A Bike Ride Through the Garden of Good and Evil
In 2017, two Americans set off on a round-the-world bike trip. They believed people all over the world are inherently good at heart. They never made it home.
On a deserted road in the mountains of Southern Spain, things were getting desperate for 28-year-old Jay Austin and 29-year-old Lauren Geoghegan. The young American couple had been cycling all day though a January storm, and their socks were soaked from the icy rain. At one point, they pulled over to argue about directions. But after 15 minutes of bickering, they realized that their only option was to push on.
As they slogged up an incline, Austin’s teeth began to chatter and he lost feeling in his fingers. Geoghegan’s bicycle issued an ominous shriek.
“Your bike isn’t sounding so good,” he said.
“It isn’t riding so good, either,” she replied.
Several miles later, Geoghegan’s tire blew out. The couple stopped to consider their options. They were in a foreign country in the middle of a freezing rainstorm. There were no other people in sight, no cars on the road, not even a gas station where they could take shelter. Their hands were too numb to make repairs. And now, with the last hours of daylight slipping away, the rain was turning to snow.
Since the start of their journey in July of 2017, six months before, Austin and Geoghegan had gotten themselves out of all sorts of jams. They had traversed deserts in Namibia, outraced a charging elephant in Botswana, and survived a painful bike crash in Zambia. They’d been sick, hungry, lost, lonely, and exhausted. But they’d never found themselves in a predicament this dire. Standing by the side of the road, next to a broken bike in the driving snow, Austin and Geoghegan stared at each other. What do we do now?
Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a large white van ripped around the corner and screeched to a stop beside them. The driver, who turned out to be a Spaniard named Ricardo, loaded Austin and Geoghegan’s gear in the back of his vehicle, gave them some fresh towels, and took them to his house in a small town about ten miles down the road. He served them hot tea and cake, and put their clothes in his dryer. When the couple needed to leave so they could catch their bus, Ricardo insisted on driving them to the station, an hour away. And when they realized that they didn’t have enough cash for the fare, he loaned them 100 Euros, no questions asked.
It was a staggering display of kindness. But, for Austin and Geoghegan, it didn’t come as a complete surprise. During their trip, they’d experienced one act of generosity after another. Complete strangers welcomed them into their homes, cooked them hot meals, and gave them warm beds.
“Evil is a make-believe concept,” Austin wrote on his blog on April 5, 2018, day 273 of the trip. “By and large, humans are kind. Self-interested sometimes, myopic sometimes, but kind. Generous and wonderful and kind. No greater revelation has come from our journey than this.”
With a bare-bones budget and only the supplies they could carry on their bikes, Austin and Geoghegan would spend a total of 369 days on the road, traveling from South Africa to central Asia, cooking their own food and mostly sleeping in a tent.
The couple, however, would never make it back home. On July 29, 2018, Austin and Geoghegan were murdered by terrorists in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan.
Within a day, outlets around the world were reporting on the deaths of two idealistic millennial American bike tourists. Many commenters mourned their passing, but thousands more seemed to take an odd delight in the tragedy.
“Evil is a social construct, huh?” wrote one commenter on Jay’s blog, Simply Cycling, where he chronicled his and Geoghegan’s around-the-world trip, “then I guess these two morons died in a construction accident.” “Thanks for exiting this world and not reproducing your stupid fucking idiocy,” wrote another. Many people blamed Austin and Geoghegan for their own deaths. They were pilloried for being too trusting, too naive.
Debates erupted in the comments section of Austin’s blog. It seemed that the incongruence between the couple’s idealism and their brutal murder had raised questions about the fundamental nature of humanity.
“Be assured,” Christian evangelist Franklin Graham wrote in a Facebook post about the murders, “evil does exist in this world.”
Even on the day he finally quit his job in June of 2017, Austin recognized that, all in all, his life in Washington, D.C., was pretty good. He had a graduate degree from Georgetown University. His office, on the top floor of a ten-story building, offered handsome views of the Capitol rotunda. He had quality friends, and his job as a management analyst at the Department of Housing and Urban Development provided him with a good salary and allowed him to carry out what he considered to be important work. But despite all this, Austin felt that something was missing.
For the past seven years, he’d done the same things, in the same places, on the same days of the week. Showing up to morning meetings, filling out time sheets, staring into the computer.
“I’ve missed too many sunsets while my back was turned. Too many thunderstorms went unwatched, too many gentle breezes unnoticed,” he wrote on his blog. “There’s magic out there, in this great big beautiful world, and I’ve long since scooped up the last of the scraps to be found in my cubicle.”
Austin had already developed a reputation as a somewhat kooky colleague. Instead of a jacket and tie, he might arrive at the office in a V-neck T-shirt and flip-flops. He brewed kombucha at his cubicle. He assembled a cornhole set in the hallway. When he realized that his standing desk was too high, he began working from atop a mini trampoline, so his computer screen could be at eye level.
“Everyone really loved Jay,” said Jessi Axe, a coworker. “He was so outside of what most people think you should live your life like.”
Austin had a slim frame, closely cropped hair, and, according to one cyclist who met him during the journey, “the kind of smile that kids tend to lose when they grow up.” He relished political debates and had a voracious curiosity about the world. When he finished reading Born to Run, the 2009 bestseller about an indigenous tribe of elite marathoners who race essentially barefoot in Mexico, he decided to go shoeless himself.
“Jay, what are you doing?” a friend asked upon seeing him running a 5K race barefoot.
“This is how we’re meant to do it!” he replied.
In 2012, at the age of 23, Austin moved out of his apartment and plowed his savings into a 145-square-foot tiny house to reduce his carbon footprint and eliminate his monthly housing costs. With the extra cash, he set off on a series of adventures. He drove his motor scooter across the United States, backpacked through Europe, spent a month in India, and cycled all over Morocco.
Austin’s appetite for rugged exploration was rooted in his less-than-privileged childhood in Manalapan, New Jersey, an upper-middle-class town 50 miles south of New York City. While other parents commuted to jobs on Wall Street and lived in homes with outdoor swimming pools, Austin’s mother, Jea Santovasco, struggled to support her three children. After divorcing her husband, she found work as a secretary and moved the family into a double-wide trailer in a section of Manalapan that had been set aside for affordable housing. “We were like the poor family on the block,” Santovasco said.
Without the means for fancy vacations, Santovasco taught her children to appreciate the wonders all around them. She took them to beaches, art exhibits, and apple orchards—anywhere they could visit for free. On nice days, the family liked to climb to the top of a hill at a nearby park and spread out a picnic lunch. “You don’t get happiness from money,” Santovasco told her children. “You get it from being outdoors and appreciating the sunrises.”
As a boy, Austin dreamed of becoming an astronaut. “I wanted to see the whole world,” he explained on his blog. “I’d seen a photograph once of the view from a spaceship, and there it was: the blue marble, both enormous and absolutely minuscule at the very same time.”
After graduating from a selective magnet program at his public high school, he earned his degree from the University of Delaware in just two years. In 2009, he moved to Washington, D.C., to begin work on a master’s degree in government at Georgetown. And it was there that he met Lauren Geoghegan.
With long, dark hair and caring brown eyes, Geoghegan had taken a more conventional path to Washington. The oldest of three sisters, she grew up in a comfortable home in Glendale, California; her father was a psychiatrist and her mother was a psychotherapist. She excelled at Immaculate Heart, the private all-girls academy where she attended middle and high school. A deep thinker with an empathetic nature, she refused to take SAT prep classes because she considered them unfair to those who couldn’t afford them. Nevertheless, she did well enough to enroll at Georgetown. “Lauren was the one that everybody was drawn to,” said her former roommate Molly Scalise. “She made you feel like you were the only person in the room.”
After graduating in 2010, Geoghegan took a job in Georgetown’s admissions office and began socializing with a group of alums that included Austin. Austin wasn’t like most guys in Washington. He was intelligent, fun, and provocative—always kicking around some new theory. “He challenged her to think in new ways and about new things,” said Geoghegan’s mother, Elvira Munoz. Yet he was also compassionate and kind, and she felt respected by him. Over time, their friendship turned romantic. They had picnics in the park, went on hikes, and passed Sunday afternoons in the kitchen cooking soup.
Right from the start, cycling was central to their relationship. At first, their adventures were modest; an afternoon tour, for example, of the 50 streets in D.C. that were named after states. But soon their ambitions increased. In October 2016, they rode around the perimeter of Iceland. When they got back to Washington, they started dreaming up something bigger.
It was the vulnerability of being a traveler on a bicycle that made it, according to Austin, the best way to explore new places. “Cars create the expectation that disaster can be averted: just trust the car,” he wrote. “Bikes create the expectation that disaster is pretty much inevitable and should be embraced: just trust the universe and the people that inhabit it.”
Over the Christmas holiday of 2016, Austin and Geoghegan told family and friends about their plans to quit their jobs and ride around the world. They didn’t have a timeframe or a set itinerary; moving slowly and taking unexpected detours was the whole point. They figured they’d be on the road for anywhere from two to three years, as they plodded along a general trajectory: start at the southern tip of Africa, head north into Europe, cut east into central and southeast Asia, fly over to South America and then, finally, pedal back home to the United States. Since Austin and Geoghegan would be on a shoestring budget—just $23 a day—they planned to avoid restaurants and hotels.
The news surprised Geoghegan’s friends. “We all thought it was kind of crazy,” roommate Molly Scalise said. Geoghegan certainly had an adventurous streak; she loved exploring new cultures and had studied abroad in Spain and Lebanon. But she was more comfortable checking into a hotel than camping by the side of the road. And while not overly materialistic, she enjoyed good food and nice jewelry. “Jay was a minimalist,” Munoz said, “and Lauren loved the things that she had.”
Still, Geoghegan was ready for a change. After seven years in Georgetown’s admissions office, she was considering other career options, and was thinking about going to graduate school. This seemed like a natural time for a break. Although she wanted to see the world, Geoghegan also had strong feelings for Austin, and it was unclear if the romance would survive should he take the trip without her.
For their part, Austin’s friends were grateful that his more pragmatic, less impulsive partner would accompany him. “We felt a lot more comfortable with him on this trip with Lauren,” says Ashley Ozery, a childhood friend of Austin’s. “But Lauren would never have gone without Jay.”
Over the next six months, the couple researched the countries along their route and created spreadsheets to track their budget and equipment, in order to ensure that their load was as manageable as possible. “They were weighing everything from their toothbrushes and underwear to their water bottles, down to the ounces,” Scalise said. As the date of departure approached, they felt a nervous excitement. Geoghegan wondered whether or not her body could really hold up to thousands of miles of cycling. Austin had something else on his mind.
The trip, Austin believed, was much safer than most people assumed. (Indeed, 159 Americans were murdered abroad in 2017, while 653 were killed in Chicago alone that same year.) Still, he was clear-eyed about the danger. Sure, humans were generally kind. But the couple would be on the road for years, and a single regrettable encounter—with, say, a wild animal or “an angry individual,” he wrote—could be disastrous. He was happy to shoulder that risk for himself; in fact, he included detailed instructions for his memorial service in his will, in case he didn’t return. But it wouldn’t be just Austin’s well-being at stake.
“When you love someone, you want to keep them safe, yet when that person exists in a great big unpredictable world, it’s impossible to keep them totally safe,” he wrote in his blog on January 10, 2017, seven months before he and Geoghegan were set to depart. “I worry about something happening and not being able to stop it from happening, or not being able to do anything once it does happen, and that’s not just a worry; it’s a terrifying fear that outweighs all the preceding doubts and dread put together.”
Arriving in Cape Town, South Africa, the first week of July 2017, Austin and Geoghegan rode north into the red dust of the Kalahari Desert. For nearly 600 miles, they rattled over rugged terrain while the sun toasted their lips. Turning east into Botswana, they watched the desert give way to the African bush. They passed three-foot termite mounds and heard baboons crying in the distance. Each night, before setting up their tent, they scoured the thick brush to make sure there weren’t any snakes.
Their first three months on the road reinforced their optimistic views of the world. When they stopped at a gas station in Botswana to ask if they could camp on the property, the manager instead invited them to sleep at his house. He cooked them dinner and sent them off the following day with rolls of bread that his wife had baked. Later, when they went to settle their bill for an evening at a private campground, the owner refused to charge them. “We think what you guys are doing is crazy and awesome,” the man said, “and we won’t accept your money.”
“This is why we’re traveling,” Austin wrote. “Not to cycle fast but to cycle slow. Not to be given things but to be given hope, confirmation that the oft-maligned batch of humans that occupy this planet are largely good and kind.”
The confidence that Austin and Geoghegan had in others, however, would soon be tested. During a 31-hour ferry ride up Lake Malawi, Austin and Geoghegan locked their bikes on the ship’s front deck while they passed the journey on another deck. When they reached their destination, however, they found that their bicycle lights had been stolen. Austin was angry. He’d considered checking on the lights earlier, but “then I thought about how safe we’ve felt these past four months,” he wrote. “How often we’ve left our bikes unlocked outside of markets without trouble. How literally nothing has gone missing. I trusted they’d be just fine below deck until morning, and I went back to sleep.”
The theft made him think differently about the people he met along his journey. “From this point forward, we’re going to feel a little more nervous, wary,” he wrote. “It’s a little thing, these lights. Physically, financially, it’s trivial. But emotionally, it leaves me a little less trusting of the people around me, and I don’t like that feeling.”
On December 22, 2017, five months and two weeks into their journey, Austin and Geoghegan arrived at the northern tip of Africa and boarded a ferry for the short trip across the Strait of Gibraltar. For safety reasons, they’d taken a commercial flight from Tanzania to Morocco, skipping over several countries. After riding the ferry to the northern side of the strait, they got back on their bikes and began pedaling into Europe.
With darkness falling over the Spanish town of Algeciras, the couple struggled to find a place to stay. Police told them they weren’t allowed to camp; a woman at a church refused to let them spend the night on the property. Their options were dwindling. It was three days before Christmas and they were thousands of miles from family and friends.
Wandering through the streets, they came upon a park crowded with holiday revelers. Men and women were singing carols, laughing with friends, and sipping hot chocolate. For a moment, the couple felt like the characters in a holiday movie who don’t make it home for Christmas. Then, they heard a man’s voice. “Hey, do you need any help?”
The voice belonged to a man named Pablo who, after hearing their predicament, invited the couple to have hot chocolate and scones with his family in the park. Later, he bought them drinks and tapas at a nearby restaurant and arranged for them to stay at his brother’s house. The following day, when Pablo learned that they didn’t have holiday plans, he insisted they celebrate Christmas with his family. The next three nights were a blur of olive oil and walnuts and conversations that lasted until 5 in the morning. They called it their Christmas miracle.
After saying goodbye to Pablo, Austin and Geoghegan began their push across Europe. It was a backbreaking, months-long stretch; the blanching African sun had been replaced by a nasty winter. But here too, their burdens were eased by kind strangers. In the mountains of Southern Spain, when Lauren’s bike broke down during the snowstorm, Ricardo came to the rescue. While they were pedaling near Nice, a Frenchman brought them to his house, where they ate pizza, drank beer, and watched the Winter Olympics on TV. By late April 2018, they had made it to Muo, a bayside village in Montenegro, where they met Geoghegan’s parents for a 12-day vacation.
As they meandered through old towns and watched cruise ships float into port, Geoghegan’s mother had time to reconnect with her daughter. From the beginning, Munoz had told Geoghegan that if she ever felt she’d had enough, the family would pay for her plane ticket home. During their time together in Montenegro, Munoz encouraged her daughter to return to the United States.
By then, Austin and Geoghegan had been on the road for more than nine months. The couple had ridden thousands of miles through extreme conditions, going weeks without the comforts of a box-spring mattress or a shower. Geoghegan had experienced health issues: in Spain she got pink eye; in France, an ear blockage muffled her hearing and sent her to the hospital. There were relationship problems, too, ordinary conflicts exacerbated by the strain of traveling together for months on end. Money was the biggest source of discord. Austin kept a tight watch over their budget, while Geoghegan was more willing to splurge on occasional indulgences. “I remember them having a bit of a tiff about gummy bears,” said Teresie Schafranek Solum Hommersand, a Norwegian cyclist who traveled with the couple in Africa. “She really wanted some and Jay was like, ‘Well, is it really necessary?’”
Despite it all, Geoghegan told her mother she wasn’t ready for her journey to end. “Lauren was so proud of herself for being able to do what she did,” Munoz said.
Parting ways with her parents, however, was hard. And as the couple rode out of Montenegro and traveled east across the Balkans, Geoghegan became conflicted about the trip. She was homesick. The couple decided that once they got to Istanbul, they would reevaluate and determine whether or not it was the right time to turn back.
Arriving in Turkey’s chaotic and bustling capital in May of 2018, Austin and Geoghegan treated themselves to an Airbnb room and recharged for a week. In the ancient crossroads of East and West, they realized they weren’t ready to go home. “Once they made it beyond that check point,” Scalise said, “it was like, We’re in it.”
In June, Austin and Geoghegan rode into Osh, Kyrgyzstan, the starting point of the Pamir Highway, an austere but breathtaking 400-mile passage from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan along what was once the Silk Road. Adventure cyclists consider it among the world’s legendary itineraries. In order to ensure that they’d arrive there by mid-summer—when, according to Austin in his blog, “it’s most safe and enjoyable”—the couple took a flight from Istanbul to Kazakhstan, and then snaked their way south into Osh.
The couple arrived for the Pamir Highway’s busiest season for bike touring, and in a cafe in Osh, they bumped into another young couple that was preparing to bike the route: Sophie Boyle, from England, and Frenchman Nathan Beriot. They all clicked, and decided to tackle the mountains together.
Late one afternoon, following several days of riding, the cyclists found a grassy spot near a river to camp. While they put up their tents and began cooking, they noticed a car, a Russian-made Lada, moving slowly toward them. “There wasn’t even a road,” Boyle remembered. “It was just on grass and rocks, along the river.” Watching the vehicle bounce closer, the cyclists grew perplexed. Who were these people? What did they want? The car rolled to a stop, and its doors creaked open.
A Kyrgyz family emerged, offering sweet tea and homemade bread. They warned the travelers not to drink from the river and gave them clean water instead. A young girl took out a sitar, and everyone sat in a circle and listened to her play. They all started singing. “It was incredible,” Boyle said.
A couple days later, the group crossed into Tajikistan. During their time together in Montenegro, Munoz had told Geoghegan that she was worried about the couple’s plan to cycle through Tajikistan because of its proximity to Afghanistan. Geoghegan had gone online to look up the State Department’s travel advisory on the country, and found it at “Level 1: Exercise Local Precautions,” the safest level possible. “Mom,” she said, “it’s safer than New York City.”
At the time, the State Department’s assessment was consistent with the views of leading experts. Tajikistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim country with a repressive government, and some of its citizens have fought with ISIS in Syria. But unlike neighboring Afghanistan, up to to that point it had no history of terrorist attacks targeting Westerners, and it wasn’t considered a hotbed of extremism.
The Pamir Highway, also called the Roof of the World, climbs to elevations of more than 15,000 feet, making cycling a brutal challenge. “It is cold and windy and mountainous and, most of all, very, very high,” Austin wrote in an Instagram post on July 25, 2018. “Lauren’s been having a bit of difficulty.”
On one pass, Geoghegan struggled to catch her breath and had to be driven to lower elevation. “It was the stress of the altitude,” Boyle said. “She was having panic attacks.” Amid these concerns, Geoghegan again began to wonder if it was time to return home, at least for a while. Though no final decision had been made, Boyle said the couple was considering taking a break from the journey after they’d completed the highway. “Lauren was thinking of flying back to the states, seeing friends and family, earning a bit more money, and then maybe rejoining Jay,” she said.
But while she was still in the mountains, Geoghegan wasn’t giving up. After saying goodbye to Boyle and Beriot, who decided to take a more difficult route through the Pamirs, she and Austin began riding with Kim Postma and Rene Wokke, a Dutch couple in their late fifties who they’d bumped into several times on their route. On July 12, the group came to another punishing 14,000-foot pass. This time, Austin rode up first, parked his bike at the top, and then came back down to help Geoghegan, pushing her bike up the incline so she could walk. They all celebrated at the summit. “We were so happy,” Postma said. Together the cyclists looked out over the dramatic panorama of snowcapped mountains and brilliant green valleys.
From there, the four pushed toward Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, where they could enjoy a hot shower and a nice meal after their grueling ride through the mountains. Along the way, they met a Swiss couple that was riding the same route—Markus Hummel, 62, and Marie-Claire Diemand, 59—and the six cyclists decided to travel together. Over the next ten days, the couples became close friends and made plans to spend time in Dushanbe as a group. They’d rent an apartment together, go out for pizza, and enjoy nice bottles of wine. “It was all paradise in our heads,” Postma said.
As Postma would later tell The New York Times, early in the afternoon on July 29, the group stopped at a gas station to refill their water bottles. A man in his early thirties with black hair and olive skin walked up to Postma. Unlike most other Tajiks they’d met, he spoke perfect English, and he pointed out the Daewoo sedan he said he owned.
What did she think about the country? he asked Postma. What about the people? Postma found him pushy.
“Where are you from?” he asked Austin.
“The United States,” Austin said.
The cyclists left the gas station and began pedaling along a quiet stretch of pavement overlooking an amber hillside. It was around 3:30 P.M. A clear, calm afternoon. Austin and Geoghegan were leading. They were less than 70 miles from Dushanbe.
According to Kim Postma, the Daewoo plowed through the cyclists from behind. The force knocked Postma off her bike. When she looked up she saw the other cyclists on the ground in front of her. Several men jumped out of the vehicle, ran toward the already injured travelers, and began hacking at them with knives. “They are killing us!” Marie-Claire Diemand screamed. Then, as quickly as they appeared, the men were gone.
Austin was stabbed 18 times. He lay helpless on the road, slowly bleeding to death. Geoghegan, Wokke, and Hummel also died in the ambush.
On August 11, 2018, friends and family gathered in Washington, D.C., to say goodbye to Jay Austin. Following his instructions, there were no religious rituals. No suits and ties, and no black dresses. Instead the mourners converged in a park downtown, formed a circle, and shared memories about the man they’d lost. A friend read a passage from The Little Prince, Austin’s favorite novella. “In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night ... You—only you—will have stars that can laugh!”
That month, the world would learn that the man the group had encountered at the gas station outside Dushanbe was named Hussein Abdusamadov. He was an ISIS extremist who’d reportedly been ordered by Qori Nosir, a 45-year-old Tajik cleric and alleged recruiter for radical Islamic groups, to execute an attack in Tajikistan.
“When Muslims are being killed everywhere,” Abdusamadov told a reporter in a New York Times documentary series that aired in June, “we must try to kill nonbelievers wherever we find them.” Abdusamadov and the four other Tajik radicals he had recruited for the mission had spent weeks scouting for potential targets before stumbling into the Western travelers.
As details of the murders spread, Austin’s blog and Instagram were almost immediately overrun by hecklers and trolls. The couple were attacked for being naive, stupid, sanctimonious, millennial, and educated, among many other things. For a while, Austin’s mom, Jea Santovasco, waged war in the comments, thanking well-wishers and decrying the trolls, but it eventually became too much.
“It was jaw-dropping. It was heartbreaking. It was devastating,” Santovasco says. “Where is the humanity in these people?”
Despite the grim public response, Austin and Geoghegan’s loved ones—and the many others who came to know them during their trip—chose to find encouraging lessons in the couple’s story. “They made me more cognizant of how I am spending my time,” said Sarah Rempel, an American who hosted the couple in Zambia. “Am I doing something that is worth it? Not as in, is it productive, but is it leading me to a happier life right now, today?”
More than anything else, though, those close to Austin and Geoghegan were determined not to let the tragedy poison their views of the world. “I don’t want my lesson to be: the world is evil so don’t put yourself out there,” said Adrian Evans-Burke, Austin’s coworker. “I want my lesson to be: the world is also beautiful, and you can experience that beauty.”
Back when Austin and Geoghegan were cycling through Spain, after they were rescued by a stranger in the middle of a snowstorm, Austin wrote a post on his blog. “We live in a world where how you live is dictated largely by how you trust. If you do not trust others, if you believe human nature to be something dark and rotten, you close yourself off to a whole lot. If you do not open the shutters, all you get is darkness, no matter what’s outside. True, you may get darkness even if the shutters are open. Darkness or something worse: a rock hurled through your window, a tree branch kicked up by violent winds. But there’s no way to let the light in unless you open your shutters to the wider world.”