When Wynn Bruce was a boy, his father, Douglas, took him canoeing in the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, their paddles plunging into a cool lake as they glided toward a campsite in Superior National Forest. After landing and portaging their boat over miles of rocky and remote land, they set up their tent and built a campfire beneath the pines. “That was a special moment,” says Douglas, now 78. The memory of Bruce’s face illuminated in the dark remains among the first images that come to mind when Douglas thinks about his son.

Bruce spent much of his childhood in nature, hiking the boreal forests of the Minnesota Northwoods in the summer, dog-sledding and skiing with family in the winter. “That’s kind of the background, the stage upon which he grew up,” says his father, who explains that Bruce continued to find safe harbor in the outdoors for the rest of his life.

Decades later, Bruce believed that refuge was being threatened—and the then 50-year-old embarked on what friends and family believe was a journey to call attention to its looming demise. Without notifying anyone, wearing only a T-shirt and shorts, and carrying just a backpack, Bruce traveled from his home in North Boulder to Washington, D.C. Two days after leaving Colorado, on April 22, 2022—Earth Day—Bruce arrived outside the U.S. Supreme Court building and sat down in its white marble plaza. He likely drew little notice and was quiet, as he often was.

At around 6:30 p.m., a commotion erupted. Flames had broken out on the plaza, and it soon became clear what was on fire. Someone yelled, “It’s a man!” Police officers ran to a nearby fountain where they tried to collect enough water in orange traffic cones to extinguish the blaze. It was only when they succeeded, a whole minute later, that Bruce cried out. He died the next day.

Bruce was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 1971, the only child of Martha Struxness, an accountant, and Douglas, who worked in health care and later as a college administrator. His parents divorced in 1974, and by the time Bruce was a teenager, he had moved to join his mother in Brooksville, Florida, about an hour north of Tampa. “He was a very typical adolescent,” Douglas says, explaining that in the South his son had often organized camping trips for his friends. A member of the science club and cross-country team at Hernando High School, Bruce planned to enlist in the U.S. Air Force after graduation.

But shortly after Bruce received his diploma in 1989, a car in which he was riding struck a tree. The driver died in the accident, and Bruce ended up in the hospital, where doctors placed him in an induced coma for nearly a month. After regaining consciousness, Bruce spent four months in three different hospitals, relearning how to walk and talk. He never fully recovered. “Bruce’s [traumatic brain injury] affected his ability to analyze and synthesize issues,” his father says, “and verbalize that analysis.” Concentrating, learning new skills, and remembering things would prove difficult, too, while directly engaging with others would often leave him feeling drained.

Suddenly facing an uncertain future and new physical and mental limitations, young Bruce wandered. He traveled to Latin America, which he traversed for months aboard a hop-on-and-off tour bus. He attended a technical college in Wisconsin. He returned to Florida to live with his mother for a time, and then relocated to Portland, Oregon. In 2000, he found a permanent home in Boulder.

Bruce fell in love with the size of the foothills town and its temperate climate. Unable to drive because of the mental impairment from the accident, he bicycled everywhere, even when snow covered the Flatirons and the streets below them—sometimes pedaling to Naropa University to deliver snacks to his onetime girlfriend and longtime friend Candice Ford. Bruce continued to love the outdoors and the living creatures there. He would sometimes lean his bicycle against a tree to stretch out in the grass or take injured animals he found on his rides to a nearby wildlife rehabilitation center. When hiking in the mountains with friends, Bruce took the switchbacks in silence, soaking up the nature around him.

Roughly 30 years before Bruce fell in love with Boulder, Boulder fell in love with Buddhism. Or, more accurately, the college town warmly welcomed Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, an Oxford-educated Tibetan monk dispatched by the 14th Dalai Lama himself. After establishing Boulder as the epicenter of Shambhala Buddhism, which revolves around the idea that people are basically good, and founding Naropa University, the monk went about further disseminating Buddhism in the West.

Meditating seemed to bring a bit of peace to Bruce—who had begun participating in ecstatic dance, a free-form movement exercise that many describe as spiritual, in Portland—and he grew more involved in mindfulness practices after discovering Shambhala Buddhism. He also started to attend retreats and workshops at the Rocky Mountain Eco-dharma Retreat Center (RMERC) in Ward, which, in part, harnesses Buddhist beliefs in hopes of better addressing ecological crises.

Global inaction over climate change frustrated Bruce, his friend Erica Hamilton says. But because of his brain injury, he couldn’t always convey those emotions verbally. Instead, Ford says, he would often write down his thoughts and feelings.

In fact, three years before his death, Bruce wrote a letter to David Loy, the co-founder of RMERC, that read, in part, “I have a cognitive disability, and I do not know what to do; however, that is not stopping me from doing something. I will not have a chance to be a parent, but I can recognize that the children of the future are effectively being attacked by the existing power structure. It is within y/our power to do something about this.”

Hamilton also says that Bruce admired Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist leader who helped organize one of the first international conferences to address climate change in the 1970s. One afternoon this past January, Hamilton referenced Love In Action, Nhat Hanh’s collection of writings about nonviolent social change. In that book, he wrote about Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk who burned himself to death in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) during the Vietnam War: “Every action for peace requires someone to exhibit the courage to challenge the violence and inspire love. Love and sacrifice always set up a chain reaction of love and sacrifice.”

The self-immolation of Quang Duc “was not really suicide,” Nhat Hanh writes, “it was not even a protest.” It was “intended only to move the hearts of the oppressors and call the world’s attention to the suffering of our people.”

Bruce’s self-immolation in 2022 might not have been his first attempt to call attention to the world’s suffering. Five years earlier, in 2017, Bruce tried to set himself on fire at the World Trade Center site in New York City. Bystanders stopped him, and police took him to Bellevue Hospital, where he remained for less than a week until his father, who still lived in Minnesota, could retrieve Bruce and bring him back to Colorado. In the days after, Douglas fielded phone calls from New York City and Boulder police officers, asking if he thought his son was a threat to others. “No,” he told them. Was Wynn a threat to himself? they asked. Douglas didn’t think so.

In the last photo of himself that he uploaded to social media, two months before his death, Bruce’s chin is shorn of its usual goatee, and his face is tilted upward. He’s looking away from the camera. Bruce had often shared his concerns about the environment on Facebook, and after his death, his account became a forum for debate: Friends and admirers fought with critics and trolls over why Bruce set himself on fire and to what end.

For many, Bruce has become a martyr of the environmental movement. “He continues to inspire me to give myself as fully as I can to advance the climate and justice movement,” Kritee, the co-founder of RMERC (who goes by one name), wrote in an email to 5280. “I cannot ever wish any human being to take the last action that Wynn took, but at the same time, I continue to understand, respect, and love Wynn. Like other Buddhist practitioners, Wynn deeply cared for the sacredness and the sanctity of all life.”

Bruce never told his dad why he tried to set himself on fire in 2017. Douglas can only guess at his son’s reasoning behind the act that ended his life and, depending on one’s perspective, made him the object of ridicule or reverence. Douglas respects Bruce’s decision, but he misses him. He misses their phone calls, during which they’d sometimes discuss Alfred Hitchcock movies or read books to one another. When people consider his son’s legacy and discuss what he might have wanted to achieve, Douglas hopes they know that his son’s life was about more than a single event. “He was a person,” he says. “I hope he knows how much I loved him. That’s all I care about.”