by Adele Wilby
Roman Dial has written a great tribute to his son, indeed to his entire family, in his book The Adventurer’s Son. An adventurer and biologist, Dial writes movingly of his relationship with his only son, Cody Roman Dial in particular and of his accidental death while exploring the rainforests of Central America. Dial’s pride in his son and the pain and grief over his loss are palpable throughout the book. But as Dial himself acknowledges, ‘we never know the future’, and the death of his son at just 27 years old in 2014 is an event he could never have imagined when he began to introduce him to the joys and challenges of exploring the natural world.
The birth of Cody Roman was a celebratory moment for Dial, and he looked forward to establishing a deep father-son bond in a way that he and his father had not. For two decades and over five continents, the bond between the two deepened as they shared momentous times together exploring nature. Thus, Cody’s death at such an early age is a heart-breaking tragedy for Dial, his family and friends, but we learn from the book that Cody’s life was exceptional, rich and fulfilling, attributable to an adventurous and courageous father, and a mother who supported Dial’s aspiration to cultivate a respect and appreciation of the natural world in their son.
Part I of the book narrates the many fascinating places and adventures that father and son shared together in the process of Cody learning about exploring and understanding the natural world from his father. It would not be an understatement to say that his childhood was far from the playground and toys of ‘normal’ childhood. His introduction to nature gets underway when the boy is three-year-old: Dial takes Cody with him to the rainforest in Puerto Rico where he himself was researching into complex food webs in tropical rainforests. Thus, three-years-old Cody begins his learning about the tropical rainforest and gets to know of such creatures as a giant land snail and what it looks like clinging to rainforest palms, a world away from the garden snail and a life form most of us could never even imagine, let alone see. Dial describes his son’s fascination with life at such an early age as ‘biophilia’, a relic from the past when children’s interest in their environment made the difference between life and death. As Dial admits, he himself never seemed to have outgrown this stage of his development.
But apart from exploring remote areas and delving into the habitats of different life forms, explorers need to develop mental and physical stamina and endurance and to understand the value of trust in fellow explorers, and throughout the book we learn of Dial teaching and developing these characteristics in his son. Dial narrates an endearing example of shared experience in teaching and learning when he takes six-year-old Cody on a sixty-mile trek to visit the Umnak geysers on the Aleutian Islands south of Alaska. Although it was summer, the threat of hypothermia and other dangers to his son on the hike were real. Dial was aware of his tremendous responsibility to protect his son throughout the journey, yet Dial, with the support of his wife Peggy, thought the trip important if he was to ‘initiate a lifetime of shared wilderness adventures’ that Cody would want to repeat.
Despite the naysayers about Dial’s plans, and the doubts that crossed his mind, Dial was confident in his own abilities, and undeterred the two set off on their trek. They coped with wind and wet grounds to sleep on amongst other things, but the deepening bond between the two was apparent as they walked the route ‘hand in hand’. When the boy’s feet hurt, Dial hoisted his son onto his shoulders; when the weight of carrying him became too much and Dial asked Cody to ‘walk for a while’ the boy happily slid down off his shoulders, took his hand and they walked side by side. They averaged one mile an hour, eight hours a day on the trek, but ‘the numbers didn’t matter. We’d grown close. Roman had learned about nature and himself, how to deal with discomfort, wind, and rain…’ and Dial had learned how to ‘pace, care, and sacrifice for my son.’ And so, the journeys the two undertook continued throughout Cody’s childhood and into his teenage years, the bond and understanding between the two ever deepening. With Cody gaining in confidence, learning more about himself and his potential, and indeed the areas of natural life that interested him most, it was adventure that ultimately became his main focus rather than natural history.
Part II of the book takes a turn and we learn more about an independent Cody and his adventures as a lone explorer in Central America. In this section, despite his every increasing audaciousness in exploring more remote areas and time away from his family, the bond between father and son never waned and was such that Cody constantly kept Dial informed of all his plans and sought his advice. Thus, when Cody went silent when exploring the Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula in Central America, Roman was alerted that something has gone seriously wrong with his son’s exploration.
Part III of the book documents the brave yet emotional experience of Dial and his wife Peggy as they come to terms with the realisation that their son might be lost, or in danger from many of the sources in the areas he was exploring. Known as a region where drug cartels functioned, coupled with the ever-present reality of the natural dangers of the jungle, Dial writes emotionally about the frustrating search for his son. Confronted with an uninterested bureaucracy in Costa Rica, false reports of identity, and aspersions against Cody’s character, the deep knowledge of his son learned from decades of exploring with him, kept Dial and his wife Peggy’s search for Cody together. Feeling that his son was in danger and might be waiting for him to find him, Dial set out into the rainforest in search of Cody. Familiar with Cody’s thinking, experience and knowledge of how he might behave in that particular rainforest, and with the assistance of local people who knew the locality, Dial embarks on a search along the route his son might have taken, but without any success.
Ultimately the family utilised the media to publicise Cody’s story and to perhaps jolt the Costa Rican government into showing more interest in his disappearance. Reponses to the story suggested Cody had been murdered and his body hacked to pieces, but without concrete evidence any story was unsatisfactory to Dial and his family. However, the showing of the documentary about Cody’s life and the context of his disappearance prompted villagers to take greater interest his disappearance. Thus, two years later, in 2016, Dial received a phone call from the United States Embassy in Costa Rica to inform him of the discovery of human remains and camping equipment in a riverbed near where Cody was thought to have been last seen. Dial identified the items forwarded to him in photos as those of his son. DNA results and dental records confirmed the identity of the human remains as those of Cody Roman Dial; they had at last found their son. There was no evidence that he had died by an act of violence: his death was accidental. A fallen tree crossing the river near the remains in the water suggested that it fell on Cody’s camp leading to his death, or maybe as a result of a bite by a poisonous snake noted nearby.
The story of Cody’s short life and his father’s search for him after he went missing ends with Dial and his wife standing quietly over their son’s remains. The reader cannot help but be moved by the strength of the couple as they lovingly turn the remains this way and that in a bid to identify their son in them. Any doubts that the remains truly were those of their beloved son are left behind when Dial’s wife recognises the sealants in the teeth: it had to be their son.
Throughout this book Dial takes us to places that most of us will never visit, shared the life of an adventurer and the richness of human relationships and potential. Dial also reflects on his son’s death. He inevitably raises questions as to what might have been had he not introduced him into the life of an adventurer. There are no answers to those questions, but of one thing we can be certain: Dial and his wife produced a son who has left an exemplary legacy of remarkable independence, courage and curiosity; of a young man who lived his short life to the fullest and in the most interesting and exciting ways; they produced a son about whom they can be justifiably proud.