It’s difficult to write a concise intro for (all-around adventurer) Roman Dial. He’s had such a diverse and accomplished life that you sort of need to write an intro for each phase of it. Some know him as one of the forefathers and innovators of packrafting. Others have heard of his canopy trekking exploits. Many have had him as their college professor, and others know him as a National Geographic Explorer. I know Roman more casually: As the guy that built his fatbike wheels and then packed my own bike and joined him on a few creative omniterrain off-piste traverses in Alaska.
From these trips I’ve learned that Roman possesses a curiosity that could never be taught, combined with an intellect that could only ever be earned. He is able to discourse intelligently on an incredible range of subjects, getting into the (fascinating!) weeds more than most lay listeners will be comfortable with. On every one of the trips I’ve done with Roman, we’ll eventually find ourselves several figurative twists and turns down one of these lanes of discovery when he’ll suddenly become conscious that only he has spoken in the past few minutes, everyone else occupying some silent space.
This silence is most likely because we simply don’t know enough about the subject to venture an opinion, and would rather remain silent and appear ignorant—or at least pensive—han open our mouths and remove all doubt. Noting the silence, Roman will cut short the thought and trail off with a halfhearted and borderline apologetic, “Well, I think that’s accurate, but I’m not a taxonomist so maybe I’m off base.”
Like few other people I know he has the capability to contemplate, comprehend, and explicate things that few will take the time—much less have the attention span—to appreciate.
Early in 2014, I had the chance to join him and some other Alaskan friends on a mid-winter paddling trip in Mexico. Two weeks of intense immersion—into the water and the culture—was both humbling and rewarding. Many friends rotated in and out for a few days or a week, but the core unit for the duration was me, Roman, and his son Cody Roman (Dial). It was my first time meeting Cody.
Our group paddled whitewater most of every day, lightly testing our limits while exploring bits of the jungle, and then getting a crash course in the local culture in the evenings. One of the first things to jump out about Cody was that he was incredibly observant of his surroundings. He’d note and share small idiosyncrasies about the towns or people we encountered every day—tuff that had flown miles over my head—and through this lens I began to get a sense for how sharp he was, but also how capable he was of relating to and interacting with the locals despite having no obvious common threads.
I picked up that Cody was a few months into a somewhat open-ended year off from grad school and that he’d spent it working his way south to meet us by foot, boat, thumb, and sometimes bus. While walking through Jalcomulco one evening, chatting as we strolled, one second he was there and the next he was gone. I turned in a quick circle, quizzically scanning the crowd, not yet grasping that we’d just passed an ice cream vendor, nor that he laughingly framed his trip thus far as a tour of local ice creameries. I liked him immediately.
Over the next 10 or so days I got to know Cody through conversation, by seeing how he interacted with his dad and others on the trip, but also by paying attention to the way he handled challenges on the river, or processed the logistical snafus that presented themselves every day. Even though he was nearly 20 years younger than I am, I learned something from him almost every time he spoke. I also learned that he didn’t speak often: the better to be able to observe. I remember thinking that he was—and would be—an excellent wilderness trip partner.
As the group dispersed, Cody and I were the last two left. While I frittered away two hours waiting on my plane he seemed to be making the mental transition back to solo travel mode, inventorying his rucksack then popping into a bodega for essentials. Parting was awkward in that we both sat closer to the introverted end of the spectrum. I thanked him for grabbing my paddle during one memorable swim, ribbed him for “causing” that swim, then wished him safe travels on the rest of his adventure. He grinned broadly if sheepishly as his cheeks flushed with embarrassment, perhaps remembering the swim in question, then regained himself, shook my hand, turned and headed off down the street. Only while standing on the jetway did it dawn on me that I was a bit intimidated by Cody. I hadn’t put words to that feeling until that moment. He had a certain intensity of presence that—coupled with his razor-sharp observation skills—kept you on your toes.
That was the last time any of us would see Cody. He went missing in Costa Rica a few months later and it would be years before his remains were discovered and recovered.
Roman has written a book chronicling Cody’s life, The Adventurer’s Son: A Memoir. It covers their earliest explorations together, in Alaska, California, Puerto Rico, Australia, Mexico, Bhutan, and Borneo, laying the literal foundation for a lifetime of adventure, leading to the last email Cody Roman sent before disappearing, to the years of frustrating, heartbreaking searching Roman and Peggy did to unravel what had happened to their son.
It is a life story. It is a love story.
As with any tale of life and love, there is compromise and there are regrets.
Throughout the book Roman shares intimate thoughts about his culpability in Cody’s disappearance, grappling with guilt and responsibility for setting him on the path that would provide the highest highs of his young life, but also that would lead him down his final trail. The events surrounding Cody’s death were random, unpredictable—not the sort of thing one could plan around. And yet it is understandable that Roman would second-guess the degree to which he gave his son the keys to a world beyond.
I’ve discussed Roman’s book with friends who are parents, and parents who are friends. Their collective response after reading the book can accurately be paraphrased as “I wish I could have been a parent more like him.”
I’ve read the book twice. I had to read it twice: I was reading so fast to understand what happened that I didn’t fully digest all of the details the first time around.
On my second lap through I better appreciated how Roman had groomed his son not just to be his adventure partner, but how he and Peggy had raised Cody to be a mature, responsible, caring, insightful, and creative human being with a penchant for thinking outside the box.
During our two week trip in Mexico I wasn’t able to see the whole picture of the relationship between father and son. Looking back on that trip six years later—through the lens of this book—I’ve come to understand that Roman gave his son an incalculably different model of what masculinity could mean.