Legacy of Muir lives on in great-great-grandson

Robert Hanna backpacks in Yosemite Valley. Nature was his therapy, Hanna says. To “break away from temptations,” he would take off on solo sojourns.
Robert Hanna backpacks in Yosemite Valley. Nature was his therapy, Hanna says. To “break away from temptations,” he would take off on solo sojourns. Courtesy of Robert Hanna

No one with any appreciation of the outdoors should have been inside on a day such as this, a glorious late-May afternoon when the only thing matching the brilliant blue of Lake Tahoe was the luminous blue of a cloudless sky. Robert Hanna knew it. The audience knew it. The South Lake Tahoe library staffers forced to fetch additional chairs knew it. The cool breeze wafting through the propped-open door only reinforced it.

Yet, here they were, cramped in a meeting room with even standing-room-only space filling up fast, the fire code being fretted over and folks told to please scooch in just a bit closer. All came to listen to Hanna, the great-great-grandson of iconic naturalist John Muir, recount the saga of his famous forebear and, subtly but firmly, slip in a few words about current environmental concerns.

Such is the allure Muir still holds, a shade over 100 years after his death, that even back-to-nature types willingly became great indoorsmen for a spell.

“Man,” said Hanna, 35, striding to the front of the room, fist-bumping with a boy in the front row and clasping a man’s hand with the force of a bear clawing a salmon, “this better be good, ’cause I’m taking you guys away from a beautiful day in Tahoe.”

For two hours, talking nonstop with the aid of PowerPoint slides showing images from Muir family albums, Hanna held the crowd in his thrall. He recounted Muir’s many environmental struggles; his wooing of Teddy Roosevelt at Yosemite; his bitter battle, eventually lost, to save Hetch Hetchy Valley from damming and, Muir believed, from damnation; his family’s stories of the private Muir who, far from being a wilderness recluse, was a family man on the ranch in Martinez.

What Hanna failed to mention – because, as he would later say, the community talk “wasn’t all about me” – was his motivation to get out and proselytize for parks and open spaces, to espouse the virtues of nature as a restorative, a balm for bruised souls.

His personal story, it could be argued, is equally as gripping. It is the tale of a kid exposed to nature, and made aware at an early age of his lineage, yet never burdened by expectations of legacy-carrying. It details how, as a troubled teenager in Folsom, he descended into a haze of alcohol and pills, marijuana and methamphetamine, skirting the law as a minor and being expelled from high school. How, through a renewed communal quest with nature, he was able to find strength in solitude and set his life back on its proper, law-abiding course.

How, as a young adult, he swiftly ascended the ranks of a mortgage loan company, yet found himself overworked at age 28, his wife and growing young family reduced to mere pixels on a Skype screen in some hotel room. How, after being laid off from that management position, he turned once more to the healing power of nature, this time as an activist, trying to prevent the threatened closure in 2012 of 70 state parks. How as a sideline to his current job on the support staff of the state Assembly Republican caucus, he has helped push through bills offering free park entrance to veterans and has spearheaded efforts to make outdoor recreation more inclusive to underrepresented races and ethnicities.

“It’s been crazy, man, my life,” said Hanna, running a hand through his bristly salt-and-pepper hair, shorn to mere stubble. “I’ve never told anyone, you know, publicly, about the troubles in my life. But maybe it’ll help, man. ’Cause, you know, I’m blessed.”

Spend any time at all around Hanna, and that’s a refrain oft-repeated. He’s blessed to be where he is now, man, absolutely blessed. He tends, like many males in his demographic, to call everyone “man,” including a female Starbucks barista who, after asking him how his day was going, got this booming reply: “Living the dream, man.” Hanna, 6-foot-1 and built like a lean logger, seemingly does not have an “off” switch, or even a dimmer knob, on his thousand-watt personality. Even in repose, hunched over a coffee cup, he remembers to make eye contact and nod vigorously at a well-made point.

Such attributes, and ancestry, make Hanna a natural as an outdoors advocate. Before him, though, none of Muir’s descendents in the century since his death had publicly picked up the activist mantle. So protective were they of the Muir name that they shied away from even taking any political stances, lest anyone accuse them of exploiting the legacy for political expediency.

Hanna was once like that, too. Sierra College history professor Gary Noy had Hanna in his class on the Sierra and Muir about 10 years ago. It took several weeks, Noy recalled, for Hanna to tell him of his background.

“He always downplayed it,” Noy said. “He didn’t want to draw attention to himself.”

From corporate to conservation

All that changed in 2011, when Hanna, whose branch of the family tree sprouted from the marriage of Muir’s eldest daughter, Wanda, to a man from Berkeley named Tom Hanna in 1906, responded to a personal crisis (loss of his job) and political crisis (the real threat of park closures). Hanna recalls meeting with the family’s “elder counsel” – his father, Neil; uncle, Tim; and great uncle, Ross (now deceased) – to ask their blessing.

“Probably around (age) 13, I remember being told to always act as a lone wolf,” he said. “Because if you’re part of an organization or company, you’ll be held hostage to what they want to become or control what you say. As a lone wolf, you’re driven only by passion and what’s right. But I also remember, when I was 11, my uncle, Tim, and I were in the family cabin in Lundy Canyon, having lunch. He told me that one day I’d understand what these places mean to our family. And, should they ever need help, to answer the call.”

The “call” did not come at the most opportune time for Hanna. He had lost his job and the family’s house in Roseville. His wife, Lavina, was about to give birth to the second of their three young girls (now ages 5, 4 and 2). He’d had other corporate offers, but the threatened state parks consumed him. It became personal.

“It was a scary time for us,” Lavina said. “But even with everything we were going through, Robert seemed happier. I saw him with a new purpose. He wanted to do good.”

So began the phone calls.

“One day,” said Jerry Emory, vice president for communications and programs at the California State Parks Foundation, “I get this call out of the blue. And it’s Robert. He introduces himself. He explained that the Muir family is private and they don’t exploit the name with John Muir Applesauce or something. But he said, ‘We’ve had it (with the proposed park closures) and we think our great-great-grandfather is probably spinning in his grave.’ I’m listening to him and thinking, ‘This guy’s on fire.’ ”

Weeks later, cut to Hanna on the west steps of the Capitol speaking at a rally organized by the foundation. He visited parks on the closure list imploring visitors to sign petitions. He cold-called Geoff McQuilkin, executive director of the Mono Lake Committee, offering his assistance. “He said to me, ‘I think I’ll just go down to the Capitol, you know, and look up Kristin Olsen’ – she was our (state Assembly) representative at the time – ‘and talk to her,’ ” McQuilkin recalled. “I’m like, ‘Please do.’ Next thing I know, we’re all out canoeing around the lake together, Olsen and (state Sen.) Ted Gaines, Robert and I.”

That Mono Lake was on the closure list pained Hanna. That lunar-like landscape had been Hanna’s backyard as a kid vacationing at the family cabin in Lundy Canyon. And later, when recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, he would commune with the tufa rock formations to clear his head.

“And they were going to close that?” Hanna said, voice rising in indignation. “No way. Places like Mono Lake, man. They saved my life.”

Nature as healer

No hyperbole, he swears. He was “angry, super angry” after his parents divorced when he was 13. Not angry at his parents, just the world and his place in it. That happy kid who frolicked outdoors became disaffected and “got caught up in the wrong crowd.” He abused alcohol and hard drugs. He didn’t give a whit about school.

“From age 14 to almost 20, I hit rock bottom, man, just rock bottom,” he said. “Getting into legal trouble (a 1998 misdemeanor conviction for a street fight), hanging out on the streets, (repeating) the cycle.”

Nature was his therapy. He said he knows it’s hokey, but there it is. To “break away from temptations,” he would take off on solo sojourns to the eastern Sierra, to Tahoe, to Santa Cruz. He recalls many times hunkering down on a rock at Eagle Falls, overlooking Emerald Bay, for hours, the blue of Tahoe soothing his scoured soul.

“The outdoors, it was the one thing I knew was always there,” he said. “It helped me beat addiction and move on with my life. It shows the power of these places.”

In public appearances, Hanna has yet to talk about his troubled youth, but he has shared it with at-risk teens in Oakland. Last month, he and Teresa Baker, founder of a Bay Area organization called African American National Parks Event, hosted a conference at Yosemite on how to increase diversity and inclusion in the park system.

“Once you sit and listen to his story, you began to see yourself in a lot of his life’s encounters,” Baker said. “I think it is admirable that he includes urban settings in his outreach.”

Urban or rural, wherever Hanna is asked to speak, he will power up his PowerPoint and retell Muir’s story once more. He won’t go so far as to say he has been imbued with his great-great-grandfather’s spirit but that feeling sometimes comes over him. When he had Olsen and Gaines out in that canoe at Mono Lake, he thought of Muir courting Roosevelt.

“And, like, at this (Yosemite) diversity conference, we all gathered for a picture at the plaque where it says Muir and Roosevelt slept on May 17, 1903,” he said. “I’m posing in front of it and thinking, ‘This is the same date (May 17) as our conference. Wow, man, this is crazy.’ ”