In 2010, I met a girl named Coco at Burning Man. Coco had flown from Paris to Reno, made her way to Black Rock City, and then sauntered into our camp. I was sitting on a mattress in my U-Haul trailer (a “poor man’s RV”) when she arrived.
“Hi, I’m Coco,” she said. Noticing the mattress, she continued, “Is this a real mattress?”
People talk about a lot of odd things at Burning Man (i.e., art, camping, music, and sex) but as far back as I can remember no girl ever started a conversation with me by asking about my mattress. Yet, it was definitely happening now.
Loren: “Yes, it’s a real mattress.”
Coco: “It’s your bed? Are you with anyone? I mean is anyone else sleeping here? Can I sleep here?” I took a look at Coco. She was wearing running shoes, shorts, and a top that seemed to reveal more than conceal.
Loren: “We can talk about it. Come on in.” (more…)
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.
You know what? I fucked up. I told her, “Don’t worry about your bike.” I honestly thought we’d be able to keep our eye on it. But come on, brother. It was the middle of nowhere out there, and I know better.
Still, seriously, what the fuck, right? Don’t take the material advice of some dust-wizard in the dark of night.
I’m catching a ride out with a friend whose plans are less like clockwork and more like cats chasing a laser pointer. So once we started talking about “when we’re going to leave” I started making some rounds, telling people “this might not actually be the last time I see you this year, but it also might be, so let’s make the formal goodbye now.”
I was at BMIR: my home away from home on the playa. I said goodbye to Kanizzle. I said goodbye to Decibel, and to Ben, and to Mao, and even to that one girl who keeps sneaking up behind me and cupping my ear. I don’t know what her deal is, but she’s definitely been part of my experience. We all hugged it out in tender, sad, moments. None of us have ever seen each other outside of Burning Man.
Then a guy I didn’t recognize looked up from a coach. “Oh no!” he said. “You’re LEAVING?”
I felt pretty guilty about not recognizing him, but I don’t actually have a great head for faces or names, so I know there are people who I should recognize at BMIR but don’t. “Well, sort of,” I said. “I might be back later, but I don’t know for sure, so I’m making sure I hit everybody …”
“C’mere,” he said. He stood up and gave me a passionate embrace. I hugged him back. He was obviously so affected by whatever moments we had shared.
“Listen,” he said. “Don’t ever forget that what you do is so, so, important.”
“Making this radio station run … a gift for every listener out there on the playa … it’s just such an amazing thing you do …”
I paused the hug. “You … you don’t actually know what I do, do you.” (more…)
BMIR is a major distribution site for the Rockstar Librarian Guide, which means they have people coming in and asking for it all the time.
Last year, the prevailing way to handle it was to shout “BOX!” over and over again at anyone who came in and asked for a guide. “BOX!” we’d shout at them. “BOX!” until they’d realize that the box they were standing right next to had a bunch in it. Only then would we explain the rules about limiting them to one per camp to make sure they get the widest possible distribution.
That’s still happening this year, but there’s a lot of other approaches too. BMIR Station Manager Mao’s favorite, when I’m around, is to tell them “Sorry, we just ran out. We don’t have anymore. But Caveat’s got it all in his head. He’s basically the living Rockstar Librarian database. So you can take him.”
They always give me a strange once over. “What, you mean, like, ask him what shows we want to know about?”
“No,” says Mao. “Take him to your camp! Go ahead. It’s fine. He’ll fill everybody at your camp in on whatever you need to know, and then you can send him back. Keep him as long as you need. He’ll be really good.”
This goes on for a while, but no one actually takes the bait, and eventually we tell them where the guidebooks are and give them the “one-per-camp” spiel.
But the other day, a young woman desperate to bring a Rockstar Librarian Guide back to her camp said. “Um … okay.”
“Great,” I said, picking up my backpack. “Where are we going?”
“Okay,” she said again, as though trying to convince herself. “We’ll, um, take you back to camp.” (more…)
A sweltering 4 p.m. at 8:15 and A. I’m sitting in a stranger’s camp recovering from the heat – they have been kind enough to mist me and offer water. Across the street, I see something funny.
A young man and woman – in their early 20s if they were a day – have opened up a toll plaza at the side of the road. They have a surprisingly realistic toll booth, including an arm that rises and lowers mechanically, that the young woman is manning, while the young man is out in the street in a cap and uniform demanding that bicyclists and pedestrians going one way stop and pay the toll.
It’s a classic bit, and well executed. But, I think, they could use a couple of pro-tips. The first one is that if you’re going to pull this off you really have to commandeer a part of the road. Having their toll booth off to the side makes it too easy to ignore – and you really should have more than one person in the middle of the street trying to stop traffic. I don’t mean to sound preachy on this, but trust me, it makes all the difference.
The second tip I offer to him as I step out of the shade and into the line to pay the toll: you need to give people a reason to stop beyond just the fact that a toll exists. Believe it or not it really makes a difference to some people. “Come on you guys,” I shout at some bicyclists ignoring the bit. “The toll supports the roads! If you want roads at Burning Man, you’ve got to pay the toll! Come on, how else can they maintain the roads?”
He gives me a look and picks it up immediately, adding it to his patter. “Toll for road maintenance!” he calls out. “Traffic going this way needs to pay the toll so that Burning Man can have roads next year!”
The kid’s good, I think. Got a promising future.
Standing in line, I see what the “toll” is. You have to display a talent. The young woman behind the booth is great at coaxing the people who have stopped into dancing, or singing, or doing a flip. This is a great bit, and I start thinking about what I’ll do when my turn comes up.
“Road toll!” the young man shouts. “All traffic going in this direction has to stop! Don’t you want to support the roads in Black Rock City?”
Then a cop car … going this direction … pulls up and stops right next to him. The officer rolls downy the window and leans out of it.
Walking towards the Man in the darkness, Lyn said “Can we veer over in this direction? I want to see that … that … thing. It looks like an interesting thing.”
They all do. We veered, and were confronted by a large circular structure with an impossible number of doors in. How many were there? 12? 20? 30? We didn’t count, instead focusing on the fact that there was nothing to distinguish one door from another – or what happened when you chose one over another.
There was nothing to do but choose … and hope. We each picked different doors and walked in.
Inside, the back of each door was beautifully printed with an image of one of the Tarot deck’s major arcana, along with the card’s name and a brief description. Lyn had walked in through The Devil. I had walked in through Death.
We shivered, looked at the center of the room – a kind of contemplative shrine – and then examined the beautiful artwork on the doors. Because having just come in randomly, we now had to deliberately choose which way to exit.
The choice was relatively easy for me. Lyn, however, was giving it great deliberation. “I’ll see you outside,” I said at last.
She nodded, I opened my door, and was through. The desert air was still warm – it was a beautiful night.
Waiting, I looked around at some of the other blinking/shinning/fiery/musical art pieces that people were dancing around, without too much interest. I’ve always had a take it or leave it attitude towards playa art that tries to stun you with visual effects, and a strong preference for playa art that asks you to make relevant choices. I had just finished the thought when I saw Lyn, having chosen her exit, walking around the circular building looking for me.
We proceeded to the Man. “I knew you’d choose the Magician,” she said as we walked. “Guess what I chose?” (more…)