How Riding a Motorcycle Across the U.S. Became a Journey of Self-Acceptance

Updated 03/29/18

Bojana Novakovic is a Serbian-Australian actress who is currently starring in the new CBS series Instinct.

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 being born in Serbia and then growing up in Australia, I've had a desire to travel and explore that has always run through my veins. Last year, at 35, I finally did it. For 30 days in the blistering heat of July, I took a 4600-mile trip across America on my motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson that goes by the name of Jolene (after the Dolly Parton song). My sister, Valentina, came along, driving all my belongings and my dog, Mowgli, in a beautiful big Dodge Ram 1500 truck.

We set off from California, zigzagged up and down the country, and covered 18 states all the way to New York City, where I was moving to begin work on my new job, the CBS show Instinct.

When people find out about my journey, the first question they tend to ask is, "What made you want to do that?" Here's what I tell them:

 

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."

I read this when I was 12 years old, before hipsters reappropriated Kerouac with manicured orchestrations of beatnik life on social media. On the Road shaped my life. I hitchhiked for the first time when I was 14 and made sure my grades were good (I was valedictorian) so my parents couldn't complain.

I lived a bit of a double life for many years, so I got sober when I was 24 and started straightening out. I talked slower, ate better, and started reading best sellers, but my restlessness never died. The urge to travel, to keep moving, to keep exploring didn't go away. Then, as if he knew something was waiting to be reawakened, my boyfriend at the time gave me a copy of Bukowski's Love Is a Dog From Hell. Bukowski is one of my favorite writers—although also occasionally terrifying—because he inspires me to embrace the mess inside myself, which is not an easy thing to do for a recovering perfectionist.

So even though I didn't think it was "sane" for me to travel 4600 miles cross-country one month before starting a major job in New York City, Bukowski was back in my life, and "sane" had a new meaning. I had to get on my bike and ride across America like I had dreamed since I was 12.

I like riding in order to be alone. I don't ride with groups and will seldom ride with a friend. But this experience was even more introspective than I expected. I was alone six to seven hours a day, 30 days straight. So the next question I normally get doesn't surprise me: "What did you think about all that time on the road?"

Bojana Novakovic

On the whole, my mind was very busy. I sang, I laughed, I screamed with glee and rage and fear. I cried like a baby and had conversations with people who will never actually hear them (particularly my then-boyfriend and God). I also had conversations with parts of myself I didn't even know I wanted to talk to, but more on that later.

The biggest surprise for me, however, was how much of my thinking was practical, even banal. (What do I feed Mowgli? Should I have Diet Coke or coffee today? Remember to call your mother!) There is nothing ethereal about the mindset you need to be in in order to stay alive going 70 miles an hour on two wheels with crazy winds blowing at you in all directions. Thoughts like What if my bike slipped from under me and my sister had to watch my head come off my body and then tell my mother about it? also crossed my mind, but it was so much more useful to focus on the practical aspects of staying present than to contemplate the reality of how close life and death actually are.

So while my mind was a constant barrage of compulsive thoughts, those thoughts were generally practical.  How do I get to that destination before dark? Am I drinking enough water? How can I cut my sister's hair off in her sleep? The bigger-picture stuff of Why am I doing this, and what is life about anyway? didn't come until later. It's moments like now, when I sit down to reflect on the journey, that I can truly experience the brilliance of the bigger-picture mythical lessons the journey led me to discover.

Which brings me to the final question I am always asked: What lessons have I learned?

1. I have a very busy brain

Though seemingly badass, I am not exempt from panic attacks and hysterical heartache created by self-induced mental loopholes stemming from an inherent sense of insecurity, further extenuated by the circumstance of riding close to seven hours a day without external aids (such as podcasts, TVs, or humans) to curb my self-doubts.

Lesson 1: When faced with time alone, I can freak out a lot for no reason.

2: Lean into the wind

A tactic that always helped curb the internalized freak-outs was focusing on an actual real-life problem—like the wind. The wind is a constant on the road. You can't get across the country if you don't reconcile yourself to the fact that you have to ride through it. Sometimes it's not too bad, but sometimes it is fast, furious, and charges at you in all directions, jolting you into the reality that you are not in charge. In moments like this, the only way to make it through is to lean your bike into it.

It's a practical skill, scientific in nature, and carries fabulous metaphoric connotations. Particularly when you think you've got the balance just right and then the wind blows the other way, a reminder not to be complacent and to lean the bike in the opposite direction.

Lesson 2: Lean into the obstacle. Lean into the fear. Lean into the wind.

3. Physical challenges were made to be conquered

If I knew how physically grueling this trip would be, I don't think I would have believed that I was capable of doing it. We started at the peak of California's heat wave and rode through it for five days in temperatures ranging from 100º to 120º. Sometimes I'd wake up so sore I could barely move. It would take over an hour to pack the truck. Some mornings, I'd have sweat dripping from my elbows before we even set off. My eyes hurt from the sun. My inner thighs had engine burn. And 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 thought I was capable of.

Lesson 3: I have a great tolerance for heat and an unbreakable stubbornness when it comes to challenging my physical limitations.

Valentina Novakovic

4. Tears and Harleys go well together

The above tolerance to heat does not extend to my 26-year-old sister and her sense of entitlement. She complained about the heat while she spent most of the day in an air-conditioned truck. She wanted to party with drunken cowboys in the middle of nowhere, while I could barely walk. She hardly ever walked my dog unless I begged her to. And for all the metaphoric zen that motorcycle riding was teaching me, the reality was we fought a lot, and I occasionally wanted to kill her. (Supplementary lesson A: Humans are not motorcycles.

Metaphors are nice to talk about, hard to implement.) Of course, those homicidal tendencies were curbed by love, empathy, and an undying passion for glitter, which she had brought with her and applied to our faces daily. (Supplementary lesson B: Glitter solves everything, although it doesn't look that great inside a helmet.)

The other thing that solves problems between sisters is tears, of which there were a lot of. Tears are okay, even when you're riding a Harley. In fact, tears are best when shed inside a full-face helmet going 70 miles an hour. Only the bugs, as they shoot toward their death on your visor, can actually see them.

Lesson 4: Crying while riding a Harley-Davidson is the actual meaning of life.

 

Valentina Novakovic

5. Sometimes our best teachers are people we don't agree with

We met a lot of people throughout our travels, but it was a priest in Bixby, Missouri, who left a huge impression on me. Tall, white, with a cowboy hat and snakeskin boots, he was like the Cowboy in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. We met in a deli, where he'd heard me boasting about my travels. He approached me and, unprompted, asked whether when I got to New York, I would settle down. I paused and asked him to clarify whether he meant "find a husband" or "talk slower." He leaned into 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. I was so choked at his audacity and even more confused by my own unwarranted surge of anxiety. All of a sudden, I started to question my entire life: I'm 35; I don't have a husband or a house or four kids and a goat. I haven't showered for days; I smell like fuel and heat; my hair is one big dread; I've become a vagabond chick on a Harley. What have I been doing with my life?!?! Somehow this insignificant man, with a set of beliefs equally insignificant to me, triggered a fear that exists at my core: that I am "too much"—too crazy, too eccentric, too ambitious, that no one will ever love me and I will always be alone.

To say that this is crazy only perpetuates my own sense of negative self-value, so I want to pause and recount some facts. I am a good and successful woman! I'm living out a lifelong dream, funding it with my own money, at the same time paying off my parents' mortgage and supporting my sister. I'm a friend who's always available, a worker who shows up ready, and even though I wanna drop dead at the end of every day, I'm a loyal girlfriend who calls my boyfriend nightly because, although he is very tough and would never admit it, he is freaking out about my safety.

It amazes me how an unsolicited encounter with a complete stranger can trigger me to forget all that I am and focus only on my fears. While I know that my reaction to this man has foundations not just in my own upbringing but in the historical shaming of women over time, I also know that this kind of thinking no longer serves me.  

If there is one lesson I want to take away from this experience, it's to trust my instincts, and that means trusting myself. I am constantly battling with my own lack of self-esteem and sense of shame. Shame that I don't have a stable home, a stable job, that I'm not in a stable relationship, that I have 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? I set off on this trip because I wanted to "burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars." I encourage my friends to be "too much," so why can't I give myself the same standard of self-acceptance?

On reflection, after 30 days and 4600 miles on the road, I can say with complete confidence that no, I will never settle down. I'll never let myself pretend to be someone other than who I am. I'm a traveler. I belong on the road, be it on dirt in Mongolia, freeways in the USA, or the metaphoric roads (and road blocks) inside my own head. It's unnatural for me to be still. Rather than denying that, or trying to fix it, I've decided to embrace it. If we want to put it in religious terms, I want to live the life God gave me, not the life my ego, self-doubt, or some stranger thinks I should.

As Nietzsche said, "Modesty … is the knowledge that we are not our own creations."

If I could see that priest again, I would lean into 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." Judgments like his, canvased as well-wishes, are what keep women like me ashamed of our (quite incredible) life choices. I wonder what would've happened if a priest from Bixby met Jesus, leaned close to him, and whispered: "My wish for you, you overzealous, super-creative, all-around badass, spiritual-seeking rebel, is that you settle down." I'm not comparing myself to Jesus, who I admire greatly!

I'm just saying, you don't find God or make a dent in history by settling down, and that's why I don't think I ever will. Settle down, that is. Finding God would be amazing, and making dents sounds like a lovely pastime. But settling down is not an option.

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