By Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan
Roman Dial is no stranger to challenging travel but there are some trips you never want to take. Along with being a biologist and professor at Alaska Pacific University, Roman Dial is a pioneer in adventure trekking. He is a past organizer of the Alaska Wilderness Classic mountain race and is well-known for making packrafting and cycling part of today’s outdoor travel vernacular. Yet for all his expeditions into wild places, he could never foresee the most difficult journey of his life.
The Adventurer’s Son is a chronicle of Dial’s two-year search for his son, Cody, after he disappeared in Costa Rica in 2014. At 27-years-old, Cody Roman Dial had his father’s passion for adventure and all the outdoor skills needed to succeed. Before he disappeared, Cody wrote to his father “I’m planning on doing 4 days in the jungle… it should be difficult to get lost forever.”
Then he vanished.
The book is, in part, a detective story, as Dial and his wife, Peggy, search for their son. First, they must navigate a frustrating bureaucratic tangle of red tape to gain access to the park where Cody said he would be traveling. Then Dial trekked into the dense jungle itself, a place that sheltered drug smugglers, poachers, and illegal miners. There were rumors and a creeping narrative that Cody was not in the wilderness at all but had last been seen with a notorious drug dealer. This was not the Cody they knew, and the story struck a wrong chord from the beginning. But with the lack of evidence and after more than a year of searching, Dial began to wonder. Had Cody become someone different than the son they knew? What was the truth?
The book is also a family memoir. In their travels, Dial and Peggy hoped to instill in their children respect and wonder for the wild places still left on earth. As a family, they explored some of those places in Alaska, Indonesian Borneo, and the tropical rainforests of Culebra, Puerto Rico.
In 1993, Dial traveled with six-year-old Cody across the island of Umnak, a sixty-mile walk across a wild, windy island of the Aleutian Chain. They would be blazing their own trail and Dial reflected on the risks of walking with his young son across such a remote landscape. Despite ferocious weather, for Dial, the father-son trek was an opportunity to create shared memories and foster the boy’s love for adventure. At the beginning of the trip, when one of the island’s locals asks young Cody his name, he replies “Roman.” Cody’s middle name stuck and thereafter father and son are referred to as Roman and Roman-2, or R-2.
In the embrace of wilderness exploration with is all its inherent risks, Dial questions how Cody’s upbringing may have directly or indirectly contributed to his disappearance. As rumors persist, and while authorities shake their heads at a father’s apparent denial, Dial stubbornly clings to the version of the son he knows.
More than a year into their search, Roman and Peggy were running out of options when they were approached by a television producer that promised resources to help with the search if producers could film the outcome. Here the story’s tension ratchets up. While the cameras are rolling, an investigator for the program breaks the latest “discovery” to Roman, zooming in to capture the emotional impact of his words. The contrast between reality TV and legitimate documentary suddenly becomes painfully clear.
In The Adventurer’s Son, Dial has proven himself as skillful a writer as he is an outdoor adventurer. He captures the wonders of exploration and the natural world as seamlessly as he describes the wilderness of a father’s heart. Dial describes his own early life, his absent father, and the tenderness toward his own son. As much as Dial is searching for Cody, he is wondering as a father, did he get it right? A question every parent asks in the wake of tragedy is, “Did I love my child enough?”
This book will stay with readers long after the last page is turned. It explores universal questions of parenthood in the crucible of a family’s personal crisis. Dial writes honestly, looking squarely in the mirror of how he might have done things differently. In the end, it is a provocative exploration of fatherhood and a moving tribute to a son whose wish as a small boy was to be called by his father’s name.
Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan is a long-time Alaskan and author of several books including Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith and Our Perfect Wild: Ray and Barbara Banes’ Journeys and the Fate of the Far North. For more information visit www.kaylene.us