Benjy Renton ’17 chronicles his travels in China

Benjy Renton ’17 holds up a “Conquering the Capital” sign on his 2020 trip to China. Benjy hoped to explore more of China, but was unable to due to the emergence of the coronavirus.

Off the Silk Road, a blog started by Benjy Renton, Hackley class of 2017, to chronicle his travels to China, has evolved over the course of 2020 to be a prominent source for COVID-19 information.

Benjy attended Hackley in kindergarten before moving to China, where he would complete grades 1-5. He would later return to the United States and attend Hackley from 6th grade until he graduated in 2017. While in China, he fell in love with the country and since leaving, has visited 17 times.

In spring 2014, Benjy started a blog titled Off the Silk Road, where he planned to chronicle his upcoming trip to China. A blog was a natural outlet for his passion for storytelling, which he fell in love with during his time on the Dial Staff.

“I think I was really just interested in telling stories. I also think that it was just cool to have an audience and to be given the opportunity to tell stories,” Renton said when asked why he joined the Dial. Benjy served as a staff writer his sophomore year before becoming the online editor his junior year and co-editor in chief his senior year.

Benjy’s first year of blogging for his spring 2014 trip featured 23 posts, some in both Chinese and English. For each of his trips to follow, Benjy posted blogs to update friends, family, and curious readers about his latest journey.

“Initially it was more of a travel blog and that’s how it’s taken shape in the previous summers. I usually didn’t have time to do as much writing as I wanted to,” Renton said.

On December 25th, 2019, Benjy posted an article on Off the Silk Road discussing how he was preparing to head out on a 6-8 month trip to China with aspirations of blogging as much of the trip as possible. For the first month of his trip, everything was going according to schedule and Benjy had posted an article on his blog discussing a recent concert he had attended.

However, towards the end of January 2020, the coronavirus started to become a problem in China, specifically in Wuhan. Renton decided it would be a good idea to start providing daily updates on the COVID-19 situation in China, releasing his first update on January 21st, 2021.

“I saw there were lots of reports from American media outlets, but I wanted to show people what it was actually like on the ground,” he said, “I think [my] experiences were really interesting for people to understand what exactly was happening in the country at the time.”

The program Benjy was attending in China was officially canceled on January 28th, resulting in a scramble to find a flight to get out of the country. On February 1st, Benjy left China on one of the last United flights to America, several months earlier than expected.

As the pandemic unfolded for the next two months, Renton kept up with all the latest news surrounding the state of the pandemic across the world. It was not until April 17th that he decided to revive Off the Silk Road, where he would post weekly coronavirus updates for the next 10 months.
“I wanted to be able to take stock of what was available at the time, looking at two lenses. Number one, what is happening nationally, and number two, what is happening in higher education colleges,” Renton said.

To answer these questions, Benjy looks through various articles, graphs, etc. to get a good grasp of what was happening at the moment. At the height of the pandemic, he was reading 500 links a week and taking the best from those sources, and incorporating them into his weekly blog. The sources that Renton credits the most for giving him his data are the CDC, American Medical Association, and Twitter.

Benjy credits the success of his blog to his approach, which seeks to find a balance between focusing on a certain group of issues and taking a wider approach to the issues at hand. Renton’s work has not gone unnoticed, as seen in the growing of his followers on Twitter from 2,000 pre-pandemic to almost 13,000 now, as well as his subscriber count on his blog increasing from 26 in June 2020 to 715. He has also received a lot of press for his work on his blog.

“It has definitely been pretty rewarding to be able to go and discuss the work and I’m glad that they often turn to people who have either written the work or have some involvement in it,” Renton said.

Some of the most notable attention Benjy has received has been a shout-out in a New York Times article in October 2020 and a mention in Forbes for his work on the White House COVID outbreak.

In terms of the future, Benjy does not plan to stop his work on Off the Silk Road. He expects to focus more on the state of vaccines in the coming weeks but remains firm on his goal to post weekly COVID updates until the pandemic dies down.