Cody Dial walked into a Costa Rican jungle and never walked out

Review: The Adventurer's Son by Roman Dial
costa rica rainforest
Photo: Bruce Thompson

In July of 2014, Cody Dial walked into the Costa Rican jungle in Corcovado National Park and was never heard from again. It took nearly two years before his remains were found, tucked away in a small canyon that his father, Roman Dial, had passed by more than half a dozen times in the years he spent searching the jungle for his son.

The Adventurer’s Son by Roman Dial tells the story of a father, mother, and sister losing a son and brother. The first half of the book gives readers background on Roman, illustrating his career as both a scientist and one of the foremost adventurers of our time. From participating in overland treks through the backcountry of the Kenai Peninsula for George Ripley’s Alaska Mountain and Wilderness Classic, to skiing across glaciers just to climb remote peaks in the Alaska Range, Dial is every bit the adventurer he claims to be. After getting married, he and his wife Peggy hopped around the globe while Dial finished his Ph.D. and started life out as a young professor at Alaska Pacific University. This gave the couple a chance to raise their kids everywhere from the beaches of Puerto Rico to the jungles of Borneo. The Dial family’s version of summer vacation was a trip across the Australian Outback.

It’s against this backdrop that Cody Dial was born and grew up. Cody accompanied his father on expeditions to study ice worms living in glaciers in the Himalayas, and the two packrafted all throughout Alaska and Central America. When Cody was only six years old, Dial took him on a 60-mile walk across Umnak Island, just west of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. The six-year-old Cody made the trip without once complaining about the weather or the walk.

So, it surprised nobody when Cody set off on his own expedition throughout Central America. That trip — which culminated in his tragic death — makes up the second half of Dial’s memoir.

But this book is so much more than adventures and death. It’s quite possibly the most poignant, honest look at the unique relationship between a father and a son that I’ve ever read. At a time when men’s actions are under so much scrutiny, it’s easy to forget the role that only a father can play for his son. Dial welcomes readers, with full honesty, into that relationship with his son Cody.

Dial leaves no doubts about the role he may have played in Cody’s death. He writes, “I took my eight-year-old sons to Borneo’s wilderness. Was that negligence? It hadn’t seemed so then, but now I felt a sharp stab of regret. Not because we had risked his life … in Borneo, Australia, or any other place where humans have lived for millennia — Peggy would never have endangered her children’s lives — but because of the life it inspired (pp.202).”

I can’t speak from the place of a parent, but I can speak as a son who’s undeniably grateful for my own father taking me fly fishing for the first time, when I was only five years old. The family stream wasn’t Borneo, but it was a risk of a kind, and it led to a life full of wonder at and love for the natural world. Dial inspired in Cody something that’s quickly disappearing among today’s youth — a love for the outdoors. Cody’s love went beyond the superficial love most of us have and document on Instagram. Cody himself was in the midst of a master’s degree in biology when he left for his adventure in Central America. Because of what his father did, and how much he included Cody in outdoor adventure from a young age, Cody looked to be one of the next generation of scientists and conservationists, ready to take up the mantle of responsibility for caring for the natural world.

Which brings me back to the original theme that so resonated with me throughout this book. In the epilogue, Dial writes “Would I have raised (Cody) the same way knowing that he would die on a path I led him along? The answer is obvious but the question unfair. We never know the future. There was no single moment in Roman’s upbringing that can be traced forward to his death, no chain of events, no cause and effect … Time has passed, and while these questions no longer crowd my heart, they linger (pp.350).”

Even with the wisdom afforded by hindsight, Dial is honest enough with his readers to say that he’s glad he raised Cody how he did. He couldn’t have done it any other way. More than anything, I believe that The Adventurer’s Son serves a purpose as a reminder to us all that while we may bond as family and friends over a shared love of adventure and wild places, the bonds themselves are what matter most.

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