The literature of wilderness exploration is as much about mortal risk as anything else. From Jack London to Jon Krakauer, adventure writing shows us how the rich rewards of interacting with thrillingly raw nature, observing unfamiliar species and testing our reserves of strength and endurance coexist with the simple fact that we tempt fate – and a lonely death – whenever we step from the safely beaten path into the wild.
Underscoring this dangerous bargain, Roman Dial’s new book, “The Adventurer’s Son” (William Morrow, 368 pp., ★★★½ out of four), takes its place among modern accounts of tragic adventure with hard-won wisdom and grace. Dial is a renowned Alaskan biologist, mountaineer and National Geographic explorer who endured any parent’s worst nightmare, beginning in the summer of 2014. That’s when his son, Cody Roman Dial, 27, walked alone into Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park, a barely mapped rainforest along the Pacific Coast.
He did not return. In his last email to his parents, Cody exuded youthful cockiness: “It should be difficult to get lost forever.”
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Dial’s chronicle of his desperate yet expert attempts at finding Cody is a study in parental ambivalence. When Cody vanishes, Dial can’t help but blame his own passions. He had schooled his son in wilderness adventure since Cody was a toddler, exposing him to the esoteric thrill of chopping ice worms from Tibetan glaciers, trekking through Alaskan and Australian tundras, rafting the whitest waters and daring the bizarre biology of Borneo’s rainforest. Very much his father’s son, Cody thought nothing of handling foot-long centipedes or blistering his feet in endless walks along the fringes of civilization.
“I couldn’t shake the feeling that everything I had done with him in the wild had all been a mistake,” Dial writes. “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.”
Dial laments that he had not simply introduced his son to the risks of the wilderness but had induced in Cody a reckless adventurousness. Cody’s lone trek into Corcovado was, after all, an illegal “bushwhack” into state-regulated jungle, where some of the world’s most venomous snakes – the fer-de-lance and bushmaster – rule the mud. Peril lurks in countless forms, from falling tree trunks to machete-wielding drug smugglers.
Dial’s search for his son is a complex affair, channeling the high-profile involvement of Alaskan Sen. Lisa Murkowski and U.S. Gen. John F. Kelly. The prevailing narrative of Cody’s disappearance – that he was last seen in the company of a drug dealer – was a red herring that Costa Rican officials clung to for too long, hampering a proper search-and-rescue effort. The storytelling is almost too precise, weaving a fair amount of wilderness jargon and topographic details to the point of some confusion, but who can blame Dial for his obsessive accounting?
Over the course of two years, the Dial family – which includes Cody’s sister, Jazz, and mother, Peggy – followed thin leads and cold trails. An attempt to produce a documentary film sensationalized Cody’s story as a murder mystery, but the ultimate truth proved simpler than all the speculation and misdirection. The Dials found closure and a measure of relief, while Roman Dial pays worthy tribute to his son with this deeply felt, sad saga.