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.
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.
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.”
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.