On July 10, 2014, Cody Roman Dial, a 27-year-old graduate student from Alaska, set out into Costa Rica’s imposing Corcovado National Park, a 164-square-mile jungle on the country’s western flank.
He never returned.
His disappearance spurred his mother, Peggy, and his father, Roman Dial—a National Geographic Explorer and well-known figure in Alaska’s outdoor circles—into a relentless two-year quest to find their son. It was a tortuous search, with contradicting clues, a dubious murder confession, and the ever-diminishing hope that Cody, who went by his middle name, Roman, might be found alive. Dial’s search was first chronicled in this magazine in 2016. It also became the subject of a six-episode National Geographic “true-crime series,” Missing Dial, which traced Dial’s repeated efforts to discover what happened to his intrepid son. Now, nearly four years after Cody Roman’s remains were discovered in the jungle, Dial has carefully, agonizingly written down his version of events for the book The Adventurer’s Son. It’s a moving portrait of an inspired young man and a firsthand account of a father’s desperate hunt for his missing son. But the heart of the book is Dial’s detailed accounts of his and Cody Roman’s exploits around the globe—and a father’s close bond with his only son, a friendship forged through shared adventures.
When I spoke to Dial last fall, he told me, despite so much media coverage of his son’s story, that he knew he’d want the final word. “I wanted to make sure that the right story was out there because the TV show just seemed wrong to me,” he said. “I thought it was going to be a documentary, but it ended up being a reality TV show.”
In the series, filmed with Dial in Costa Rica, there are “re-created” scenes, including one with a local walking with what looks like a blood-stained machete. Dial was flown to Los Angeles to read narration that the show’s producers had written for him. Two investigators hired to assist in the search become fixated on a local drug dealer who people had seen traveling with “the gringo”—this despite Dial’s insistence that his son didn’t fit the mold of a 20-something backpacker looking to get high. This tension generated good TV, but it also made Dial seem unwilling to accept the true nature of his son’s disappearance.
“I was totally willing to trade my story for their help,” says Dial. “But once we got down there, it just became another story that I didn’t feel was going in the right direction.”
In the wake of the show’s airing, Dial received letters criticizing him for his reluctance to believe the investigators helping him and his impatience with them. A few people even skewered him as a father. How could you let your son take off on such a risky adventure like that, they asked.
It’s a question that Dial grapples with in his book. In one section, Cody Roman emails his father about a planned trek through Guatemala’s El Petén region, a vast jungle full of Mayan ruins. It’s a notoriously difficult area to negotiate, with a reputation as a stopover for Colombian narcos transporting cocaine to the U.S. Dial pored over maps of his son’s planned route and crafted multiple emails essentially telling him, “No, don’t do it.” With each email he typed out, he thought better and deleted it. At this point in his travels, Cody Roman was far better equipped to make these decisions. He spoke Spanish fluently, thrived in the backcountry, and was probably in the best shape of his life. In the end, Dial simply warned him of hazards he might encounter and hit send on a short email, hoping to himself that the trip would go well. It did and confirmed to Dial that his son had grown into a strong, capable, and conscientious young man.
It’s not giving anything away to say that Cody Roman’s death a few months later in Costa Rica was not the result of a murderous local but a freak wilderness accident. His remains were discovered in May 2016 by a miner in Corcovado, in a creek bed. Dial immediately flew down.
“I felt like I’d been held underwater, literally, for years,” Dial says. “I was 99.9 percent sure that he was dead, but I just didn’t know how it happened or where.”
When Dial sat down to write The Adventurer’s Son in 2018, his hometown of Anchorage had just been hit by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. He wrote as the aftershocks rumbled through his house, where he was working. “I don’t even know what a nervous breakdown is, but I felt like I was on the verge of one,” he says. “There was a lot of pent-up emotion that I was able to let out as I wrote.”
To complete the book, Dial reread Cody Roman’s journals from when he was a kid. As a researcher sometimes working in remote areas around the globe, Dial had the opportunity to introduce his son to far-flung adventures from a young age. When Cody Roman was only 6, the duo bushwhacked for 60 miles across the tundra on a remote Aleutian island. They explored the jungles of Puerto Rico and Borneo. The family road-tripped together through the Australian outback. Dial and his 11-year-old son even traveled to Corcovado, where Cody Roman disappeared.
I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN IS, BUT I FELT LIKE I WAS ON THE VERGE OF ONE.
For Dial, it was important to include all of these trips in the book to show how experienced Cody Roman was in the outdoors and deflect the criticism directed at his son for walking into Corcovado alone. Dial also wanted to demonstrate just how essential those experiences were to his close relationship with his son. “It’s really useful to go outdoors with your kids,” Dial says. “It’s fundamental to being human, and it helps build really strong bonds. My strongest relationships are ones that developed doing outdoor adventures.”
For the book, Dial also pored over all Cody Roman’s email correspondence during his travels through Mexico and Central America. People who had met Cody Roman reached out to send Dial notes about what a caring young man he was. “To read those things and then see the whole arc of his life, to see who he’d become, it was beautiful,” says Dial, “but it was very painful, too.”
In the end, what Cody Roman’s saga became is not a wilderness mystery or parable of a dramatic adventure gone wrong. With Dial’s words, it was transformed into an almost real-time memoir of a father’s struggle to deal with the grief of losing his son through revisiting the adventures they once shared. It’s a story about a mourning father and his quest to find some sort of peace—and in the process discovering what a remarkable, confident young man his son had become, not unlike his old man. “I wanted him to be his own person,” Dial told me, “but it’s very satisfying to see yourself in your children. I just wished that he’d lived long enough to have his own son.”
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