Before he wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead and advocated for an open internet, before he was a fellow at Harvard and a friend of the Kennedys, John Perry Barlow was a ranch kid from Cora who nearly flunked out of Pinedale High School.
Barlow’s death on Wednesday was noted by the powerful and the famous across the globe. Edward Snowden posted condolences. Bob Weir, founding member of the Dead, tweeted tributes. But in Wyoming, where Barlow was known as a rancher, conservationist and amateur politician, his passing was felt as well.
“He lived in two or three worlds at once and had a soaring vision of how things should work,” said Wyoming’s former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson, whom Barlow worked for during his 1978 campaign. “He was a rancher. He was an entrepreneur. He was a dissident in cyberspace.”
Barlow was the only son of Mim and Floyd Barlow, a state lawmaker from Sublette County. He grew up on the Bar Cross Ranch outside Cora, but struggled in high school after discovering the lure of the open road. His parents eventually sent him to a private school outside of Colorado Springs, where he met Weir, and he later graduated from Wesleyan University after indulging in all the ‘60s hippy scene had to offer.
Shortly after, Barlow’s father died and he returned to Wyoming to run the ranch. The Bar Cross Ranch had always remained home.
“It was the place he loved,” said Kim Cannon, a Sheridan attorney who also grew up on a ranch near Cora and came to know Barlow through the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “It was his center in the world.”
Despite relocating to remote western Wyoming, his outsized life followed.
“He had the Grateful Dead out to the ranch to hay on many occasions,” Cannon said.
Barlow served as president of the Wyoming Outdoor Council from 1978 to 1984 and shepherded the conservation group through rough times, Cannon and others said. But he never shied away from complex issues. Instead, he ran straight toward them.
“He was a guy of unusually eclectic interests and talents,” Cannon said. “He was someone who was capable of seeing the paradox of so much of what we do and the absurdity of what we do.”
Barlow was known to bring a Kaypro computer with him to board meetings, where he sat clacking away at the early computer. The machine — approximately 3 feet long with a small screen at one end — was an oddity to the council, said Phil Hocker, a longtime Wyoming conservationist who served on the board with Barlow.
“John Perry never did anything by halves,” Hocker said.
Barlow wrote the council’s statement, “Wyoming’s Terms,” outlining its broad goals and beliefs, said Barbara Parsons, who served on the council at the same time. Among its points, the document stated that Wyomingites had a right to clean air, water and land as well the need for aggressive stewardship programs based on science and ethics.
“The document mirrored our belief and John’s that our actions should reflect a pact with our descendants, assuring them the same quality of life we have enjoyed,” Parsons said.
Barlow also helped manage Al Simpson’s 1978 Senate campaign and Dick Cheney’s congressional campaign in Wyoming. He also served as chair of the Sublette County Republican Party.
Simpson remembers visiting Barlow at his ranch and striking up a conversation with a group of young people seated around a table. Only later did he realize that he was chatting with John F. Kennedy Jr., whom Jaqueline Onassis had sent to Wyoming during his troubled teenage years.
Simpson and Barlow didn’t always agree on politics, like public lands issues, and Barlow was sure to let the senator know.
“He would just call and say, ‘What the hell are you doing?’” Simpson said.
Despite the arguments, the two men never quite destroyed their friendship. Simpson and his wife visited Barlow in San Francisco last year.
“Once he was loyal to you, oh, he was loyal,” Simpson said. “That was key.”
Barlow sold the Bar Cross Ranch in 1987. Cattle prices had plummeted and the property wasn’t making enough money to sustain it, his friends said. His father had left a substantial amount of debt on the ranch when he died.
“He tried to run the ranch and worked hard at it,” said Bob Bing, who runs the Cowboy Shop in Pinedale and grew up with Barlow. “But it was an impossible task.”
Barlow soon returned to the national stage when he co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990. The organization works to promote free expression and online privacy. He saw the internet as a place where people could be more equal. In 1996, his wrote his most famous essay, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” in which he espoused a wariness of government that may be familiar to many Wyomingites.
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind,” he began. “On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
“He always understood the independence that Wyoming people feel,” Cannon said. “He was a wonderful example of that.”
Over the next decades, he continued to write Grateful Dead songs, helped raise money for the tech news outlet Wired and co-founded the Freedom of the Press Foundation in 2012. He kept in touch with his hundreds of friends through email blasts dubbed “Barlow-grams.”
Barlow fell sick in 2015, but returned one last time to his native Wyoming before his death.
“You never really leave Wyoming,” Hocker said. “I don’t think he did either. You don’t really get it out of your blood.”
He, along with some friends, made the drive from San Francisco to a friend’s ranch outside of Big Piney for the solar eclipse in August. Photos posted to his Facebook page show him seated in a wheelchair dressed in all black except for a scarf with a pattern of skulls and rainbow-colored suspenders. He smiled beneath his eclipse glasses.
He watched as the sky darkened and the air cooled, as the shadow of the moon raced across the lands at the headwaters of the Green River.
It was an “utter miracle,” he later said in a post, a miracle spent in the company of the mountains and pastures he’d known his entire life.
“He lived his life like a meteor,” Simpson said. “He crossed the sky and left a trail.”