When Roman Dial’s son Cody was six, he took his son to the sparsely-populated island of Umnak, about half way down the Aleutian Island chain. The idea was to walk 60 miles, together, from a remote landing strip to the settlement of Nikolski. “Always windy, often rainy, mostly foggy, the archipelago is known as the birthplace of storms,” writes Dial in The Adventurer’s Son.
Once underway, however, it occurred to the father that this particular trek might be too much. Too extreme. How would a six-year-old manage or know what to do if something serious happened to his father? “In our sleeping bag, eyes wide in the dark, terrified that a pole might rip the nylon fabric to leave us exposed to hypothermia, I asked myself: Why the hell did I bring him here? What kind of dad am I really?”
This is not father Dial’s first rugged outdoor trek with Cody, as the first big chunk of The Adventurer’s Son makes clear. Senior Dial was a fearless explorer before he started raising a family and remained in globe-trotting, outdoor mode after Cody and his sister Jazz were born. Borneo. Remote Australia. An ecologist, senior Dial and his wife Peggy raised a budding scientist and explorer in his son Cody. Cody, in fact, soon wanted to be called by his middle name—Roman. Cody became known as “Roman Two.”
Climbing around slick boulders and waterfalls looking for rock skipper frogs in Borneo, dad ponders again the potential perils of extreme, remote trekking. “The hazards of nature—bears in the woods, tree falls in jungles, avalanches in snow country, rapids in whitewater—worry all parents who share the outdoors with their children. We were no exception. On one hike, we witnessed a huge tree limb fall from high above and strike the ground with a crash. The sight, sound, and damage were terrifying.”
Note that word “share” in the paragraph above. “Share” might be in the eye of the beholder parent, but it’s pretty clear in The Adventurer’s Son that Roman and Peggy Dial encouraged all the trips and, clearly, made it look fun. And easy. In Alaska on the island hike, father plays along with his kid as they pretend it’s an alien planet that might have monsters. Their clothes become space suits, boulders become fallen asteroids and so on. Dad addresses his son as “Captain.”
So when the younger Dial grows up and starts roaming the world, it’s not a huge surprise. But when Cody Roman Dial goes missing in Costa Rica, in Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula, you feel the gulp and the rising panic—all those earlier, normal dad fears when the kids were younger coming back in one awful moment.
I spent a week on Osa Peninsula about two months before reading The Adventurer’s Son so it was easy to picture the village of Puerto Jimenez and the beautiful coastline running to the south. It was also easy to imagine Corcovado—we had taken a nine-mile hike looking for howler monkeys, ant eaters, peccary, coatis, and scarlet macaws. We stayed close to the ocean trail but got a good idea of the jungle’s dark-green density.
Young Roman had headed into the jungle alone—and announced his intentions to his parents via email. Ultimately, Roman Two wanted to cross the Darién Gap, the jungle between Colombia and Panama that is known haven for guerrillas, drug runners and deadly wildlife. Corcovado was going to be practice. He wrote to his parents, “I’ll be bounded by trail to the west and the coast everywhere else, so it should be difficult to get lost forever.”
The second half of The Adventurer’s Son is consumed with the search for Roman Two. Roman prods local authorities, cajoles U.S. officials, makes his own forays into the jungle, follows up on tips, rallies local friends and acquaintances, and keeps pushing and pushing as any parent would likely do. There is a local, somewhat notorious denizen of the peninsula who may or may not have had something to do with Roman Two’s disappearance. There are back-jungle, illegal gold miners. There are dangerous waterfalls, deadly snakes—the list of potential troubles is a long one. And dad, of course, must consider his own role.
“I couldn’t shake the feeling that everything I had done with him in the wild had all been a mistake, that in the end, I had been that irresponsible father the Cowboys saw on Umnak. I might not have hurt the six-year-old boy then, but the suffering of a twenty-seven-year-old man lost and broken in the jungle now felt like my fault.” However, he concludes, “the love that I had for Roman—and for Peggy and jazz, for that matter—was stronger and deeper for the time we had spent together in wild places.”
Using the word “heartbreaking” is of course a spoiler on the outcome, but as the pages turn and the still-looking-for-Roman-Two chapters keep going, we have a pretty good idea this will not end well. As the father acknowledges, some questions are unfair—and unanswerable. Things could have gone terribly wrong on Umnak, after all, or anywhere else along the way as the family explored. Harrowing, haunting, and (yeah) heartbreaking, The Adventurer’s Son is a powerful read.