The Adventurer's Son Page 1

Author: Roman Dial

Genres: Adventure

Prologue: Family

Tide-pooling on the northern California coast, 1989.

Courtesy of the author

MY WIFE, PEGGY, bore our son, Cody Roman Dial, on February 22, 1987, in Fairbanks, Alaska. Peggy and I had met as teenagers there, a place that drew me for its prospect of climbing mountains, skiing glaciers, and rafting rivers. We purposefully raised Cody Roman and his sister, Jazz, in Alaska, exposing them both to natural history travel and wilderness experiences around the world. When he was six, Cody Roman and I hiked alone across sixty miles of an empty Aleutian island. When he was nine, we made a family trip to a remote national park in Indonesian Borneo, a life-changing experience in an amazing tropical rainforest. While activities like wilderness trips and travel in the developing world set him apart from many kids, Cody Roman played with Legos and video games, listened to indie rock, read Harry Potter, and attended public school as a normal kid from a close-knit family brought closer by nature and adventure. As a professional scientist and explorer, I included him in science and explorations as my favored and willing partner in both.

At twenty-six, Cody Roman left graduate school in Alaska for three months on the East Coast, then six more in Latin America. He explored volcanoes, rivers, ruins, reefs, and jungles on his own and with other travelers he met along the way. As he traveled, he stayed in touch with friends and family, emailing plans, maps, and stories. Then in July 2014, while he was in Costa Rica—after sending details of a planned five-day walk, alone and off-trail—the emails ended abruptly. Alarmed and guilt-stricken, I fought down rising panic and rushed down to find his trail before it was too late.

This book is the story of our lives and my search for my son. Some of the dialogue was unforgettable; some transcribed; some told as oral history for decades; some imagined. It has been a painful book to write: full of nostalgia, catharsis, sadness, longing, and struggles with guilt. But the story is an important one—the most important words I have ever written. I owe it to Cody Roman to get it right and true.

Part I

Chapter 1


Author and author’s uncle, Brian Decker. Rochester, Washington, 1973.

Courtesy of the author

In 1955, a sixteen-year-old girl named Linda Eklund left her family’s ten-acre farm near Rochester, Washington, to live in Seattle, probably to escape her stepfather, or maybe her mother’s gruff Germanic way. Linda met my father at twenty, fell in love, and gave birth to me at twenty-one. Four years later she had my sister, Tamara.

“Was I a mistake?” I remember Tamara once asking.

“No. Your brother was, though,” my mom quipped back. I thought through what it meant to be a mistake, feeling a bit of a sting. Sensing my disappointment, my mom went on: “But your dad liked him so much he wanted another one, and that was you, Tamara Dial.” My mom named Tamara after her best friend, who’d helped her get on her feet once she’d left home.

My father named me after his uncles—Roman and Joseph, born in Poland—who’d been father figures to him on their farm in Enumclaw, east of Seattle. My dad never met his own father, nor, as a self-confessed city slicker, did he take much to the outdoors. After meeting my namesakes, who were somewhat distant and unaffectionate, I came to understand why my dad struggled as a father to me: he wasn’t sure how to be one.

Like all boys, I was fascinated by my father and drawn to him like a moth to a bare bulb in the dark, watching and studying and learning what I could. The fondest memory I have of Bob Dial came from February 1970 when I was nine. My dad, a Ph.D. civil engineer who developed computer models to describe traffic flow, had taken a job in northern Virginia. While Tamara and my mom flew east to our new home in Falls Church, he drove our Shetland sheepdog, Brute, and me across the country in our Porsche Speedster.

It was a marvelous trip, twisting down the Oregon coastline, under the California redwoods, over the Sierras and Rockies, then across the empty plains of Kansas and the flat hardwood forests east of the Mississippi. We talked and watched the continent roll by and sometimes he sat me on his lap to steer the silver Speedster down curvy country roads. That trip holds warm memories of my dad and we bonded then. Later I would learn that bonds need maintenance to endure.

In May 1970, my parents bought me a ticket to Alaska, where I would stay with my mother’s brothers in Usibelli, a mining camp in the Alaska Range. At the time, the trip seemed a substitute for my friends’ adventures at summer camp. As an adult, though, it occurred to me that my parents sent me away while they struggled with their marriage. In my mom’s drawer of old photos, there are none of Bob Dial with our family after that summer. Tamara and I would see him only on weekends, when he was often late to pick us up. Sitting in our house, we waited, disappointed he was more interested in his life than in ours.

The summer I headed to Usibelli, my parents’ problems were invisible to me, a little kid who knew only that Alaska would be even more exciting than his grandmother’s farm. My grandmother lived an hour and a half from Seattle, with a dozen head of cattle, pigs, rabbits, vegetable gardens, and blackberry brambles. Exploring the surrounding countryside and discovering its wildlife made the zoo in Seattle feel like mere spectating. My uncles—Zinn and Brian—were kind to me, their big sister’s son, a skinny, precocious city kid with no common sense, as both were quick to remind me with a laugh. They taught me lessons about nature and life that no classroom or books could offer.

After picking me up at the Fairbanks airport, Zinn drove south with me in the back seat, nose to the window, soaking in the view. It was my first trip to Alaska and already I was intoxicated by the midnight sun and the landscapes uninterrupted by buildings, fences, or anything man-made beyond the gravel road. Three hours later, he turned his Ford pickup off the Parks Highway and headed east toward Healy.

Zinn drove slowly to keep the dust down as we passed woodlands of stunted spruce and dwarfed aspen covering the foothills of the Alaska Range. He guided the Ford across the one-lane trestle of a railroad spur leading to the coal mining district at Usibelli. I looked under the railroad ties at the bossy Nenana River, its glacial gray waters writhing, hypnotic and terrifying. Beyond the bridge the road twisted past soft cliffs smoking with burning coal seams. To the south, scabby peaks rose above pale tundra, their summits cradling winter’s lingering snow.

My uncles lived and worked at the Usibelli coal mine. A collection of scattered sheet metal and wood clapboard buildings set among tractor-truck trailers, Usibelli itself was barely a company town for the Usibelli Coal Company. Both uncles worked long hours operating heavy machinery that stripped coal from rolling hills. While my mom had sent me there under their care, it was clear Brian and Zinn were busy. It would be up to me to entertain myself. Luckily there was plenty to do under the benign neglect of my uncles.

Exactly nine years older, Brian shared my birthday. Kid-sized and kid-hearted, with bright blue eyes beneath brows that seemed always arched in amusement, Brian sometimes stuttered, but his staccato statements merely emphasized what he tried to spit out. Maybe because he was the baby in his family and I was younger—but old enough to be a brother—he introduced me proudly to his friends as “my little nephew.” Like Zinn, he often called me “Rome.”

“Hey, Rome!” Brian grinned as Zinn carried my bags into Brian’s bunkhouse room my first night in Usibelli. “You can sleep here. Zinn and me gotta work tomorrow but we’ll try and take you out on Zinn’s Kawasaki this weekend.” Zinn, who had brought his wife, Faye, their three-year-old son, and infant daughter to Usibelli, stayed in a house next door. Faye was supposed to keep an eye on me, but she rarely did.