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Two Bikers Killed By ISIS Militants A World Away. They Were My Friends

Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan (Courtesy of Simply Cycling)MoreCloseclosemore
Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan (Courtesy of Simply Cycling)

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Two Americans were killed in an ISIS-inspired attack in Tajikistan last month. They’d spent the last year bicycling around the world. And they were my friends.

At first, the media reports seemed wrong, or like they were happening in an alternate reality:

“D.C. Couple Killed In Tajikistan Attack Were Biking Around The World Together” read NPR.

“A Dream Ended on a Mountain Road: The Cyclists and the ISIS Militants” read the New York Times.

Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan quit their jobs and set off to pedal the world in July 2017. The last time I saw them was a few days before they departed on their flight to South Africa. My family — my wife, my daughter and I — had brunch with them in D.C. where we live. We listened to their last-minute plans to lighten their touring loads by the ounce and debated whether they’d need a solar charger to go along with the big batteries they bought to charge their electronic devices. We told them about our recent Barcelona trip, biking around town with a toddler, and they advised what tweaks might allow our commuter bikes to be touring bikes — toddler seat and all.

Jay Austin (Courtesy Simply Cycling)
Jay Austin (Courtesy Simply Cycling)

We knew then that we were saying goodbye for a few years, but the internet allowed us to keep close tabs on Jay and Lauren as they explored. We were excited to see them again; to hear their stories and adventures. And they were just as invested in keeping tabs on us — how our jobs were going, where our daughter would go to daycare, when we’d be able to meet up on their journey.

When we first heard Jay and Lauren describe the idea of the voyage to pedal the planet, it wasn’t a shock. We marveled at their courage, and were envious of their ambition. It would be long, hard, and also beautiful — if anyone could do it, it was Lauren and Jay. 

Jay was shockingly articulate — a guy with big ideas and tangible follow-through. In 2013, he rode his scooter, which he'd nicknamed Rousseau, across America. He had (somewhat famously) built his own tiny home, a mere 140 square feet, in an attempt to minimize his negative impact on the environment and live more simply. He talked about spending time on an uninhabited island — to “simply exist” for “a reboot — a needed detox from a society of big wants and little attentions,” as he wrote in an old blog post.

Lauren, radiant and giving, had a way of stopping whatever social autopilot was running the conversation to pause and ask you what was really going on. How you were actually doing. She may have been slightly newer to traveling simply, with nothing but a bike and a few necessities, but she and Jay biked around Iceland a couple of years ago. They’d camped through the vast landscapes of Namibia the year before that.

The author, pictured left, with Jay Austin in Washington, DC in October 2013. (Courtesy)
The author, pictured left, with Jay Austin in Washington, DC in October 2013. (Courtesy)

I remember eating Ethiopian food with Jay late into the night, debating whether people should legitimize a broken political system by voting, or a broken economic system by using currency. Listening to music at Jay’s tiny home before not-so-tiny bonfires. Hosting them for vegan feasts at our home. Offering to have Jay’s mail sent to our address because he was legally homeless (according to D.C. law) even with his gorgeous tiny home.

You would have liked Jay and Lauren, if you’d had a chance to know them. If you are worried, as I am, about how the world sees America these days, they were just the people you’d want as our ambassadors — compassionate, curious, humble and giving.

Jay and Lauren undertook their trip to be an example for others. They believed in the fundamental goodness of people. They valued connection in an era when differences aren’t always valued. They lived the life they longed to see more of in the world: for people to be kinder, more generous, more adventurous. The world’s not as unknowable, scary or foreign as it might seem, they’d say. There are people you’d like just waiting to meet you. Easily accessible wonders, just waiting to surprise you. Indeed, “there’s magic out there.”

Lauren Geoghegan (Courtesy Simply Cycling)
Lauren Geoghegan (Courtesy Simply Cycling)

After several days pedaling through the mountains of northern Morocco late last year, they were hungry, craving a warm meal or hot tea. When they finally rolled into a town, the single restaurant wasn’t serving a vegetarian meal, but a local customer and his family offered to host them. Together, they enjoyed an impromptu seven-course meal and heartfelt conversation, even though they didn’t speak the same language. In the morning, Lauren and Jay were treated to breakfast, a parting gift of oranges, homemade bread and bottle of olive oil — and an invitation to return. They had so many stories like this. Such generosity came easily to them, because they returned it so enthusiastically.

Before Jay took off on his cross-country scooter trip in 2013, he wrote a note to friends to say thank you. It read, in part:

I am the sum of the people I've met, the product of the friends and acquaintances and loved ones with whom I've shared experiences and conversations and life. Without the continued, impassioned, limitless support and advice and help and love and care and encouragement of each of you during my time, well, on this Earth, I'm certain that I wouldn't now have the tremendous privilege and honor and luxury of embarking on this journey, nor the courage and fortitude to follow through with it.

Maybe it’s enough that we got to know them so well through their words and deeds. Maybe it’s enough that they saw so much of the world in so short a time. But Jay and Lauren wanted to do so much more. That’s been stolen not just from them, but from the world they hoped to heal.

The plaque above the door at Jay’s house had the iconic John Muir quote, “the mountains are calling and I must go.”

And now he and Lauren are gone.

Lauren Geoghegan and Jay Austin (Courtesy Simply Cycling)
Lauren Geoghegan and Jay Austin (Courtesy Simply Cycling)

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Ryan Koronowski Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Ryan Koronowski is the research director for ThinkProgress, and previously worked in progressive politics and climate advocacy.


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