The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

Interview: On the Road (& other Adventures) with Jay Austin


My good friend Jay Austin has been driving his scooter across the North American continent for the last couple of months. His honest, contemplative blog keeps me updated on his adventures, but I wanted to ask him some of my own questions while he’s on the road. As always, he rose to the task marvelously. I’ve also included some of his gorgeous photographs from the trip.

Jay’s scooter and campsite in the Canadian Rockies

Q: Tell me about your latest adventure. What was the motivation behind the road trip? 

413208f6006a3a6def3a792ded208fb5A: Currently, I’m in the midst of something I’m calling the “Scooter Diaries,” a scooter-powered road trip that is taking me 15,000 miles around the country, from national park to city to UNESCO Heritage Site, to see everything this great landmass, including parts of Mexico and Canada, has to offer. The trip is partly about interacting with people and partly about interacting with nature, a pretty even mix of couchsurfing and camping, hosteling and hiking. I left the first week of May, and it’s a fairly wide loop, DC to New Orleans to Denver to San Diego to Vancouver to Toronto with many stops in between, so I’m assuming I won’t make it back to the east coast until July.

As for the motivation behind the trip, I suppose it’s a bit of a Don Quixote story: man reads too many adventure stories, man wants to go on his own. In Quixote’s case it was the knights and life of chivalry that did him in; for me, it was a little too much McCandless, Davies, Thoreau, Emerson, Steinbeck, and Kerouac. But more practically, I suppose I was motivated largely by a desire to see something I’d never seen before. The world is absolutely enormous, and I knew I didn’t want to die without seeing as much of it as I could.


Q: How did you plan this trip? How much space have you left unplanned?

A: I started with a map of every national park in the country and flagged the ones I most wanted to visit, then did the same for cities, World Heritage Sites, and the like. From there, I began tracing a line from point to point, a misshapen circle that would form the skeleton of my route. And then came the recommendations, the you-must-check-this-out from friends and acquaintances and blog followers, and I added just about every one of those to my map and updated the route from one to the next and more or less had an itinerary from that, from those hundred or so destinations.

That said, I promised to never be a slave to my itinerary, and thus left myself the room to abandon destinations, or add new ones, and in my travels, I’ve certainly done both. On a more micro level, I did plan certain activities before leaving, a particular hike within Zion National Park or museum once arriving to Seattle, for instance, but largely I left what I’d be doing at each site unplanned as well, a blank canvas for my whim or the recommendation of a local or fellow traveler to color in.

Q: What’s been the most exciting thing about seeing these new places? What’s the hardest thing about being constantly on the move?

A: Seeing new places has been wonderful, but to be honest, the most exciting thing about this trip hasn’t been the scenery or the terrain, amazing as it is, but what life on the road, life as a vagabond, does to one’s psyche. The world unlocks itself in an indescribable way when one frees themselves from the humdrum responsibilities and trivial worries of societal life, and it’s simply exhilarating to feel so free, to move from one place to the next whenever one wants, to be at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on Monday and amongst the otherworldly Joshua trees on Wednesday and wading in the Pacific Ocean on Friday, to sleep Tuesday night in a tent under a sky of a billion stars and Thursday night on the top of a Las Vegas parking garage and Saturday night on the couch of a friend you’ve just met.

That said, the gift is the curse. Vagabonding is bittersweet; yes, it’s an invaluable experience, but the body and the mind do yearn for some degree of consistency, of constancy, and at moments, rare ones but moments nonetheless, always being on the move, always carrying my life on my back and braving the elements and never knowing where I’ll be sleeping that night, it all wears on the soul. I do long for just a few days of being back home, getting brunch with friends, reading on my porch and cooking, definitely cooking, and just a little bit of relaxation against it all, for while exhilaration is great, exhilaration is nearly a polar opposite of relaxation.


Q: Italo Calvino describes the way that we see new cities through the lens of the city that we’re most familiar with. Do you feel that way as you encounter these new cities?

A: That’s an interesting perspective, and is likely true for many, but I actually haven’t found that to apply in my case. Though I’ve only been gone from DC for about 45 days as of this writing, it seems like a lifetime ago, and thus I’ve almost forgotten what my home city feels like. I suppose I might make a comparison every now and again, “oh hey, this neighborhood is a lot like that neighborhood back home,” but I don’t believe I’m making active comparisons or looking through a Washington lens when encountering a new place. If anything, perhaps, I compare each city to the one before it: Los Angeles to San Diego, Seattle to Portland, Austin to Houston.

Q: What’s your favorite experience that you’ve had so far?

A: It may be cliche to talk of transcendentalism at Joshua Tree, but I had an experience there that I can only describe in those terms, a sudden lifting of the mind and spirit in a way I’d never felt before, an enlightenment of sorts, and that was very special. I can’t say whether this experience was a product of Joshua Tree or simply three weeks on the road, but either way it was the single best experience I’ve had. On a less metaphysical level, my favorite place for reasons of general culture was probably Oregon, and my favorite place for reasons of terrain and beauty was likely canyon country, Moab and Arches National Park and, really, just about all of Utah.

Q: One of your other fascinating projects was building your own tiny home in Washington DC. What made you decided to undertake that task? What did you learn along the way?

A: I’m an ultra-minimalist at heart, and something of a non-conventionalist, so I’ve always, from a very young age, imagined myself living in some place other than a typical American house. I also spent time growing up in foster care, which I think really altered my conceptualization of home, and so what was most important to me as I thought about “settling down,” and I use that term loosely, wasn’t size or elegance, but love and care. I wanted to build a home myself, and I wanted it to be simple and affordable, and also sustainable, off-grid and zero-waste and in overall harmony with the world around it, and together, those motivations drove me toward a tiny house.


Jay’s (nearly complete) tiny home in Washington DC

Building and designing and living in a tiny house has been one of the most wonderful experiences in my life. It has been terribly hard work, but I’ve learned so much from it; perhaps most importantly, I’ve become much better at knowing what I don’t know. It has been humbling to make mistakes and fumble and think I have something figured out only to realize that I overlooked some crucial detail of design or construction, so it’s been great to get a better grasp on my limits. More technically, I’ve been privileged to learn from my contractor and friend Tony, who has helped me build every step of the way, and taught me everything I know about, well, how to build a house.

Q: What are your plans for the future of the house?

A: As for the future of my tiny house, I’ll borrow from Tolstoy here: “I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them […]” I suppose I should pair that with some Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life […]”

These two quotes, I think together, accurately sum up my future plans: on the one hand, as a homeowner freed from the burden of mortgages or indentured servitude, I hope to simply live life as it was meant to be lived: through kindness and relaxation and enjoyment. But I also, in sucking out all the frivolities of life and enclosing myself in a 140-square-foot shack, aim to report out on just what kind of life that is, if it is a life, indeed, worth living. I’ve found that, thus far, it most certainly is, allowing me to do things like my current cross-country adventure, but I suppose only time will tell here, and so I’ll continue to write, to blog, to steer people, if they should be steered, toward a life of adventure and simplicity.

JAY_8048   IMG_20130511_091918
The interior of the house during and after the build

Q: I’ve always been intrigued by the way you value both cities and natural beauty. How can we properly balance those things in our lives and in our cities?

A: Many view cities and nature as mutually exclusive, and I find them to be anything but. When cities are done wrong, Houston and New York and Las Vegas (no offense to residents of those three; it’s not you, it’s your urban planner), they are unbearable concrete jungles that drive up rates of mental illness and suicide and crime and more, for, and here I’ll borrow from Tolstoy yet again, “One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken.” But cities don’t have to be that way, and some of our earliest settlements, especially those of the Native Americans, got that right. Cities should be carved out of nature, not dumped from a cement truck atop it. Portland’s Forest Park, Washington’s Rock Creek, Boulder’s Flat Irons, even Los Angeles’s Hollywood Hills: it’s important to have a place, in each and every city, where one can get lost in nature, seek asylum from the lights and the carhorns, with no more than a fifteen-minute bike ride. That enclave of untouched beauty, coupled with a sprinkling of public parks and a smattering of flora throughout, can achieve a balance that brings with it the best of both worlds: the convenience or urbana with the easy escape of the wilderness.


Q: How do you see yourself contributing to the improvement of cities through your job at the Housing and Urban Development Agency (HUD) and the volunteering that you do outside of work?

A: My aim at HUD is to help reestablish the US Department of Housing & Urban Development as the think tank and policy shop for America’s cities. HUD struggles with many things, big ideas and hearty visions just one of them, and through my work there on ideation and public engagement, I hope to help HUD become a trusted resource from its constituents, its cities, allowing us to make cities smarter and greener and more equal on a national level.

Outside of work, I try to do my part in smaller but more direct ways, volunteering, for example, with the Miriam’s Kitchen soup kitchen and wrap-around service center, and the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, a weekly commitment to spend time with youth in DC’s emergency homeless shelters, two great programs that allow me to interact for whom HUD’s work is really most important. 

Q: What new adventures are you contemplating?

A: I began my part-time retirement last month, leaving me with three months each year to focus entirely on adventures, so my mind has been buzzing with ideas as of late. Many of those are travel: vipassana in India, backpacking through Europe, biking through Southeast Asia, trekking from France through Spain via el Camino de Santiago, and I imagine I’ll try to pick one of those off each year for the next several. But outside of travel, I’m looking to devote more time to random acts of kindness, spend more time reading and volunteering, and perhaps commence some guerilla urbanism this next year.

Thanks to Jay for taking time out of his travels to answer my questions. If you’re interested in his adventures, head over to his blog or get in touch with him via email: jayaustn [at] gmail [dot] com or twitter: @jayaustn
All photos taken by Jay Austin.

5 thoughts on “Interview: On the Road (& other Adventures) with Jay Austin

  1. i’m wondering if there’s an implicit message/undercurrent to the post: you need to have money to afford interacting with nature. you mention jay’s partial retirement. if someone had to work as many hours as they could a week just to put food on the table, i imagine such a road trip would be out of the picture. and i wonder what it would be like to take a trip like that without a home to go back to or without health insurance. i guess my point also ties into something i’ve been noticing in cities and your blog: the more you dislike a city, the more ugly and concrete-ridden it is, the more livable it might actually be. like portland is super pretty and stuff but everything is so expensive. the homeless look like trustafarians. houston has a lot of strip malls but so many immigrants make it their home because these things make it affordable


    • On a more serious point, Diana, I think you raise some great topics. I won’t speak much to your latter comment, but as to the cost of nature, I’d posit that it’s actually one of the most affordable ways to get by. On my travels, I survived on little more than a fuel-efficient scooter from years past and a tent, occasionally sleeping illegally in public parks or camping in the mountains, and all along the west coast, picking fallen oranges and other fruits from unfenced groves. Through this, I found that one can make it by on next to nothing; I definitely spent less on this trip than I would just passing these two months in DC.

      That said, I don’t want to pretend that I was living the life of a true vagabond. I’ve been fortunate to have a job and a paycheck and a savings account back home that allowed me to, well, put gas in my scooter, and to spend a night in a Super 8 or city hostel if the weather would make camping too uncomfortable. At the same time, I committed to this trip knowing it might cost me a job, and being okay with that, for back home, I’ve done virtually everything I can to reduce my cost of living. By scraping together enough to build a self-sustaining 140-square-foot home with a nearby garden, my hope is that I can continue adventures like this in the future with hardly any hardship, not by making so much money that I don’t have to worry about bills, but by getting rid of the unnecessary bills (cable, gym membership, car insurance) altogether.

      I should also add that, while traveling, I met a good number of true vagabonds, the WH Davies type, and also countless couples and families who made it into nature on the backs of boxcars or huddled in campers, respectively. These folks were largely poor by our standards, but they had the great outdoors and a tough attitude, and didn’t seem to yearn for much else.

      I think this is a really important topic, and so I’m glad you raised it, and happy to continue this conversation further, either here or by email. 🙂


  2. Thanks for bringing this up. I wouldn’t say that attractive cities are categorically unaffordable. I think Milwaukee is a great example of a city that is attractive all around, yet varied in terms of income. My favorite neighborhood there (Riverwest) is much lower income than the quirky food and bar area downtown, but they both have their appeals. However, I do agree that some cities that are praised by the urbanist community tend not to be complete cities but rather certain mixed-use, upscale neighborhoods within cities. In this regard, it is, I agree, absolutely unproductive and ignorant to put these areas on a pedestal while ignoring the costs of such an environment. It’s also a matter of where governments (and residents) choose to spend their money, As Jay said, the planning of cities can sometimes ignore the real desires of the people there.
    It also comes down to taste.. I’m biased toward cities with lakes, for instance, because I grew up in one. On the other hand, unlike some of my friends who crave their green space more than anything, I’m fine with the idea of a concrete-ridden city like New York, where I’m about to move.
    As for Jay, I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to you about his life philosophies further, but his belief in simplicity leads him to spend very little of his income on anything material (plus he lives in a house with no electric bills or rent). He prioritizes these adventures, but they’re not going to be in the cards for everyone (especially people who are older or who have kids).
    Over all though, your comment makes me realize that I have been reaching for the same common examples of stereotypically sprawling cities and ideal cities, mostly because those are places that I’ve been to recently. In future, I’ll do my best to cite more creative examples (and to not beat up on Houston so much! I’m sorry about that Diana, I didn’t quite realize how much I was doing that.) The topic of class differentials within cities is extremely important, perhaps the most important thing, and I’ll be writing a lot more about it here.


  3. This guy sounds like a jackass.


  4. Pingback: Around the Block – Links from the Week | The City Space

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