Writing The Distance
Originally an act of defiance, I began riding bikes religiously in fall 2012, when I enrolled in courses at Mission, Pierce, and Valley College so I wouldn’t have to commute by bus. I was (and still am) undocumented, and President Obama’s executive order, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), had just been signed earlier in the year. While my parents encouraged me to apply right away, my 19-year-old-self was hesitant to submit any records of my life to the federal government—even if it meant I could work legally in this country, even if it meant I could finally have some official form of identification beyond a school ID. It also wasn’t until 2013 that California introduced AB 60, which opened a path for undocumented immigrants to obtain a state-sanctioned driver’s license. In retrospect, maybe desperation, not defiance, convinced me that riding a bike would be the best way to get from point A to point B.
Beyond serving as an alternative to taking the bus, biking gave me something I never had growing up as an undocumented person: freedom. I was no longer subject to bus schedules or a lack of available seats. I didn’t have to worry about gangster wannabes hitting me up, asking me “Where you from?”—which is tricky to answer when you truly don’t know where home is. But this newfound freedom allowed me, a mile at a time, to develop an affinity for the place where I grew up, which I seldom explored as a teenager.
During my community college days, I learned to navigate each cardinal direction and became intimately familiar with the interconnected roads of the San Fernando Valley. Every week I averaged a hundred miles, learning the names of streets that led to different counties and becoming aware of parks and neighborhoods I never knew existed. With each ride, I felt my sense of home expand. Before I knew it, in addition to riding during the week, I began riding on weekends, leaving as early as six in the morning when roads like Sepulveda Boulevard are empty and changing lanes becomes a slow dance that exists only in the absence of traffic.
Early in the morning, the world is silent. You might hear birds and their songs. Train horns somewhere off in the distance. But when it’s just you, your bike, and the road beneath your tires, often the only audible sounds come from your chain perpetually spinning and the rhythmic rise and fall of your breath. At this time of day, particularly on a Sunday when I would ride southbound on Lankershim Boulevard towards Hollywood, I often found groups of people huddled outside their church before mass, cups of coffee clasped in their hands as if praying. While I am not religious, I could sense the reverence of each churchgoer, youth and old age alike, sharing time in ways they likely never would otherwise. These scenes slowly made me regard my bike as a rolling cathedral, where I could reflect on my mortality, my place in the world, the trajectory of my life in a country where I am not a citizen.
As the years rolled by, biking remained a part of my life, but inevitably, I lost the ability to ride daily. Once I arrived at California State University, Northridge, where I would earn my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in creative writing, I became involved in many life-changing opportunities. Had I not approached this era of my life with the level of maniacal urgency that I did, I never would have studied abroad in Mexico via advanced parole in winter 2015 and 2016, the second time with my cousin, now a green card holder. I never would have presented at CSUN’s inaugural TEDx Talk or the 2016 Imagen Foundation Awards Ceremony, where I spoke on both occasions about my experiences as an undocumented student in higher education.
But I felt unsettled allowing my joy of biking to occupy the periphery of my life. My Giant Defy road bike, which I seldom used after transferring to CSUN, was gathering dust in my parent’s garage, constantly the source of complaints from my mother, father, and sister. It wasn’t until the pandemic, when the fabric of our everyday lives was challenged in previously unimaginable ways, that I grabbed my dusty road bike from the garage, gave it a meticulous cleaning, and invested in everything I needed to get back into this activity I had picked up out of necessity. Unlike when I saw cycling as a way to avoid using public transportation, I prepared myself to embark on my future adventures as I would a sport.
But I felt unsettled allowing my joy of biking to occupy the periphery of my life.
In 2020 alone, I logged 1,344 miles on Strava, not accounting for the days when I only wanted to ride, without any record whatsoever, just my bike and I racing against the sunset. Now I kick myself about that because had I recorded that dozen or so rides, had I logged an additional one-hundred and twenty miles, I would have accumulated enough miles to realistically imagine what it takes to journey from San Fernando, California, United States, to Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico—all the way to where my story first began, to the place my parents have yet to revisit in nearly two decades.
During this year of global uncertainty, I also found myself reigniting my love for writing in a way I hadn’t felt since finishing my graduate studies. While I didn’t write after every ride, I completed 14 “Cycling Reflections,” essays focusing on some aspect or moment of my ride. On May 4, 2020, I wrote a reflection in which I researched the theory that the green parrots flying over the San Fernando Valley could be descendants of parrots illegally brought from Mexico to Busch Gardens in the mid-1970s. Later that summer, as the US Supreme Court deliberated the legality of DACA and the Trump administration’s ability to rescind the program, I rode past a tattered American flag that fluttered gently in the afternoon air—a reminder of the potential loss looming in my future.
We all tried to find the silver lining in our pandemic experience. Mine certainly included reconnecting with riding and writing, but my final ride in 2020, what I thought would become my first 100-mile ride, Sylmar to Santa Barbara, was four miles shy of my objective. Like the title of W. S. Merwin’s poem, a century ride remained “something I’ve not done.” While I was grateful for all that biking had brought to my life thus far (freedom, confidence, memories), I longed to complete this cycling milestone as a testament to the evolution of my relationship with the road. Then one foggy morning in June last year, when my girlfriend Jenna and I rode (I, of course, convinced her to get a road bike as well) east on the Ojai Valley Trail, we encountered a bike race that would remain in the back of my mind: the Ojai Valley Century (OVC).
Starting in Soule County Park, the OVC offers six routes, with distances ranging from 35 to 128 miles. I was eyeing the Full Century, which heads northwest on Highway 150, passing through Carpinteria, Montecito, and Summerland, before heading south along the coast to Ventura, then east through the farmlands to Santa Paula, where riders reconnect with Highway 150 for a final climb back to Ojai. In 2020, I came hauntingly close to completing a century, so I should have felt confident and capable of completing the route’s 102-mile distance. Though what sets this ride mountains apart from any ride I have ever completed is the fact that I would have to climb 5,200 feet of elevation throughout—the equivalent of flying a mile up into the sky.
Having just turned 30 earlier this year, I questioned whether I was in adequate shape to push my body to new limits at this stage in my life. And while my rolling cathedral, my trusted companion for nearly a decade, had never failed me before, I feared that it wasn’t designed for a ride of this caliber. Voices of doubt populated every corner of my mind and nearly convinced me that I had no business participating in this race, but I knew there was only one way to find out how this story ends. So, with a little over a month to train, I registered for the OVC’s
Having just turned 30 earlier this year, I questioned whether I was in adequate shape to push my body to new limits at this stage in my life.
The OVC took place on June 3, 2023, and undoubtedly, it’s the most demanding physical feat I have ever set out to do. While I fared well for most of the ride, drafting behind groups with carbon fiber bikes and Olympian-level cardio, I struggled significantly on the final climb up Highway 150 back into Ojai. Truthfully, I overestimated my conditioning and my readiness to embark on this challenge. Before the big day, I completed a handful of rides, all 50 miles or more, but my legs were far from prepared for the slow, agonizing burn that characterized the final 15-mile push of the race.
Likely among the last riders to finish, one of the support-and-gear vehicles outfitted with bike racks pulled up on my left side. The gentleman in the passenger seat rolled down his window, extending a bottle of water in my direction, and asked, “Are you okay?” The sound of concern registered in his baritone voice. Without saying a word, I reassured the OVC representatives by forming devil horns with. my left hand. I’m not sure I convinced them of anything.
Until now, I had gone the entire day without listening to music. I promised myself I would be in the moment, mindful of every mile I would chart into my memory. As I neared my pain threshold, though, worried that my body would quit on me before my mind would, I decided to play an album, one whose songs I wouldn’t feel the need to skip, a habit I had formed from owning an old Toyota truck equipped with a fully functioning CD player. Without thinking twice, I reached for my phone, which I had affixed to my handlebar, and asked: “Siri, can you please play the album For Everyman by Jackson Browne?”
This album starts with the track “Take It Easy,” a tune that can quickly ease and uplift a tired soul, and for the next three miles or so I kept it looped on repeat, with what little energy I had left propelling me further up the road. By this time, my brown skin went from sunkissed to sunburned, my hamstrings felt like they were going to tear apart, my breathing was coarse and labored, and sweat kept stinging my eyes, forcing me to concentrate on the seemingly infinite solid white line beneath my tires.
When I removed the repeat function and allowed “Our Lady of the Well” to begin, the final watering station was in sight, and representatives of the race jumped with joy as they yelled out, “Just one more mile!” After stopping for a celebratory popsicle with Duffy, a rider who taught me a famous bike-related quote from Susan B. Anthony that I will never forget, I remembered that this final leg included a steep, windy descent back to Soule County Park, where our ride began. Knowing that the journey was almost complete, I clipped into my pedals, and made my way downhill.
I genuinely love the album For Everyman. Jenna first played it for me years before, so these songs carry many cherished memories. And while I have heard “Our Lady of the Well” countless times, as I descended back into Ojai, the afternoon breeze drying up the sweat permeating my body, it struck a heartstring. Biking, I realized, as I shifted my body left and right according to the turn ahead, will forever be my link to freedom and always serve as a reminder of how much the circumstances of my life have changed. Just as Jackson Browne sings in this song, “[I]t’s a long way that I have come.”
Publab Fellow 2019
Álvaro Castillo was born in Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico in 1993 and currently calls Westlake Village, California, home. A 2019 LARB/USC Publishing Workshop fellow, Álvaro earned his BA and MA in creative writing from California State University, Northridge.
As a writer, he draws from his undocumented experience in the United States and predominantlyconsiders himself an essayist. Prior to joining the UCLA College as the communications and operations coordinator, he served as an academic advisor, helping students at his alma mater make progress toward their degrees.
He is also an amateur calligrapher and enjoys cycling along the Southern California coast.
Social Media: LinkedIn
Photo by Trevor Ducote.