Westmont’s road less traveled

Posted By Horizon Staff September 26th, 2012 in Editors Pick : 0 COMMENTS

By Sophie Petti | Editor-in-Chief

It was a labor of patience and dedication—and severe itchiness.

In June of 2005, armed with a shovel, handsaw, gloves, wheelbarrow, his dog Homer and a half-formed vision, Dr. Paul Willis devoted himself to a project: the creation of a trail through the dense, overgrown crevices of the Westmont campus. The former residents—thick tangles of brush, stubborn boulders, fallen trees and the sprawling root systems of poison oak—were reluctant to yield ground as their determined challenger sawed, sweated and carved the path into being.

“I have to admit,” he said. “I got a little obsessed.”

Willis’s self-confessed obsession drove him into the tangled thickets of welt-inducing flora to yield what is now a hidden treasure of the college campus. The trail meanders around and through the Westmont property in a one-and-a-half mile loop and is enjoyed by wandering students, faculty and neighbors who often stumble upon it by chance.

During that first summer and fall of 2005, Willis cleared the half-mile portion of the trail along Westmont Creek, which runs west of campus past the baseball field and track. Completed in 2007, the official loop now curves around Page Hall, Emerson Hall and Clark Halls, jumps over La Paz Road and into the ravine that runs down to Van Kampen. From there it hops another road and swings down into the canyons behind the Physical Plant, beneath the community garden and back up towards the track.

Willis finds the trail is most appreciated by those who call Westmont and the surrounding area home and want to experience it in a new way. He described the experience of the trail as a feeling of being off-campus while still on-campus.

“It’s another way of being in the same place,” he said.

He was surprised, but pleased, when he began to encounter wanderers who had stumbled upon the path. He met a Buddhist woman recovering from a painful divorce who told him that the trail was where she came to pray. He even encountered one neighbor, armed with a homemade brew, out on the trail spraying poison oak.

Ironically, Willis had never really intended the trail as a public pathway. “I wanted a place to wander alone,” he said. “My best gift to the local community wasn’t really intended as a gift at all.”

What drove him to dedicate seven months of strenuous labor to the task was, he now speculates, a process of grief. Willis lost his mother to cancer in April 2005, and in the aftermath of that event, he launched himself into the painstaking—and introspective—task of trail building.

In his essay “To Build a Trail,” Willis writes of the genesis of his work: “I wonder now if I have been doing the work of grief, if I have been making literal what each of us is always doing, all of the time, but especially in a time of loss: clearing a new path for ourselves, making a way, finding direction.”

The construction of the trail was a very personal task to Willis, and he found himself reluctant to accept offers of help from friends and colleagues. He wanted to do this alone, he said, the same way he could only write a novel alone.

The Santa Barbara poet laureate and professor of English found many such connections between the creation of the trail and his writing. “Making a trail is much like conceiving a long, narrative line,” he said. “A trail has plot, progress and duration…it is a journey over time.”

Not that he needs such parallels to justify excursions on the trail with students during class time. He admitted that the first time he did so, he “just wanted to get outside” and spent much of the walk wondering how he was going to rationalize it once the class was back in the classroom.

“So,” he asked his class as they resettled into their seats, “how is walking on a trail like writing a poem?” To his surprise, the answers were thoughtful and insightful. Since then, he has taken all of his writing classes on the trail, and he finds that it tends to generate quality writing and reflection.

As far as his own poetic endeavors, Willis does not necessarily receive inspiration from his work on the trail. “The opposite, actually,” he admitted. “Constructing the path does the same thing for me as creating a poem, gives the same satisfaction.”

He does find that he has developed an appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of a well-constructed path—“It’s the closest I get to the visual arts,” he said—along with a better understanding of the engineering of trail building. In the middle of a storm, Willis will suit up in his rain gear and study how the rainfall affects the path and how the layout of the trail can be adapted to its flow.

One event has altered the trail dramatically: the Tea Fire of 2008. Where before the trail was almost completely hidden beneath dense foliage, whole sections are now exposed. As Willis was among those who lost their homes in the fire, the trail was nowhere near the front of his mind as he waited in Murchison Gym during the blaze.

In the following weeks, however, he walked the extensive sections of the trail that had been burned. The damage left copious amounts of wreckage to be cleared. The landscape of the path was changed completely. He described one section of the path with so many fallen trees that he was forced to reroute it.

“You’ve just got to accept what comes,” he said. In the years since, he has witnessed the growth and renewal of the landscape around the path, which he still dedicates several hours a week to maintain. Always accompanied by Homer, he clears fallen branches and collects the litter that is frequently blown into the canyons.

The path has become an unexpected blessing—a personal labor of love and a gift to those willing to discover and explore it. “I don’t advertise the trail,” Willis said. “I just want people to have the joy of finding it.”

Comments are closed.

The Horizon's Facebook The Horizon's Twitter RSS Feed