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A fresh heir in the Muir wilderness

Great-great-grandson of the Sierra Club founder is eagerly carrying forth his legacy

January 10, 2012|Louis Sahagun
  • Robert Hanna, a great-great-grandson of famed naturalist John Muir, is shown at his family's cabin near Lee Vining, Calif. Growing up, Hanna rarely mentioned his family tie to the Sierra Club founder. When he was laid off from his corporate job, he took stock of his life, started an outdoors apparel business and became an environmental activist.
Robert Hanna, a great-great-grandson of famed naturalist John Muir, is… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

LEE VINING, CALIF. — Gale-force winds were whipping whitecaps and spray across Mono Lake when Robert Hanna spotted a distant hiker.

It was a crummy day to chat up a stranger in a state park, but Hanna was upbeat, as usual.

He stepped hurriedly along a trail to introduce himself. "Hello there!" Hanna said, flashing a toothy smile. "Do you know that California wants to shut this place down? Would you like to sign our petition to keep it open?"

"Yeah, I guess so," the man said.

"Wow! That's great," Hanna said, reaching to shake his hand. "Every signature counts."

The hiker signed and traipsed off, not realizing he'd just shaken hands with the great-great-grandson of John Muir.

Less than a year ago, Hanna was leading a fairly ordinary life as a corporate manager with a wife and two children. Not even his closest friends knew of his relationship with the man who founded the Sierra Club and helped establish Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.

Then, in May, Hanna was laid off as a sales director for Securities National Finance Corp.

He took stock of his options, obligations and dreams.

John Muir had always loomed as an obligation. But what part the 19th century explorer of the Sierra Nevada was to play in Hanna's dreams was less clear. Hanna had always felt both part of the Muir legacy and apart from it.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 22, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
John Muir heir: An article in the Jan. 10 Section A about John Muir's great-great-grandson said the Muir-Hanna Trust's copyrighted archives are housed at the College of the Pacific's Center for John Muir Environmental Studies in Stockton. The archives are at the University of the Pacific Library's Holt-Atherton Special Collections department.

"I always kept my lineage to myself because of an unspoken family code: Use John Muir's name sparingly and only with respect," Hanna said.

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Growing up, Hanna attended family reunions at the mansion in Martinez, Calif., where Muir lived, farmed and wrote the rhapsodic tales of his wilderness sojourns that catalyzed the conservation movement. Stories of his life and times tumbled nonstop from family elders. Most summers, Hanna spent time at a 90-year-old family cabin near Mono Lake and played hide-and-seek among the tufa formations in the park he is now trying to save.

Then there were all those places on the map of California that bore his great-great-grandfather's name: Muir Rock in Kings Canyon National Park, Muir Peak in Los Angeles County, Muir Woods National Monument in Marin County.

In school, his great-great-grandfather was part of history lessons. Still, he kept quiet, his heritage obscured by a surname that came from the marriage of Muir's eldest daughter, Wanda, to Tom Hanna.

He kept mum at his first job, behind the counter of a sporting goods store, and at Sierra College in Rocklin, east of Sacramento, where he took a course called "John Muir's Range of Light."

"Robert took an unusually strong interest in the subject matter but never let on that he was related to John Muir," recalled history instructor Gary Noy, who still teaches the course. "Over time, I came to believe he has Muir's fire in his belly."

Even Hanna's wife, Lavina, didn't know of his tie to Muir until 2005, a decade after they met.

By 2007, Hanna was getting restless. On the first anniversary of their wedding, he made an announcement: "I'm not happy at the company; it's empty," he told his wife. "I've got this idea for a small business that would enable me to make a living while spending a lot more time in wild places."

Hanna would call it Range of Light -- Muir's phrase for the High Sierra -- and it would sell outdoor clothing emblazoned with previously unpublished quotes from Muir's letters and notes.

Because of the demands of his job, Range of Light existed only on paper for four years. "Then I was laid off," he said. "A few days after that, the state announced plans to close down dozens of parks. It was time to take a leap of faith."

Hanna decided to make Range of Light a reality and start a new life as an environmental activist.

"I'll never be another John Muir," said Hanna, 31, who shares a home in the Sacramento suburb of Roseville with his wife and their daughters Sierra, 2 1/2 , and Sophia, 7 months. "But I've got his passion and values coursing through my veins."

These days, Hanna is a man in motion; a popular speaker at grass-roots rallies and protests; a tour guide at environmental hot spots; a board member of nonprofits, including the John Muir Assn.

As for his apparel business, launched late last year, some might think it heretical to take commercial advantage of the Muir name.

But Hanna is unapologetic. Muir, he points out, was a friend of powerful industrialists and politicians and a savvy California fruit grower who left an estate worth $5 million when he died in 1914.

Hanna pitched his idea to family elders in June. Their enthusiastic approval was a pleasant surprise.

A few days later, he visited Muir's grave in a family plot in Martinez. "I raked up the leaves and brushed the dust off the headstones," he recalled. "Then I sat down and spoke to Muir. I said, 'I hope what I'm doing is all right with you.' "

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