JACKSON HOLE — John Perry Barlow, born to Miriam and Norman Barlow October 3, 1947, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, died in his sleep February 7, 2018. He wore his many personae—son, husband, father, cattle rancher, ladies’ man, philosopher, prankster, poet, lyricist, visionary, activist—like the biblical Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors. Beneath the kaleidoscopic facets of his personality moved the deep currents and counter-currents of a soul as wild and free and ever-changing as the Wyoming sky. At the core of his being, his capacity for loving kindness remained unwavering and true. He extended this kindness freely to everyone he met, yet he could also focus it like a laser on his closest family and friends, or whoever happened to be in the room.
During John Perry’s early life, his father Norman ran the Bar Cross Ranch near Cora, Wyoming, and represented Sublette County as a Wyoming State Senator. His mother Miriam, or “Mim,” Grand Dame of Wyoming, frequently joined Norm on his travels between the Bar Cross and Laramie, bringing John Perry along whenever the legislature was in session. These visits to Laramie revealed to him what he sometimes described as “the gory mess of adult life” as well as a sense of what’s possible when people endeavor to be good ancestors. Despite the relative isolation of being an only child on a 22,000-acre ranch, he took to heart the colorful stories he heard from ranch hands who came to work the Bar Cross. No matter where he roamed in the wide world, his brilliant storytelling and his vision for creating the kind of world we want all children to live in were forged in these early experiences as a true son of Wyoming.
After practically failing freshman year at Pinedale High School, at 15 John Perry lit out for Fountain Valley School (FVS) in Colorado Springs, where he immersed himself in the theater program and became editor of the school newspaper and literary magazine. There he also met and became fast friends with Bob Weir, one of the founding members of the Grateful Dead. Their friendship led to, among other things, a songwriting collaboration that produced some of the band’s best-known songs such as “Cassidy,” “Black-Throated Wind,” “Mexicali Blues,” and “Looks Like Rain.” After graduating from FVS, he went to Wesleyan University, where he graduated in 1969 with high honors and a degree in Comparative Religion, after having founded the school’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and served, often to the administration’s vexation, as student body president. Although he had been admitted to Harvard Law School, he chose instead to travel the world, which included 9 months in India, an experience that burnished his credentials as an experience junkie and inveterate autodidact.
In 1971, with his father’s health in decline and the family ranch in debt, John Perry, in an unplanned mid-course correction, took over management of the Bar Cross Land and Livestock Company. For much of the next 2 decades, in addition to the many steady hands and real cowboys who worked the ranch, the Bar Cross became a sort of way station for drifters, vagabonds, and misfits, which included the likes of John F. Kennedy Jr. when he was still a wild buckaroo of a teenager. As the fierce headwinds against maintaining an economically viable cattle operation worsened, he ended up selling the ranch in 1987.
By that time John Perry had become an active user of the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), which was an early virtual gathering place not only for Grateful Dead fans but also for people like Mitch Kapor (creator of Lotus) and John Gilmore (from Sun Microsystems). Extending their collaboration from Cyberspace into Meatspace, the 3 visionaries founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), one of the leading defenders of civil liberties in the digital world. John Perry, moreover, was one of the first to understand that, in an information economy, value is driven not by scarcity but by familiarity. He was watching things “go viral” before it was an available condition. And he is said to have coined the term “pronoia” (opposite of “paranoia”); in other words, the suspicion that the universe is conspiring on your behalf. Following the founding of EFF, he subsequently worked to bring the Internet to Africa, to clear Vietnam of landmines, to encourage the use of biofuels in India, to champion the efforts of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, and to establish the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
One of the projects he worked most passionately on in recent years was Algae Systems, a company that sought to develop biofuels and potable water from algae. After falling ill in late 2015 with raging blood infections, he became tormented that he was unable to see Algae Systems reach its potential. No longer able to attend fully to the success of Algae Systems, he felt he had let many of his allies down and felt a deep sense of indebtedness.
Of all he accomplished in his bigger-than-life life, John Perry’s greatest pride and joy, by far and away, were the 3 daughters he had with Elaine Parker Barlow, whom he married in 1977. He referred to them fondly as the Barlowettes: Leah Justine, Anna Winter, and Amelia Rose. Can you imagine his delight at having had the chance in the past couple of months to meet his first grandchild, Leah’s daughter Willah Brave?
For a man who gave so much love to so many people, he observed that, more than learning to give love, the secret of life was learning to accept love. He has merged now with life’s secret, and, like so much of the trail-breaking he did in all manner of ways for his wider human family during his life, he is now breaking trail for us with his death. So, yes, let us honor his life by giving love, freely and abundantly, but let us also fearlessly accept the love we’re given. Wheel to the storm and fly, dear friend.
A celebration of Life will be held Saturday, February 17th at 11:00 am at the Pinedale Community Church (UCC). Interment will follow the service in the Pinedale Cemetery.