There’s a Black Dot in the Middle of Everything I See

Ranger Halston
Ranger Halston

Kelli Hoversten was a tireless and fearless adventurer. She’d ice climb during the Colorado winters, rock climb in the warmer months, and travel the country in search of her next challenge. She was also an avid reader, devouring four or five books at a time when she wasn’t working on her family’s Missouri cattle ranch.

But not anymore.

At Burning Man 2014, Kelli — you may know her as Ranger Halston — was working with her fellow Black Rock Rangers as a “Sandman”, the caretakers of the inner circle during the Man Burn. While the citizens of Black Rock City watch the Man and the Fire Conclave performances in the Great Circle, Sandman Rangers keep their eyes on the crowd, ensuring nobody makes an ill-advised sprint toward the flames.

Ranger Halston, after the injury
Ranger Halston, after the injury

That was when Kelli’s life was instantaneously and irreversibly changed, when somebody in the crowd pointed a handheld laser at her face, permanently blinding her left eye. And then one mounted on a Mutant Vehicle partially blinded her right eye.

Some Burners think it’s “fun” to aim a laser at the Man, or at the people around them — it’s the functional (and intellectual) equivalent of tagging, I suppose. It used to be no big deal, really. Back in the day, the only lasers that could actually harm somebody were big, unwieldy and expensive, but with recent technological advancements, the $20 laser you picked up and stuck in your pocket can reach 3-10 miles, and it could blind anybody who catches it in the eye. And facing the crowd as they do during big burns, Black Rock Rangers are especially vulnerable.

Ranger Halston with fellow Black Rock Ranger
Ranger Halston with fellow Black Rock Ranger

Since the accident, Kelli has been forced to relearn everything she’d come to know in her life, and to reconsider everything she’s taken for granted. “I had no idea how important depth perception is. I don’t think anybody does, until they lose it,” she tells me. She no longer rock climbs or ice climbs. “It’s too dangerous with one eye, and the risk of another injury on top of this? If I lose my other eye, well …” She leaves the sentence hanging in the air. She’s lost her job as an arborist because they can’t insure her now. She’s got enough vision left in her right eye to still be allowed to drive, but just barely, and she’s rightfully worried about losing that privilege. “There’s a black dot in the middle of everything I see.”

Don’t use handheld lasers in crowds, don’t ever aim them at people, and make sure nobody around you does either.

It’s too difficult and painful to read as much as she used to, but low-vision therapists are helping with lighting systems that will help a bit. “Reaching out to pick up a water glass now requires thought. Even cutting my food is a challenge. And God, shaving my legs is like a bloodbath,” she laughs. “I sure didn’t see that one coming.”

Halston at Rangers HQ
Halston at Rangers HQ

I hear sadness cutting through the laughter, and I’m struck by her strength. She’s angry, and she has every right to be. Her future was stolen through somebody’s ignorance. But she’s not bitter. More than anything, as she comes to terms with the fact that she’ll never have her former life back, she’s most concerned about making sure others are aware of the dangers of modern handheld lasers. Makes sense, really. She’s a Black Rock Ranger.

Kelli is raising funds to cover the lost wages and medical bills she’s accumulated since the injury, carrying her over until (and hopefully beyond) her Workers’ Comp claim gets processed by Burning Man’s insurance company. Please join with us as we help her, if you can.

But more importantly, don’t use handheld lasers in crowds, don’t ever aim them at people, and make sure nobody around you does either. And don’t bring them to Burning Man ever again — it’s just not worth the risk to the livelihood of another human being. Share this story around. That’s what Kelli really wants. That’s what Burning Man wants.

About the author: Will Chase

Will Chase

Will Chase is Burning Man's former Minister of Propaganda, working on global communications strategy. He was the editor-in-chief for the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter and the Burning Man Journal, and content manager for Burning Man’s web properties. He also oversaw the ePlaya BBS and Burning Man’s social media presence. Will first attended Burning Man in 2001. He volunteered as the Operations Manager for the ARTery (Black Rock City’s art HQ) and was on the Burning Man Art Council from 2003-2008. He was Web Team Project Manager and Webmaster from 2004 until he transitioned to the Communications Department in 2009. He is now the Director of Content and Community for Maker Faire.

46 Comments on “There’s a Black Dot in the Middle of Everything I See

  • Mel says:

    Hope your claim finalizes swiftly Kelli! This is an awful lesson for any injury that results in a permanent disability. Claims and insurance companies taking months (6 months and counting) to settle. I hope your campaign goes well, shame it had to come to that.

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  • Rem says:

    I use to like playing with hand held lasers (in a responsible fashion,) but now, because they’re becoming so cheap and mainstream, I never bring them out to big events anymore. It takes the irresponsible actions of some people to ruin it for the rest.
    Typically, I’m against banning items and I’m for education.. however, I see these becoming a banned item by next year because of this incident.

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  • david singer says:

    I have had lasers shined at me at burns before though thankfully no eye damage. It’s a huge fear of mine though. Please lets just ban them from the event (other than maybe the few large lasers that are well mounted). Honestly they are not even that good looking and it seems that most of the people that carry them are not very responsible with them.

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    • Mystique says:

      I totally agree on the banning of hand held lasers at the burn. It’s annoying as hell when people are blasting the Temple with a gazillion lasers (and disrespectful if you ask me). The risk vs reward is not worth it. Some stupid, careless millennial gets 30 seconds worth of gratification and someone has to lose their vision for LIFE??? WTF?

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  • payam says:

    Such a tragedy. I wish the best in all of your future endeavors Kelli. This is a topic I had no idea even existed. Awareness should be spread about this. I am sending love your way, and I hope I see you at BRC this year.

    Much love,

    P

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  • Donivan Fox says:

    WHY haven’t they simply been banned from the event? Guns were once allowed too.

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  • Gaz says:

    In many countries, lasers above 5 milliwatts in power are illegal for exactly this reason. I thought this was the same in the US, so I’ve always been surprised at the number of lasers at the Burn which are clearly many times over this limit.
    http://www.fda.gov/aboutfda/transparency/basics/ucm302664.htm

    I’m no fan of over-regulation, especially at events like this, but these devices should be treated the same as guns. They should not be allowed at public gatherings. I never thought I’d find myself calling for something to be banned at BM, but in this case I’ll make an exception. There’s a clear case against handheld devices, but I honest can’t think of a single reason to make a case for them.

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  • Paupy says:

    Considering that lasers can inflict very serious even permanent damage from great distance, it puts them in a class with weapons that have been banned. Lasers should be banned too.

    Also has the Burning Man Organization helped her at all with her immediate needs? If not, WHY?

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  • G says:

    For a number of years I had a set of gloves that were rigged with 3 LED lasers on the fingers with which I could do choreographed patterns and even some dances like moves I very carefully researched the strength of the lasers that I used. They were a type III which from what I read required a good number of seconds of direct exposure to damage vision. Nonetheless I always fired them at the ground or in the sky and if there was a transition I closed my eyes and aimed them at my body to go from ground to sky and back.
    2010, I was on the top floor of the Man and someone in an Esplanade theme camp at about 7 repeatedly aimed a green laser directly at the occupied part of the tower. I regret I did not contact the Rangers, however I did stop by the camp one day just to discuss it with them, but nobody was there.
    It’s a pity that the dumb fuck few always spoil it for the many. It is also a pity, but basic human nature that until someone suffers, nothing is done about something that is predictable.
    Airing out this sad case on this blog is a good thing. I get this funny feeling there’s going to be more mention of lasers in the survival guide this year.
    Got to admit I feel some anger. The way I heard this story the Ranger only suffered one eye. It’s tragic it involves both eyes. Being one who is experienced an eye injury and knowing only the fear of having lost the vision in one eye, my heart goes out Ranger Hoversten

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    • Mystique says:

      I remember seeing you on the playa….your performance was mesmerizing (and very carefully orchestrated). If more people took the same care with handling lasers (like they do with fire dancing) then maybe we would not be here. But unfortunately…that’s not the case. Too many times I have seen people aim lasers at passing art cars, at bicyclists, pedestrians, stilt walkers!! It’s ridiculous.

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  • Ranger Beauty says:

    FYI I’m the “fellow Black Rock Ranger” in the photo with Ranger Halston. She was my passenger riding with me and another burner from Colombia, MO to Burning Man & after her injury back home.
    Thanks for letting people that lasers can be -VERY DANGEROUS-!
    Please *SHARE* this on social media so nothing like this happens again.
    Also DONATE to her GO Fund Me site: http://www.gofundme.com/eyebeam

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  • Ken says:

    I used to work for a laser show. The new breed of handheld lasers are incredibly dangerous, as Kelli tragically found out. I have seen too many people act like fools with what is essentially a laser scalpel. Ban handheld lasers. Ban them now.

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  • CMount says:

    I am a laser enthusiast who owns more than 1 class 4 laser devices. My strongest is a 3.1W blue. I have always exercised the utmost caution when operating lasers around others and have a perfect safety record. Lasers can be used safely. A few idiots can ruin it for everyone. In all honesty, a ban won’t stop idiots from being stupid with lasers, as I’m fairly certain they won’t search everyone’s entire belongings for lasers. I’d be for mandatory education / passing a laser law / safety test to get a permit for (higher power) laser use. Lasers under say 50 or 100 mw would be exempt. Irresponsible use should result in permanently being denied the option to apply for a permit after passing laser safety test. That’s how I’d suggest improving safety. With the increased knowledge of safe laser handling, I would expect burners to put a stop to those irresponsibly using laser devices. Any attendee caught using a laser that injures another should be responsible for covering medical expenses and may be subject to assault charges should victim wish to press charges

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  • Meghann Van Dolzer says:

    This is tragic, and my heart goes out to Kelli. Seeing as enforcing a ban and guaranteeing universal education and compliance is unlikely, how about some protective eyewear for the Sandmen during the Burn? Are there are goggles or glasses that will block that range of light that and still allow enough visibility for them to do their jobs?

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    • Paupy says:

      If the ban on lasers was part of the Closure Order with the Bureau of Land Management, it’d be pretty effective. No one wants the BLM breathing down their necks.

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  • grumbles says:

    @ Meghann-

    There are no realistic options for goggles for Sandmen. Laser-protective eyewear only works against specific wavelengths – you need different goggles for red lasers than you do blue or green. The only “goggles” that would protect against any wavelength would be completely opaque.

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    • Laser engineer says:

      For about $50 you can get laser eye protection orange goggles that will block green and blue. High power red is rarer, I think, because the color is associated with “ordinary” pointers, although some people hack old CD burners and get high power red lasers out of them. Green and blue are cool, so people want those in high power. If you wore orange goggles around laser-infested events, you would be safer.

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  • jon says:

    Why is she still waiting for a workers comp claim! This is outrageous she has to reach out to her community for financial aid. Someone get her a lawyer!

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  • Sandstorm says:

    @ grumbles:

    In line with what you said in your post, a quick scan of the Internet led me to the below linked laser protective eyewear, which costs $585 PER PAIR.

    http://www.lasersafety.com/eyewear/nanospec/t5k12/f09t5k125000

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  • A Critic says:

    “She’s got enough vision left in her right eye to still be allowed to drive, but just barely, and she’s rightfully worried about losing that privilege. “”

    Driving is a right, it falls under the right of locomotion. That is the right to travel from A to B, this right belongs to all non-slaves.

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    • roissy says:

      Under California Law “Driving is NOT a right, it is a privilege. And can be revoked at any time.”

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    • Turnip says:

      No, the ability to *travel* is a right. Driving (like any other licensed activity) is a privilege extended equally to all who can pass the requirements for its license. That’s what licensing means. I have the right to travel through the air, but not to fly a plane.

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      • Griff says:

        Driving has an economic connotation… if you never admit to driving but merely claim to be “traveling” and if you have never obtained a license (signing a contract with a state saying they can revoke your right to operate a motor vehicle) then you can technically operate a motor vehicle on the roads without a license…. flying is a great example. You d not need a lice se of any kind to operate an experimental plane.. l. But you have to build them yourself….

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  • Eric Krock says:

    This blog post is confirmation that BMO has permanently banned handheld lasers from Burning Man 2015 forward, right?

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  • Corvus says:

    Kelli’s fundraiser has reached its goal (yay!) but the money will only cover expenses for the next few months while Workman’s Comp – notorious for foot dragging – decides how much an eye and a half is worth. Knowing their sterling reputation I’d bet the answer will be “not much.” Let’s show the world Burners know how to take care of our own and keep throwing money into the Kelli kitty. It won’t restore her vision, but it’s better than nothing.

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  • trumpton says:

    Why is it taking more than 6 months to settle the insurance ? BM has insurance right ? Please name the insurance company so we push for an answer from them with publicity. Many burners found or own their own companies.

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  • Disgruntled says:

    BM makes millions on expensive tickets sales because they employ low-wage and/or volunteers to run the show. Now that one of their own is hurt, we are asked to pitch in again? Seriously BM… take care of your people.

    I am so sorry for your injury and will of course help out but this is a bigger issue.

    BM has thousands of young people who have forfeited career tracks and a sustainable life path to be available every summer to volunteer for the org. I don’t see the org setting up any long-term support for their retirement or to cover their expenses in between the event and apparently aren’t even responsive when someone gets hurt. Its short sited at best and usury at worst.

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    • Sandstorm says:

      @ Disgruntled: It’s hard to argue with your post. IMHO, it’s hard to not feel that this situation is yet another disconnect between Larry & Co. and the people who make BRC a reality. I am in no way trying politicize this tragedy; it’s just that for the life of me I can’t understand why a Black Rock Ranger is having to take a tin cup to the public when BM itself is flush with cash.

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      • Realist in the default world says:

        What neither of you may realize is that there is no requirement to cover volunteers with worker’s compensation insurance. Burning man first did so for the DPW, then rapidly expanded the coverage to all volunteers many years ago.

        Burning Man is taking care of this Ranger; don’t judge what you don’t know.

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    • Realist in the default world says:

      “makes millions on expensive tickets sales because they employ low-wage and/or volunteers to run the show.”

      Can you point to a profit/loss statement that shows this to be true?

      Unproved assertions are just ravings. Burning Man has BLM fees, full-time staff members, capital costs, and many other items to pay for that go into creating an even that builds a city or a week, then makes it disappear. The Org even pays workers compensation insurance for volunteer and temporary workers, feeds them, etc. They even have to pay municipalities for road damage from all the janky-ass heavy vehicles people feel are necessary to drive to the burn now.

      No one is getting rich off of Burning Man, though some may be paid well to make decisions about money.

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  • Sandbag says:

    I believe it is time to ban handheld lasers at Burning Man. Laser technology has improved and allows small laser devices to be very powerful. It’s not worth it. I will gladly give up seeing a few laser beams in exchange for no more Burners being blinded. Big laser art with proper safety precautions is acceptable.

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  • Terry / Wizard says:

    Damn, this is downright criminal. There were vague stories after the burn about this, but this is the first trustworthy source to confirm it. As a (responsible) laser lover, it makes me very angry.

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  • os1 says:

    That’s terrible. Maiming somebody like that is no different than stabbing them in the eye. Being high out of your mind isn’t any excuse for hurting somebody, much less maiming them (and if they weren’t tripping, then even less excuse).

    If you’re not responsible enough to use, leave it at home. Or better yet, don’t come to the burn.

    This is the sort of thing that keeps me from returning to BRC.

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  • $hare says:

    I too find it hard to believe that Kelli has to raise funds from the general burner public. The org needs to step up and take care of her. Volunteering is free labor given with love, yes, but the dangers of volunteering at the Burn shouldn’t mean that those volunteers end up SOL when something goes wrong. My heart goes out to Kelli.

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  • sve says:

    Probably not the best time to say this, but this hardens my opinion on universal health care. Single-payer, and everyone’s medical is covered. Just like roadways, police, military, gradeschool, … Just like other 1st world countries.

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  • Jamine says:

    I’m in full support of banning lasers. It won’t be long before these hazardous lasers evolve into more sophisticated phasers. I really don’t want to be out there worrying about being turned into pure energy. While we’re talking about banning things, can we please ban Utilikilts and naked hipsters. No one naked should be allowed through the gate. Far too many of these kids think it’s some kind of social experiment to go to BM with absolutely nothing and then rely on the ‘kindness of strangers’ for goddamn everything.

    Utilikilts – just fucking stop it already! You’re not Scottish and you don’t know how to hammer a nail and your balls stink.

    I’d also like to see anyone who doesn’t do anything banned. And no, spreading your legs isn’t ‘doing something’. Ban all these damn sparkle ponies. You’re not fooling anyone ladies, we know how you got out the the burn. Unfortunately this kind of thing isn’t illegal, but spreading herpes is sexual assault. So be warned.

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  • Wee says:

    Naked handheld lasers don’t contribute creativity, but I have seen many creative uses of lasers with light modifiers (scanners, gratings) that I’d hate to see thrown out with the bathwater.

    Low power lasers with integral diffraction gratings to spread the beam into thousands of points of light are safe and can be interesting parts of a costume or bicycle. High powered lasers operated by a sober skilled technician have their place.

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  • Tony says:

    High powered LEDs are also dangerous. They look like little christmas lights, but these things can blind you. I spent 10 minutes staring into a blue super bright LED and couldn’t see straight for 12 hours. The next night I spent 30 minutes staring directly into a red LED and it I was only blind for about 6 hours. So I really think all the short wave colored LEDs should be banned. Of course all lasers should be banned too. But let’s start talking about LEDs, they’re very dangerous. And also I hear things when I look into them. Something needs to be done. Wake up sheeple!

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    • Darwin says:

      What? you didn’t spend a third night staring in to a green LED???

      I like to think of Burning Man as a place where you can do just about anything and not worry about the values of the default world judging you. But like guns, vehicles, & formerly feathers, I think there need to be some very specific & enforced rules regarding LASERs. I also think that we as Black Rock citizens need to police our own & if you see someone being irresponsible with a LASER call them on it, & if they continue doing it get a Ranger. You can bet the Rangers will take this very seriously from now on.

      I’m very sad to learn what happened to Kelli, especially since she is one of the people who gifts their time to help make Burning Man happen. I wish her the best.

      But sadly, I feel with or without any regulation this WILL happen again.

      I’m strongly in favor of someone caught pointing a LASER at people being ejected from the event.

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  • too sad says:

    I have brought lasers to the burn for years, and I have never hit a person, I know laser safety, I won’t even let anyone else touch my lasers. So it sucks that unqualified people ruin it, but I also don’t want unqualified people hitting me. Last year some dumb bitch, hit me right in my eyes, as I walked up to her to say something, she did it again. I was pissed and went off on her.
    I can see both sides. At this point I will be leaving my lasers at home. One problem is that is the USA there is a legal limit on power, outside the USA people can buy high power lasers all day long, and then they bring them to the burn (the one I got hit by was from some one who was not from the USA. If lasers are still alowed, they should have to be tagged, IE: have power limits and go through laser safety to be able to get a tag.

    The big problem I see is the type of people now going the Burning Man, less and less ‘Burners’ and more of the EDC, bucket list crowd. I bet over 60% doesn’t even read the survial guide or even know what it is. These are the type that are not there for the art or the community, but are there for the party and could care less about others. It is obvious by the huge decline in art, and the rise of the candy kids looking for the big name DJs.

    On the other note, it has been 7 months, why is BRC, LLC draging thier feet on this, instead they ask for handouts again. When do they not ask for handouts, professional beggars. (not directed at Ranger Halston, but at BRC, LLC) Name one JRS that doesn’t ask for money. Step up BRC and pay the girl, with out the volunteers you would have nothing.

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  • Adam says:

    This is effectively no different than if she had been shot in the eye with a pellet gun. Guns at least have a culture of safety and awareness generally associated with them, and they’re already rightly banned for safety reasons. Lasers need to be regulated at the event, and anyone shining one at a crowd needs to be dealt with in the same manner that they would if they had been firing an air gun.

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  • Will Chase says:

    Because this post was neither the time nor the place to mention Burning Man’s role in all this, I specifically left that part out. But since people have been asking …

    The Burning Man organization has been working with Kelli throughout this process, offering financial support, emotional support, assistance with the Workers Comp claim, communications around her fundraiser, and getting the word out about laser safety. Finally, as a result of this tragic incident, Burning Man is also putting the final touches on a new laser policy for 2015.

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  • Why is this just becoming an issue? It should have been reckonozed as a serious problem long ago. Pretending the festival has out grown it health issues is not only nieve but so overlooked and up tell now blame on the individual. I have in past years heard how wrong Dom one was for doing what they did when something bad happened it was always the persons fault. Regardless of what it was.so, to now hear they are excepting responsibility for this is actually surprising.
    Number the size of the event. This would eliminate a majority of problems that have existed since 97 when it made such a jump that people died. Regardless of who’s fault it was. Guns were out on the playa that year and I’m very surprised nothing happened then. It was just sheer luck! I’m an afterburner now and still wish everyone who attends a good and safe burn.

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  • jack dup says:

    I will be bringing my laser to Burning Man… if I go.

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