from the man that seemed out of place to my preconception of what burning man was, but not out of place to my eyes and heart told me about him. Mostly we sat in silence watching actual land yachts silently tearing across the open playa that his aistream was facing. I was blown away just now reading this – I had no idea I had met a burning man legend. Even before reading this I had wished I had made a portrait of him. Now even more so! Thanks for sharing!

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  • Jaguar says:

    I met Carl in Abt 2004. He had been spending time with a friend of mine. Every time he saw me after that he would say “panther (lols) you talked to our friend (name omitted)??” I’d laugh and tell him no. He’d always smile and say, “O.k. give her … regards if you talk to her.” It took me like 15 years to realize his calling me a cat whose name u didn’t share to realize he was clowning me!
    Oo-effing-rah/hooyah Carl! Glad I knew you, sorry to see you go!

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  • Rusty says:

    Very well written! I enjoyed reading. Carl is the kind of character that makes Burning Man so great. I miss home…:(

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  • dragnet says:

    WOW! so very sad…I have known him awhile and fortunate to have benefitted from his wisdom. This year will be project #12 out own HIS trash fence. He has been a great combo of gruff and accepting of what I have done. I would ask permission for years if it was ok to continue to put up “art” on the fenceposts. I told him I would stop doing so if he disapproved , after a direct commentary on some aspect of what I have done, he always said it was aok and that I respected the fence. It was really a gift knowing that he approved ! With Carl and George and their great volunteer crews that fence is a masterpiece, honestly, The consistent knots, sturdiness, and bigtime character of the Tstakes, it is perhaps the backbone of the skeletal infrastructure we hand our experiences upon. Safe travels……

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  • FrankieBRC- DPW says:

    That was awesome.

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