On August 7, the New York Times ran a story by Rukmini Callimachi about Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan, a young American couple, both graduates of Georgetown University, who decided to quit their humdrum office jobs and go on an epic bike ride and camping trip that would take them all over the world. “I’ve grown tired of spending the best hours of my day in front of a glowing rectangle, of coloring the best years of my life in swaths of grey and beige,” Austin wrote. “I’ve missed too many sunsets while my back was turned.”
So in July of last year, they flew from Washington, D.C., to Cape Town, and from there bicycled through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Malawi to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. From there, they flew to Cairo, and after seeing the pyramids flew on to Casablanca, from which they cycled through Morocco, Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Greece, to Turkey. From there, another flight took them to Kazakhstan. They biked through Kyrgyzstan and entered Tajikistan. It was in that country that their journey came to an abrupt end this past July 29, when five ISIS members deliberately plowed their car into the two adventurers, killing them along with two temporary cycling companions, one from Switzerland and the other from the Netherlands. “Two days later,” wrote Callimachi, “the Islamic State released a video showing five men it identified as the attackers, sitting before the ISIS flag. They face the camera and make a vow: to kill ‘disbelievers.’”
Austin, a vegan who worked at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Geoghegan, a vegetarian who worked in a college admissions office, were both 29 years old – old enough, one would think, to have some idea of just how dangerous a route they had mapped out. A number of the countries they passed through are considered either “not free” or “partly free” by Freedom House. In several of them, it’s not uncommon for roving criminal gangs – or, for that matter, police or soldiers or border officials – to rob, rape, or kill innocent travelers without provocation and with total impunity. One assumes the two tourists had all their shots before leaving the U.S., but that’s not necessarily enough to protect you from all the ailments you might be exposed to while biking along the back roads of southern and central Africa. Other perils include wild carnivores, extreme weather, unsanitary food preparation, and substandard medical care.
Both Austin and Geoghegan were seasoned travelers, who had separately gone on backpacking adventures in exotic lands and, together, had recently biked across Iceland as a sort of prelude to their odyssey through Africa, Europe, and Asia. Amanda Kerrigan, a friend of Geoghegan’s, was concerned when she heard about the couple’s plans for a longer expedition that would last over a year. “I said, ‘This is not the Lauren I know,’ ” Kerrigan told Callimachi. “Jay changed the trajectory of Lauren’s life.” Kerrigan was, writes Callamachi, “concerned for her friend, in part because of how bighearted she was and in part because she feared that Mr. Austin had a higher tolerance for danger than Ms. Geoghegan did.” But if Kerrigan was worried about their vulnerability on the road, that was precisely what appealed to Austin: “With…vulnerability,” he wrote, “comes immense generosity: good folks who will recognize your helplessness and recognize that you need assistance in one form or another and offer it in spades.”
Even before Austin and Geoghegan met their untimely end, they had problems. In Namibia, Geoghegan picked up a stomach virus. (As Austin wrote on his blog: “she curls into the fetal position and rests, eyes closed, fighting chills and nausea and fatigue. There’s little that we can do at the moment. I give her some ibuprofen.” Whereupon they resume biking.) Also in Namibia, they were almost hit by a car while bicycling along a highway. In Botswana, they both got sick. In Zambia, Austin had a serious bike crash that sent him flying and left him bleeding all over. In Malawi, he got malaria. In Tanzania, a man tried to bully him into forking over some money. In Ceuta, a driver tried to run him over, and another rear-ended him. In Spain, Geoghegan got conjunctivitis. In Marseilles, she had to be hospitalized for an ear infection that had rendered her deaf. Given the dangers they braved, indeed, they were fortunate to have made it as far as Tajikistan.
But to read Austin’s blog is to see no hint of hesitation, on the part of either of them, to keep on cycling – no sign of fear that their luck might run out at any moment. Their naivete is nothing less than breathtaking. “You watch the news and you read the papers and you’re led to believe that the world is a big, scary place,” wrote Austin during their trek. “People, the narrative goes, are not to be trusted….I don’t buy it. Evil is a make-believe concept we’ve invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own.” This rosy view of humanity suffuses Austin’s blog: “Malawians and Zambians are fantastically friendly people.” And: “All throughout western Europe, when folks asked us where we were headed and we’d say Albania, their faces would drop and they’d start muttering ‘Oh, no, no, no.’ Albania, they’d tell us, is dangerous. The people of Albania will steal your spleen….The Albanians we come across are perhaps the warmest, friendliest, smiliest…people we’ve met on the continent.”
Austin’s blog also provides a window on his (and presumably her) hippie-dippy worldview and ultra-PC politics. Elephants, writes Austin, “may very well be a smarter, wiser, more thoughtful being than homo sapiens sapiens.” When white South Africans tell them “that the nation and its redistributionist government are making poor, ignorant choices,” Austin sneers at their “Eurocentric values” and their failure to realize that “[n]otions like private property” are culturally relative. This is apparently a comment on the South African government’s current expropriation of white farmers’ land without compensation. (To be sure, when a friendly Afrikaans man advises Austin and Geoghegan to move their tent because they’ve pitched it too close to a black settlement and may antagonize the locals, they’re quick to let him lead them to a safer spot.)
Austin also sneers at Thanksgiving, “a strange tradition built upon a glossy, guiltless retelling of a genocide, in which we show our appreciation for what we have by killing a quarter-billion turkeys, eating to the point of discomfort, queueing up outside shopping malls to buy electronics at reduced rates, and otherwise yearning for that which we do not have.” When President Trump announces his plans to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Austin and Geoghegan are in Morocco, where the people are outraged. Yes, because they hate Jews. But Austin’s response is to be so ashamed of his American identity that he tries “to disappear into the soft plush” of a couch cushion.
The Times article about Austin and Geoghegan drew hundreds of reader comments. A surprising number were by other people who’d bicycled or backpacked in far-off, dangerous places. Most saw Austin and Geoghegan as “heroic,” “authentic,” “idealistic,” “inspiring,” “a Beautiful example of Purity and Light.” Sample reactions: “Their candle burned brightly before it was extinguished.” And: “Good for them! They followed their dream.” Then there’s this: “I only see the beauty of two people taking steps to live the life they envision….The good experienced in their journey far far outweighs any negative.” Easy to say when you’re not the one in the body bag. “What is more dangerous,” asked yet another reader, “exposing yourself to the world and its dangers, and living a full vivid life, or insulating yourself in a safe box, in front of screens, where the world and its marvels and dangers cannot touch you? Jay and Lauren understood that safety is its own danger. They are awesome people.” No, they’re mangled, decaying corpses. “Safe boxes”? That’s what they’re both in now: boxes.
Perusing all the reader comments, I found exactly two that mentioned Islam critically. Here’s one: “Tajikistan is 96.7% Islamic. It is a dangerous place for American tourists….This is not Islamophobia. It is common sense.” Here’s the other: “As a Western woman I have no desire to visit a majority Muslim country because of the religious and cultural bias regarding their treatment of women.” Both of these comments attracted outraged replies. (“Many parts of the US are not so kind to women either, particularly those states that have managed to close just about all their Planned Parenthood clinics.”) Several readers railed against “religion” generally, as if terrorism by Quakers and Episcopalians were a worldwide problem.
Indeed, this being the New York Times, moral equivalency was rampant (“Yes, they [the ISIS murderers]were brutal….But what about our treatment of prisoners in Guantamino Bay?”), as was a readiness to blame Islamic terrorism on America (“There are consequences to our nation’s decision to murder Muslim civilians by the hundreds of thousands”) or, specifically, on Donald Trump. One reader comment, a “Times Pick,” read, in part, as follows: “A great story and an admirable couple. But those who condemn their killers as evil probably fail to recognize that ISIS fighters see themselves as being on the side of good. For them, these young Americans were an embodiment of the Great Satan….Instead of bandying around moral absolutes, perhaps we should recognize that good and evil are relative categories, dependent on your culture and your values.”
Gratifyingly, there were some voices of sanity. The words “naive” and “foolhardy” appeared several times. “Mr. Austin’s understanding of people was not beautiful,” maintained one savvy reader. “It was fanciful.” Another saw the couple as examples of “hipster millennials who think the world is their playground.” This was wise: “Liberals are always so naive about human nature[;] conservatives…are realistic about it.” Austin’s painfully puerile paeans to the goodness of humanity reminded one reader, as they did me, of a sentence Anne Frank wrote not long before the Gestapo came to ship her off to Auschwitz: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
Austin was willing to wager not only his own life but that of Geoghegan, a woman he purportedly loved, on the belief that people are all good – or, at least, that bad people are so rare as to be not worth worrying about. He apparently prepared for their trip by studying maps; he appears not to have bothered to examine any of the comprehensive human-rights reports that are issued annually by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. State Department about every one of the countries along their route (except, perhaps, Monaco).
Hundreds of Times readers, as we’ve seen, celebrated him as an inspiring idealist. One wonders what Geoghegan’s parents feel about him now. He comes off, between the lines, as something of a Svengali, persuading Geoghegan, as her friend Amanda Kerrigan feared, to take risks she would otherwise have avoided.
One can only be glad that they didn’t have children: if taken along on the journey, they would likely have shared their parents’ horrific end; if left back home, they would be orphans now.
Times readers called the couple heroes. No, the heroes are not these poor fools who stumbled into an ISIS-controlled area; the heroes are the soldiers from the U.S. and elsewhere – most of them a decade or so younger, and centuries savvier, than Austin and Geoghegan – who, while the two 29-year-olds were on a year-long cycling holiday, were risking their lives to beat back ISIS. What, then, is the moral of this couple’s story? In the last analysis, it’s a story about two young people who, like many other privileged members of their generation of Americans, went to a supposedly top-notch university only to come away poorly educated but heavily propagandized – imbued with a fashionable postmodern contempt for Western civilization and a readiness to idealize and sentimentalize “the other” (especially when the latter is decidedly uncivilized). This, ultimately, was their tragedy: taking for granted American freedom, prosperity, and security, they dismissed these extraordinary blessings as boring, banal, and (in Austin’s word) “beige,” and set off, with the starry-eyed and suicidal naivete of children who never entirely grew up, on a child’s fairy-tale adventure into the most perilous parts of the planet. Far from being inspirational, theirs is a profoundly cautionary – and distinctly timely – tale that every American, parents especially, should take to heart.