John Muir's Great-Great-Grandson Weighs in on Ode to Muir

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Following the example set by his great-great-grandfather, John Muir, Hanna brought the California legislature to Mono Lake to highlight the importance of the High Sierra. Robert Hanna Photo.

Gently parting the surface of the lake with his paddle, Robert Hanna canoes quietly through the tranquil turquoise waters of Mono Lake. As the vessel moves through the oldest lake in the western hemisphere, the nearby snow-capped Sierra Nevada shimmer in the water’s reflection. Gazing out, Hanna sees what he considers his second home. As a kid, he spent hours exploring the lake’s otherworldly spires that dot the shoreline known as tufas. Nearby his family had a cabin in Lundy Canyon. Over a century old, it has a tin roof and to this day is still without electricity. Meanwhile, the true gem of the Sierras, Yosemite, is a stone throw away.

His love for the area encompassed more than just Mono Lake, but the High Sierra Range as a whole. It’s a passion that has been carried through generations of his family and was initially sparked by his great-great-grandfather John Muir.

In 2011, the future of this desert oasis was in jeopardy. Following the 2008 financial crisis, Mono Lake was one of the 70 State Parks at risk of losing funding from the state. When Hanna learned the news he was in shock. Since the elder Muir’s death, his family had refrained from political activism, but this seemed like an opportune time to speak out again. Consulting his family, he asked the best way to approach the situation, and their answer was unanimous, “do as Muir did.”

As Muir showed us with President Theodore Roosevelt (right), impactful activism can be as simple as bringing the discussion outside. Left: Hanna with State Senator Gaines at Mono Lake.

Joining him in the canoe is Geoff McQuilkin, the executive director of the Mono Lake Committee, and Kristin Olsen, a California State Assembly Representative. Shortly after, he would repeat the trip with State Senator Ted Gaines. Like Muir had brought Roosevelt into the mountains, Hanna uses these outings to emphasize the importance of our public lands to the elected California legislature. It's just one of the many grassroots methods Hanna uses in the fight to preserve these incredible places that he loves, and it works. All 70 of the parks were saved, made possible by the path that Muir had forged for him to follow.

The Allure of the High Sierras

As Hanna saw, there’s something particularly powerful about the High Sierra. Its allure had also captured the attention of snowboarder Jeremy Jones.

Last April, not too far from Mono Lake, Jeremy Jones ventured deep into the region’s backcountry with Elena Hight, as seen in the film Ode to Muir. A few months ago Hanna had been sent the film trailer from a friend. As he watched, he saw the legacy of his great-great-grandfather in action. He couldn’t contain his enthusiasm and quickly penned an email to the TGR team. He wrote,

I just wanted to reach out to say thank you to Mr. Jeremy Jones, Ms. Elena Hight, and all who made this movie a reality. Muir was my great-great-grandfather, and I'm proud to see his vision carried forward as Mr. Jones walks side-by-side with him through the John Muir Wilderness for this film.

His words sat at the top of our inbox the next day, and we read through the email with gratitude. Naturally, we reached out to learn more about Hanna and the Muir family.

Jones carves fresh snow in the John Wilderness. Their journey in the film is a mixture of winter camping, grueling climbs up the Sierra’s biggest mountains, and stunning first descents.

Only one word was needed to describe Hanna’s first impression of the project: badass. “Muir in no doubt of my mind would have grabbed a snowboard and joined them,” he explains. Muir is often thought as a reserved conservationist, but that’s an inaccurate perception. He was tenacious, stubborn, and most importantly an explorer.

RELATED: Jeremy Jones, Elena Hight, and the Legacy of Conservation

While his writings are lyrical and poetic, he lived for adventures. Muir once spent a night stranded atop a mountain, and somehow survived. In another instance, while exploring the winter terrain of Yosemite, he was caught in an avalanche and carried down the side of the slope. Reflecting on the ordeal, Muir wrote, “this flight in a milky way of snow flowers was the most spiritual of all my travels; and, after many years, the mere thought of it is still an exhilaration.” Yes, it is a fair assumption that Muir would have been in good company with Jones and Hight. Not simply because of his equal thirst for adventure, but he knew these mountains better than anybody. The Sierra were perhaps his greatest love. Once, reflecting back on Yosemite, he wrote,

It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.

A Passion Carried Through Generations

Out of all the stories Hanna heard about his predecessor, some of his fondest were the ones involving the whole Muir family. The Sierra Nevada is their collective legacy, not just John Muir’s.

One character who often goes unnoticed is his great-great-grandmother Louie, Muir’s wife. Through their union, Muir became entrusted with his father-in-law's ranch, allowing his skill as a businessman to shine. For ten years he dedicated himself to the farm and it grew exponentially. The ranch flourished, but it was not without sacrifice. Muir had become disconnected from the mountains, and it took its toll. Louie recognized this and pushed him to step away.

"Dear John, A ranch that needs and takes the sacrifice of a noble life, or work, ought to be flung away beyond all reach... The Alaska book and the Yosemite book, dear John, must be written, and you need to be your own self, well and strong to make them worthy of you. Ever your wife, Louie," she earnestly wrote to him in 1888.

Unselfishly, she took the reigns of the family farm giving Muir the freedom to be back in the mountains.

Muir and his daughters Helen (left) & Wanda (right). They equally loved the outdoors as much as their father.

His daughters, Wanda and Helen, loved the outdoors as much as their father. As children, Muir would often take the young duo out exploring at the mountains near the family ranch in Martinez, California. The local peaks were called “Mount Wanda and Mount Helen”, lovingly named after the two girls. On these adventures, Muir’s meticulous eye was always at work. Often they’d halt to look at the flowers and plants they’d discover on the trail and Muir was able to identify them in an instant. It was imperative the girls knew their names. “How would you like it if someone called you by the wrong name,” he’d playfully jest.

As the children got older, the adventures only increased in grandeur. They too joined him in the backcountry of the Sierras. A family vacation usually consisted of weeks spent out exploring the expansive forests. Eventually, the girls would need no prodding from their father to seek the space for themselves. “My great-grandma Wanda, there are journals about her leading 15 people expeditions out there all by herself—she was an incredible woman,” Hanna reflects. He is forever grateful for the combined passion of his great-grandmothers that his generation is now able to continue Muir’s legacy.

Looking back, Hanna thought growing up as a descendant of the naturalist was “a trip”. His family didn’t have much when it came to material possessions, but they always joked that they were “land rich.” Hanna was born and raised in Folsom, California in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. A prime location for any avid outdoorsman, he's thankful to be in close proximity of many iconic California gems: Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, the Bay Area, and the Northern California coastline.

There’s an indescribable magic in the Sierra Nevada, something that has hooked Muir, Hanna, and Jones.

Initially, as a kid, he didn’t quite grasp the importance of his lineage. Jokingly, he recounts an instance in which he was dragged to California’s capitol building to meet the governor. “Why do I have to shake this guys hand?” he’d ask his parents. Each time they echoed the same response, “one day you’ll understand.” That tone began to shift as he got older. While eating lunch at their family cabin, his uncle outlined the importance of these lands. He emphasized to a young Hanna that should these sacred spaces need help, it was their responsibility to rise to the challenge. Hanna hasn’t stopped stirring the pot since that grassroots effort in 2011, in fact, he’s only picked up steam.

Emulating Muir’s same passion and tenacity, Hanna campaigned in 2017 to rename the southern entrance of Yosemite in honor of the Buffalo Soldiers, who were the unsung African American men that acted as the park’s first rangers. Their regiment encompassed nearly 500 soldiers assigned to protect and maintain the land.

Now, thanks to Hanna’s efforts, their legacy is brought to the forefront. It’s these kinds of stories that intrigue him because it expands and diversifies the narrative of the outdoors. He believes these places belong to all of us and hopes his family name can inspire that notion.

The Narratives We Bring to the Outdoors

It’s a belief that has even led him to collaborate with Kermit Roosevelt, the great-great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt. Paying homage to one of the greatest partnerships our nation has ever seen, Hanna and Kermit came together to speak out against the reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Escalante National Monuments, as well as the state of the Antiquities Act. It was surreal for Hanna, considering their families haven’t worked together since 1903 when Muir brought Roosevelt to Yosemite. Just from those few days in the park, now often referred to as the most famous camping trip in history, it led to not only the protection of Yosemite, but five National Parks, 18 National Monuments, and 150 National Forests.

Beyond these protections was a greater understanding established by Roosevelt’s actions. It signified that these spaces were simply an extension of America’s identity.

Jones and Hight continue Muir’s fight, as seen in their adventure in Ode to Muir.

Now, as spaces like Bears Ears hang in jeopardy, Hanna feels it’s a reflection of a bigger disconnect happening within the country. Many Americans feel lost when it comes to making a difference as Muir had done.

“I think [Muir’s] life is an exact reflection of something that all of us can look back at, and say that’s how one voice can change the world,” Hanna explains.

The reality is you don’t need to be a descendant of Muir, Roosevelt, or a kickass snowboarder like a Jeremy Jones to preserve these wild and majestic spaces. The first step is becoming involved, whether it be with your vote at the ballot box on November 6th or volunteering with a local grassroots organization in your area. It all starts with showing up and fighting for it.

RELATED: Ode to Muir Premieres to Sold Out Crowd in Boulder, Colorado

The more time Hanna has spent outside he’s increasingly noticed how these places mean something different for all of us. “That’s what I love about [Ode to Muir], is everyone's connection to [the High Sierra] or the outdoors is so unique,” he explains. It’s these connections that get him excited, especially when those stories have been inspired by Muir.

A couple of snowboarders walking in his great-great-grandfather’s footsteps? That’s a first for him, but he loves it, and can’t wait to be attending the October 26th showing of Ode to Muir in Chico, California. In addition to seeing the film, he’ll be joining a panel discussion with Jeremy Jones himself, and there’s one thing he’s certain of going into the screening, "Trust me, Muir would be out there with [Jones and Hight]—I’m sure of it," he laughs.

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