“It could just as easily have been me. I’ve been in some extremely tight spots and pure luck has saved my bacon. And I knew what I was doing.”
This is what Roman Dial says to my students. My colleague is standing on the small stage of the darkened lecture hall at Alaska Pacific University. Projected onto the screen behind him is Chris McCandless, the subject of John Krakauer’s best-seller, "Into the Wild." It’s a photograph the 20-something took of himself holding aloft the head of a moose he’d slain for food. He is grinning ear-to-ear, victorious. Some months later his body would be discovered in an abandoned bus in the remote Alaskan interior, where McCandless, estranged from everyone he knew, had made his home at the end of a two-year adventure odyssey. He had intended to return to his frantic and desperate family when it was over.
“So was he an idiot, or did he actually know what he was doing?”
This was the question my student had asked Roman, and it was the crux of the fierce debate that had raged about McCandless throughout Alaska, especially across the tight wilderness expedition and adventure community. It’s the same debate we have every time someone dares to break the rules and undertake a level of risk that is beyond the pale and pays with their life.
“Arrogance,” which was a popular charge made about McCandless by a wider audience in the Lower 48 (along with “selfish,” “narcissistic” and “crazy”) never really enters the equation. We probably have more people who give Mother Nature and gravity the finger on a regular basis per capita here than in any other state in the country. A certain degree of arrogance is more or less a given, a required asset, even. For us, the debate is less about character than about competence and good judgment. Did the person in question have the first and exercise the second? No? Then what do you expect? They were an idiot. They had it coming.
Competence. Experience. McCandless had both in fact (though to what degree has been a critical point in this debate), along with supreme, even unreasonable confidence in himself. He was a rule-breaker, certainly. These same qualities apply to my friend and colleague, Roman Dial, too. He understands McCandless’s spirit and daring in a particularly intimate way, and he brought the deep existential and moral questions raised by McCandless’s – and his own – daring into the classroom with him when he led his students to the bus where McCandless perished. Along the way, they read Krakauer’s book around the campfire at the end of each day and debated these questions as they pertained to their own lives.
The irony here is lost on no one that last week Roman Dial flew to Costa Rica to join the search party looking for his son, Cody Roman, who disappeared into the remote jungle of Corcovado National Park approximately two weeks ago while undertaking an adventure odyssey of his own. There is no debate this time about competence or experience (both of which Cody Roman has in spades) or even about the young man’s good judgment.
This time it is personal.
Alaska may be the largest state but it’s a small place. Even in Anchorage, community is vibrant and real, out of necessity. In this remote and unforgiving place we call home, we need one another to survive emotionally and even physically. We didn’t know Chris McCandless, but a lot of us know Cody Roman (or “R2,” as we call him) and his family. I babysat R2 and his younger sister, Jazz, and I watched them grow to adulthood. Their parents, Peggy and Roman Dial, were among the first people to welcome me when I moved to Alaska, and they were two of my first friends here. I don’t care why R2 went into the jungle by himself or whether or not it was a good idea and neither does anyone else. We just want him to come home.
We just want him to come home.
I can only imagine the anguish of his mother and his sister who, while Roman is in Costa Rica involved in the search, can only wait for updates and deal with reporters and too many well-meaning, anxious friends. We all felt a lot better when we learned a few days ago that Roman was finally able to launch into the jungle and join the search for his son.
Godspeed, my friend.
Lynn E. Paulson, Ph.D. is a former professor at Alaska Pacific University.
This commentary first appeared on APU's blog and is republished here with the author's permission. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.