How Riding a Harley Across the USA Became a Journey of Self-Acceptance

Updated 10/04/19
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Actress Bojana Novakovic holding a black dog at the Grand Canyon.
Valentina Novakovic

I've dreamed of riding across America on a motorbike ever since I was 12 years old. It's an odd dream for a preteen, perhaps. But in having been born in Serbia and then growing up in Australia, a desire to travel and explore has always run through my veins.

In 2017, at age 35, I finally did it. For 30 days in the blistering heat of July, I took a 4,600-mile trip across America on my motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson I named Jolene, after the Dolly Parton song. My sister, Valentina, came along, driving all my belongings and my dog, Mowgli, in a big, beautiful Dodge Ram 1500 truck. We set off from California and zigzagged up and down the country, covering 18 states. We made it all the way to New York City, where I was to begin work on a new job, the CBS show, Instinct.

Whenever people hear about my journey, they ask, "What made you want to do it?" Here's what I tell them:

A road in the Western USA picturing a motorcycle on the left and a truck to the right, with a woman waving her hands out the window.
Bojana Novakovic
"...the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars..." — Jack Kerouac, On the Road

When I was 12 years old, I read this, way before hipsters reappropriated Kerouac's sentiments with simulated, social-media orchestrations of beatnik culture. On the Road shaped my life: I hitchhiked for the first time when I was 14. My grades were good (I was valedictorian), so my parents couldn't complain.

Later, I lived a bit of a double life, but I got sober when I was 24 and started straightening out. I talked slower, ate better, and started reading bestsellers, but my restlessness never died. The urge to travel—to keep moving, keep exploring—didn't go away. Then, as if he somehow knew my travel bug needed to be reawakened, a boyfriend handed me a copy of Charles Bukowski's book of poetry, Love Is a Dog From Hell.

The Book That Sparked The Journey

Bukowski is one of my favorite writers because he inspires me to embrace the mess inside myself, which isn't an easy thing to do as a recovering perfectionist. So even though I didn't think it was necessarily "sane" for me to travel 4,600 miles cross-country one month before starting a major job in New York City, Bukowski's writing occupied my life, and "sane" took on new meaning. I realized I finally had to get on my bike and ride across America, just as I had dreamed since I was 12.

I like riding so I can be alone; I don't ride with groups and will seldom ride with a friend. But this experience was even more solitary than I expected. I was alone six to seven hours a day, for 30 days straight.

Arizona's Red Rock State Park.
Bojana Novakovic

Things That Occupied My Thoughts

Overall, my mind was very busy. I sang. I laughed. I screamed with glee, rage, and fear. I cried like a baby and had imaginary conversations, particularly with my then-boyfriend and God. I also spoke with parts of myself I didn't know I wanted to talk to. But more on that later.

The biggest surprise? Most of my thoughts were practical—even banal. (What do I feed Mowgli? Should I have Diet Coke or coffee today? Remember to call mom.)

Bleak thoughts like, "What if my bike slips out from under me, and my sister watches as my head comes off my body, and then has to tell our mother about it? " also crossed my mind, but it was better to focus on being present than to contemplate the realities of life and death. (While traveling on two wheels, at 70 miles per hour, in crazy wind, I needed a more solid mindset.)

Big-picture questions like, "Why am I doing this," and, "What is life about?" didn't come until later. It's only in the moments when I sit back to reflect on the journey that I can truly comprehend the life lessons my road trip taught me.

I Believed Fake Storylines

Although I consider myself a badass, I'm not immune to panic attacks and hysterics. While riding, I often created bogus storylines about myself, stemming from my own insecurities. Those thoughts were only further extenuated by the fact that I rode for roughly seven hours a day without human (or smartphone) interaction, which would likely have helped to curb my self-doubt. Lesson learned: When faced with time alone, I can freak out—a lot—for no apparent reason.

The Winds Were Fierce

To help prevent my internal freakouts, I focused on actual real-life issues: Namely, the wind. When you're on the road, dangerous winds are a constant and it's impossible to get across the U.S. if you don't ride through it. At times, it wasn't that bad. But other times, it blew fast and furious, assaulting me from all directions, reminding me that Mother Nature was in charge.

In those moments, the only way to pass through the gusts unscathed was to lean the bike toward them. Leaning into the wind is a fundamental motorcycle-riding skill, but it also has fabulous metaphoric connotations. Whenever I thought my balance was just right, the wind would blow the other way and remind me of my complacency; I was forced to lean my bike in the opposite direction. Lesson learned: Lean into the obstacle. Lean into the fear. Lean into the wind.

The Physical Stuff Was Easier

If I knew how physically grueling it was going to be, I wouldn't have believed I was capable of making the journey. I started out during the peak of a California heatwave and rode for five days in 100ºF to 120ºF temperatures. Some mornings, I woke up so sore I could barely move and it took over an hour for me to pack the truck. On other mornings, I had sweat dripping from my elbows before we even set off. My eyes hurt from the sun. The motorcycle's engine would become so hot that it burned my inner thighs. But even though my best friend, boyfriend, parents, and friends didn't think I could do it, I learned that I can physically overcome much more than I ever thought possible. Lesson learned: Surprisingly, I have a great tolerance for heat. That, and an unbreakableness when it comes to challenging physical limitations.

A blond woman dressed in black leather and sunglasses holding a dog and leaning on a motorcycle in a field.
Valentina Novakovic

Cryin' and Ridin' a Harley

Apparently, my amazing tolerance for heated situations didn't extend to my 26-year-old sister. She had a bad case of entitlement. She complained about the heat even while spending most days in an air-conditioned truck. She wanted to party with drunken cowboys in the middle of nowhere while I could barely walk. And she hardly ever walked Mowgli unless I begged.

For all the zen my motorcycle riding was teaching me, my sister and I fought a lot. And I occasionally wanted to kill her. But the homicidal tendencies were eventually curbed by love, empathy, and an undying passion for glitter, which she brought and applied to our faces every day. (Supplementary lesson learned: Glitter makes everything better.)

There were, unsurprisingly, a lot of tears between us sisters. And I learned that shedding tears is okay, even when you're riding a Harley. In fact, I now believe that tears are best shed inside a full-face helmet when you're going 70 miles an hour. Why? Because only bugs, right before they splat onto your visor, can actually see them. Lesson learned: "Crying while riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle" might be a metaphor for the meaning of my life.

A wearing a motorcycle helmet, leather boots, and gloves taking a soak in a bubble bath.
Valentina Novakovic

A Portentous Encounter

We met a lot of people in our travels, but it was a priest in Bixby, Missouri, who left an indelible mark. Tall, white, with a cowboy hat and snakeskin boots, he reminded me of the enigmatic Cowboy in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. We met in a deli, where he'd heard me boasting about my travels. Unprompted, he asked whether when I got to New York, I would settle down. I asked him to clarify whether he meant "find a husband" or "talk slower." He leaned toward me, as if he held the secret to some ancient wisdom, and whispered, "My wish for you is that you settle down." I don't recall responding.

It was then, though, that I began questioning my entire life: "I'm 35; I don't have a husband, or a house, or kids; I smell like fuel and sweat; My hair is one huge dreadlock; I've become a vagabond on a Harley; What am I doing?" What I now know is that this kind of thinking no longer serves me. 

But somehow, this one man had awakened all my inner fears: I'm "too much." Too crazy. Too eccentric. Too ambitious. No one will ever love me. I will always be alone. How then, could this chance encounter with a stranger make me forget who I am? I'm a good, successful woman. I'm pursuing a lifelong dream with my own money. I'm a friend who's always there. I'm someone who shows up ready for work. I'm a loyal girlfriend. Why do I feel ashamed?

On The Road To Self-Acceptance

The fact is, at one time or another, everyone battles with a lack of self-esteem and a pervasive sense of shame. My shame was that I didn't have a stable home or a stable job, that I wasn't in a stable relationship, that I had too much to say, and that I might never be normal.

But who on Earth wants to be normal? And what is normal, anyway? And when did I decide that being "too much" was a bad thing? Didn't I want to, "burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars"? I'd always encouraged my friends to be "too much," so why couldn't I hold myself to the same standard of self-acceptance?

I'll Never Settle Down

After 30 days and 4,600 miles on the road, I can now say (with complete confidence) that I'll never settle down—and I'll never let myself be someone other than who I am. I'm a traveler, and I belong on the road, whether in deepest Mongolia, on a U.S. freeway, or navigating the metaphoric roads (and roadblocks) in my own head.

It's unnatural for me to be still. Rather than denying it or trying to fix it, I've decided to embrace it. I want to live the life God gave me, not a life determined by ego, self-doubt, or some random stranger's chauvinistic life view. People's unsolicited judgments (camouflaged as well-wishes) can only serve to blanket accomplished women like me in shame.

So, if I could ever see that priest again, I'd lean toward him and whisper, "My wish for you is to live your life, love your God, and keep your nose out of other people's business." Lessons learned: Trust yourself, trust your instincts, and never "settle down."

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