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