All posts by Benj

192 miles or bust!

  • Our blog:
  • Our stated objective: to each safely transport a pebble from the Irish Sea to the North Sea
  • Our hidden agenda: to maintain our youth, heal our hearts, and justify our beer consumption
  • Our route: the Wainwright Walk from Saint Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay
  • Our timetable: kicking off 16 days of walking on the morning of June 6, 2015
  • Our RSS feed:

Map by James F. Carter (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5]

Please allow me to introduce myself

I’m Benj, short for Benjamin. Family and friends who knew me before age 16 call me Ben, even though, and maybe sometimes because, they know I don’t like it. But they have earned that right. By virtue of the sheer longevity of our relationships, spanning three decades or more, they can call me Ben, or Bonus, or Lipsmack, or whatever they prefer. Decades count for something in my book. (And I know that extra J is a hardship. Believe me I know. I’m reminded constantly.)

Each summer I go for an outdoor adventure with my friend and former coworker, Maurice. We started with a 9-day hiking trip through the White Mountains of New Hampshire a few years ago. Next week we’ll canoe the Allagash River in Maine. I nearly convinced him to go to Saskatchewan with me. Nearly. I’m still warming him up to the idea… (Nobody’s perfect, but Maurice is real close.) Suffice it to say, I’d been looking to exceed my past adventures, and I knew I could count on Maurice to join me.

At one point when I told close friend and coworker, Seth, about my hiking from hut to hut along the Appalachian Trail, he told me I was doing it all wrong. Why hike all day, over the river and through the woods to the next hut, when instead you could hike all day, over the river and through the woods to the next pub… Right??? I like the way Seth thinks. That planted the seed years ago for what would become this June 2015 adventure. And Seth, unable to abide my drinking all that beer alone, insisted on joining my 192 mile pub crawl hike, too.

Where better to get ground intel on this operation than my dear friend Laura, who grew up with my mother in South Africa and now lives in England? Laura is an avid and accomplished walker herself, not to mention international marathoner. As I suspected, she has friends who have done the Wainwright Walk (many times), and quite literally know it backwards and forwards. After shaking down Laura for information and repeatedly exposing her to the contagious cloud of positive energy that surrounds this trek, I was not at all prepared for her proposed remedy: “Benj, may I join you?” This was in January before a single other hiker had signed on to my crew… I was ecstatic. My solo self-indulgent pipe dream of a walkabout suddenly became real. The serious planning commenced at once.

So back to me. I’m a left-leaning atheist pescatarian ΑΨΩ software engineering manager. I have a history of producing inspiring solo piano albums, authoring weighty non-fiction books, and siring reasonably well-behaved children with my reasonably well-behaved wife. Yet somehow I find myself surprised to be staring down the barrel of four decades. I’ll mark that solar milestone not with an exclamation point, but with a comma, or at least my trademark (overused) ellipsis. I will start the C2C walk on the morning of my 40th birthday, surrounded by an exotic mix of friends and family. Some will call me Benj, while some will still call me Ben. And I’m okay with that… Decades count for something in my book.

Until Allagash Falls do us part

Maurice and I have just returned from our annual hiking trip. Except this time, instead of boots we wore water shoes, and instead of trails we followed rivers, and instead of a backpack full of camera equipment, we had… no, we still had that. (Incidentally, right now my camera is in a bag full of rice, but that’s not the crisis I’m here to write about.)

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: Migratory Pebbles is a double entendre. Yes, my band of fearless walkers will be assisting some pebbles with their migration from sea to shining sea. This blog will certainly cover our pebble porting adventures across England. But even more so, we are the pebbles. Are you with me? We are the pebbles. Think on that, as I depart on this brief tangent.

Many of you know about my dodgy past. I was married once before in my mid-20s, and failed miserably at it. My ex-wife and I both helped kill that marriage, along with a lethal dose of conditions beyond our control. Yet, after 7 years together, I was still in love. When she asked for a divorce, I tied my platinum wedding band to the bookmark tassel of our butterfly love journal, and packed it well away in a box of memories of our relationship, which ironically included the wedding photos we had only recently gotten around to printing. The ink was barely dry.

Fast-forward half a decade, and I was ready to tie the knot again. Rings inevitably became a topic of conversation. I somehow couldn’t bring myself to do the obviously reasonable thing: sell my old wedding band. So I convinced Jessica that if I simply reused my previous band, that we’d have more money to spend on hers. Problem solved! I had mine cleaned, removing the antique finish from the background of the celtic pattern. I didn’t share my reluctance to part with the symbol of my first marriage, but my new wife is anything but stupid. (Side note: I’ve learned Jessica prefers the label “wife” over “new wife,” “2nd wife,” “current wife,” or “most recent wife.” I guess it has a more permanent ring to it?)

Now, fast forward the better part of another decade, to Maurice photographing my jump off a rock into the fast-moving water at the foot of Allagash Falls. It was taking me much longer than expected to return to the surface. I kept going up and up. Nope, still no air to breathe here, up some more. Oh yeah, and there’s that rock ledge our tour guide, Chip, suggested we raise our legs to avoid. Ouch. That’s going to leave a mark. Better start swimming out of this current to the water’s edge. Oh, good, here’s a rock I can grab onto. … Funny, that felt weird on my finger…

My Precious was now 6+ feet deep in frenzied brown water that light wasn’t penetrating more than 2 feet. Chip declared it a goner. The men gave me that “Oh, damn, sorry man” look. Maurice went in after it, determined to create a miracle, but even he came up empty. I looked at the white stripe on my finger where a ring had been a minute before, 15 years before. I said, “Now how am I supposed to keep the ladies at bay?” To which one of the ladies replied, “Get a stick.”

That ring symbolized much more than I was willing to admit, so it’s best to have met its final resting place. I’m sure that with goggles, an underwater flashlight, and a Maurice, that this artifact of my life could be raised from the deep. But I’d rather accept the closure that Allagash Falls has delivered me, and work out some new symbol for my current marriage.

Jessica, if you’re reading this, it’s my long-winded way of saying, “Sorry I lost my wedding ring.”

To tie this all back into the titular theme of this blog, I’ll now be pouring over Her Majesty’s Royal Topo Maps to find a river that happens to run between St. Bees and Robin Hood’s Bay. Maurice and I really enjoyed the canoeing adventure. Failing that river materializing, you’ll find me walking the Wainwright softly, but carrying a big stick.

And now a word from our sponsor

Seriously, maybe we should start considering endorsement deals, but this one comes straight from the heart. What gives that guy on the right his swagger? What puts that smile on his face? What propels, nay catapults him those extra miles?

ExOfficio Give-N-Go Boxer Briefs, that’s what.

I like to cover a lot of ground. I remember walking all over San Diego 7 years ago, both because it was my first business trip away from my brand new baby daughter (thanks, Skype!), and because of the severe physical pain. My inner thighs were chafed for the first time in my life, a bloody mess. And yet it wasn’t until my 9-day hiking trip through the White Mountain hut system in 2011 that I solved this problem. Permanently.

With pack space at a premium, I could afford the luxury of only two pairs of underwear. (Maurice’s wife, Emily, incidentally received her trail name, “9 Pair,” on that same trip.) So I wanted to make them count. The plan was to wear one pair each day while washing the other in the sink at the hut and hanging it to dry overnight. A bit of research for “best backpacking underwear” revealed the correct answer, and I’ve been in love with them ever since. They are quick drying, super comfortable, and they prevent chafing. Completely. Even when running up hills, swimming through mud, and jumping over fire, as in the Spartan Race two days ago.

My days on this earth are numbered. There is no reason why I should ever waste a day wearing different underwear than these. I now possess 2 full weeks’ worth. I hope my fellow Wainwright Walkers will take measures to protect their… assets, as I have mine.

Requiem for a constant companion

There was a grave accident involving river rapids and a canoe. The body will be returned to me soon. This is the beginning of my grieving process.

There’s always one main character missing from every home movie, the one capturing the footage. I find myself today without a lot of photos of my dearly departed for this reason. The shot above is the first exposure I made to test it out. The Alpha frame as it were.

My Canon 5D Mark II had a good run. I purchased it second-hand in anticipation of a 9-day hiking trip over 3 years ago. It has been up and down more mountains than I care to count. It has traveled the world with me. It’s captured all our holidays, weddings, road trips, and a stupid number of sunsets. Who knows what adventures it had with its first owner? <foreshadowing>And to think in our first months together I was afraid to even take it along with me in a kayak on calm water!</foreshadowing>

On the Allagash River while undertaking the Chase Rapids, we took on water. (Obviously!) The 5D is quite resistant to water. I learned that the hard way, after leaving it out in a thunderstorm overnight earlier this year. It bounced back nicely after bag o’ rice therapy. However, it’s decidedly not as good at resisting partial submersion in several inches of water for several minutes. It probably would have been fine if I could have applied rice therapy later that same day. Alas, no bags of rice in the Maine wilderness, and despite my attempts to irradiate it in the sun each day, it ultimately succumbed to corrosion and ennui. No bag o’ rice could have saved it. Not even the experts at Canon Professional Services:

Dear Benj Lipchak:

Thank you for contacting Canon product support concerning the repair of your EOS 5D Mark II. I am happy to assist you.

I did check and the Factory Service Center found your camera has extensive water damage and corrosion. Unit would require most structural and electrical components. Camera has been deemed beyond economical repair.

I am very sorry for the inconvenience that this has caused you.

Please let us know if we can be of any further assistance with your EOS 5D Mark II.

Thank you for choosing Canon.


Technical Support Representative

This is the last exposure made before the rapids… Haunting. The Omega frame. RIP.


The Dirty Dozen

It’s happening.  I have it in writing, via Royal Mail, par avion.  All twelve of us will be walking next June.  And what’s more?  It’s “one of the world’s favourite [sic] walks!”

Now that we’re confirmed, I hope other walkers will begin introducing themselves here!  Perhaps I can nudge my adventuresome mother, whose handwriting incidentally it appears they’ve forged on the envelope, to take a swing at blogging?

When the rubber meets the road

I wonder how often that title phrase is used literally? Probably as often as the word “literally” is used literally. Anyway, cue the choir of angels, “Aaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

L.L. Bean stocks a variety of brands: their own brand, alongside Keen, Merrell, Oboz, Salomon, Teva, and others. My three criteria going in were mid-height, waterproof, and comfortable. I was partial to the Salomons, but they didn’t have clown shoe sizes (12+) in stock. So I asked to try on the Merrells, which is the brand Ma decided on for her Wainwright footwear, as well as the Oboz, which are apparently the latest fancy award-winning boots.

I happened to be wearing my Wrightsock double-layer crew hiking socks while traveling up the coast that day. Perfect! I got my foot half into a Merrell before aborting, asking if perhaps they had a half-size bigger? “Sir, that’s the size 8 you pulled off the display rack.” Carry on, then. The size 12 boots were decidedly roomier than the 8, but still a snug fit.

The Oboz were stiff. I climbed up and down the stairs and circumnavigated the store. They were like wearing alpine ski boots. I don’t care how many awards they won, the Oboz would need about 192 miles of breaking in. Meanwhile the Merrells, especially by comparison, felt like putting on a pair of slippers. I was comforted in the knowledge that Merrell doesn’t make size 12.5, so the snug size 12 Merrell Moab Mid GORE-TEX won the day.

I hope to road test these boots over the coming weekend in California. Stay tuned!

Fuck Cancer

That was my cousin Ezra’s slogan as he blogged about his experience. I won’t say he fought cancer and then surrendered to it, or use some other clichéd metaphor to make it more digestible to the rest of us healthy bastards. To put it plainly, he contracted a disease, the doctors tried to eradicate it, it went away for a while, came back, Ezra decided not to treat it further, and he died in May at age 40. Half a life, yet he lived it twice as full.

I’m wearing one of Ezra’s work shirts right now. While sifting through bags of his clothes headed for donation in NYC this weekend, I picked out the grungiest one I could find. It’s gray, covered in a variety of grease stains, and it seems to have been snagged in a machine or a bike chain at some point. It’s too small for me. But I feel like a superhero wearing it. After all, my cousin was The Bike Maker.

As you know from my post about the ring, I have enough trouble letting go of living people who were important to me. Worse is when they’re taken from me and I can’t let go gradually on my own terms. And so it was that, after leaving NYC and spending ~17 hours with dear friends in Connecticut watching movies about a certain other ring that folks had trouble letting go, I found myself at my alma mater, WPI, saying “Fuck Cancer” yet again.

My thesis advisor, Matt Ward, who also taught my introductory and advanced graphics courses, passed away on October 13 at age 59. For those of you keeping score at home, I’m in my 20th year of a career in… computer graphics. I presented the paper Matt & I published based on my thesis at the IEEE Visualization conference in Phoenix, my first talk in front of a giant audience. And we hiked down into the Grand Canyon together. So let’s just say this guy was pivotal. We had been out of touch for years, but it just so happened when I heard of his passing that I already had plane tickets to attend his memorial.

It was originally going to be a late October celebration of his career, with Matt in attendance to receive awards, so I signed up without hesitation. But after deciding to discontinue treatment, his health failed quickly, and the organizers had to bump up the celebration to the end of September. As chance would have it — remember, I’m an atheist — I was already up in Massachusetts, on campus at WPI no less, for a recruiting event the very day on which the celebration was rescheduled.

Matt was sitting there in Higgins House in a wheelchair, blanket in his lap, occasionally summoning the strength to lift his head briefly to survey what was going on around him. There were many friends and colleagues in attendance, way more than I imagined, taking turns kneeling down to greet Matt. I worked up the courage to approach him, unsure if he would recognize me, moments before his wife wheeled him away forever. I thanked Matt for all the time he spent with me and said good-bye.

So I figured now I’m stuck with a useless October plane ticket, but at least I’ll have an excuse to visit friends and family in Ezra’s Harlem neighborhood and New England. Ha! Matt had the impeccable timing to leave us mere days before my October 20 return, his originally scheduled going away party. It became a New Orleans style musical wake, orchestrated well in advance by Matt who approached several musically inclined friends, “Hey, what are you doing in about 5 weeks? Would you mind playing at my memorial? I have some songs picked out…”

I’m not sure what the parting message is here. Bad things happen to good people? Life is short, so live like you are dying? Blogging about how other people’s cancer affects you is decidedly self-centered? Fuck cancer? How about: We are the pebbles. We migrate. That is all.

My heart going boom, boom, boom

Back in November, Laura suggested I pack my boots when coming to visit Batheaston. I was betwixt visiting my recent hire in London and a standards body meeting in Chertsey. We were fast approaching our 6-month countdown to Wainwright, and planned to undertake a rigorous walk around Bath. Boots would be a necessity.

The boots gained some decent mileage around London first. Whilst traveling light, the savvy jet setter knows that a versatile collection of shoes cannot be accommodated. I wore my boots to the West End 3 times in total (Wicked, The Book of Mormon, Mathilda), which may be 3 times more than they’ll ever attend theatre again.

And so it was that Laura took me climbing up on Solsbury Hill. Boots/wellies were donned. The rain was falling hard. We were determined. Laura and I climbed Solsbury Hill (yes, THE Solsbury Hill) in her Škoda on our way to see ‘Allo ‘Allo! in Bath. Wainwright practice would have to wait for a less rainy day. After all, weather changes, and we’ll see nothing of the sort come June.