The Adventurer’s Son: A Memoir
By Roman Dial. William Morrow, 2020. 368 pages. $28.99. Also e-book and audio.
In July 2014, Roman Dial’s 27-year-old son, Cody Roman Dial, emailed his parents about the next phase of his travels in Central America. He planned to slip into the undeveloped Corcovado National Park, a remote rainforest along Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, for five days. His email read, in part, “I’ll be bounded by a trail to the west and the coast everywhere else, so it should be difficult to get lost forever.”
When Cody Roman did not notify his parents that he was safely out of the jungle, as was his custom, father Roman began a desperate search that lasted two years. “The Adventurer’s Son” is the story, first, of the Anchorage family’s history of adventuring together and, then, of Cody Roman’s disappearance and the tremendous efforts made by family, friends and even strangers to discover his fate.
A compelling, can’t-put-it-down narrative on one level, this memoir rises to something much greater than that. It tells the story of one man’s commitment to family and fatherhood, fiercely questioning what it means to parent well and pass along love and values. It asks how we know other people and how, in the face of conflicting information, we can know what is right and true. It asks very deep questions about how best to live — what amount of risk is acceptable and responsible, what is gained by testing oneself in hard and beautiful places, what makes us fully human.
Author Roman Dial is well-known in and beyond Alaska as a pioneering adventurer associated with mountaineering, ice climbing, packrafting and the Alaska Wilderness Classic; he is also a practicing scientist and a longtime beloved professor of mathematics and biology at Alaska Pacific University. He and his wife, Peggy, raised their two children with similarly adventurous spirits, with family trips to the Australian Outback, Mexico, Bhutan, Borneo and remote parts of Alaska. When Cody Roman was just 6 years old, he and his father walked 60 miles across Umnak Island in the Aleutians. As a pre-teen, Cody Roman assisted his father with research and accompanied an APU tropical ecology class to Costa Rica. He later earned his own biology degree and embarked on a graduate program while also establishing himself as an accomplished mountaineer, paddler and trailfinder.
When Cody Roman decided to take a break from school, it made perfect sense both to him and his family that he would travel in Central America, exploring areas that were off the tourist tracks and eschewing guidebooks and internet research. He wanted to watch butterflies and monkeys, climb volcanoes, poke around ancient ruins, surf, meet locals and navigate with “his wits and his Spanish.” His father, a little nervous about the hazards, including crime known to be ubiquitous in much of Central America, was proud of his son’s skills and independence.
Cody Roman traveled alone for three months through Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. He reported regularly about his plans and his return dates from various adventures. And then, in mid-July, he went silent. Because of an overlooked email, the family didn’t realize that they should have heard from him until several days after his planned “out-date.” An “out-date,” Dial explains, is the day adventurers let their loved ones know they should start looking, or should notify authorities to do so.
Dial, racked with guilt, rushed to Costa Rica with a Spanish-speaking friend and began the search for his son. “It was impossible not to see him suffering, waiting, wondering, Dad, where are you?”
The author’s seamless writing takes us not just through multiple literal searches in the jungle but into countries of bureaucratic tangles, surprise friendships, illegal poaching and mining, and tips and rumors that lead to confusion and dead ends. The action is fast-paced and utterly engrossing.
As he fights his way through jungle growth and false leads, Dial also questions himself, with impressively acute self-examination and insight, about his role in his son’s life and disappearance. Was it irresponsible to have taken his 8-year-old to Borneo’s wilderness? “It hadn’t seemed so then, but now I felt a sharp stab of regret. Not because we had risked his life ... But because of the life it inspired.”
Cody Roman had entered the park without a permit or required guide, and officials were quick to characterize him as an unlawful gringo kid who would probably turn up somewhere smoking dope. Dial himself was seen as a hysterical father in denial. These assumptions were compounded by rumors that Cody Roman had been seen walking with and paying a known drug dealer.
As time went on, it became clear that Cody Roman’s rescue was not going to happen. But still, where was he? Dial was shaken to wonder if perhaps he had not known his son as well as he thought he did; perhaps all those rumors about drugs and fecklessness were real? More likely, he decided, his son had come to a bad end at the hands of criminals. In a last act of desperation, Dial agreed to participate in a documentary film project that would involve a professional investigator. The eventual film turned out, tragically, to be a sensational “reality”-type show that had Cody Roman being murdered and dismembered, complete with reenactments.
The actual truth was something else, something that in the end brought a closure to the family that was in line with their life experiences and beliefs, even as Dial never leaves off asking tough questions that linger but finally “no longer crowd” his heart.
“The Adventurer’s Son” is a brave, beautiful and eventually restorative book destined to become an adventure classic.
Title Wave Books will sponsor a book release, with a talk by Roman Dial, at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub on Feb. 19 at 5:30 p.m. Learn more at beartooththeatre.net/concerts.