Skip to main content

A Father Recounts His Search For The Son Who Vanished In Costa Rican Wilderness

In 2014, wilderness explorer Roman Dial experienced every parent's nightmare when he learned that his son, then 27, was missing in a remote Central American rainforest, thousands of miles away.


Other segments from the episode on March 3, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 3, 2020: Interview with Roman Dial; Review of the book Scratched: A Memoir Of Perfectionism.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest Roman Dial is often described as an adventurer, known for his skills in mountaineering, ice climbing, rafting and grueling backcountry endurance races. He shared those skills with his son and inspired him to embark on his own wilderness adventures. Then, in 2014, Dial experienced every parent's nightmare. He learned that his son, then 27, was missing in a remote Central American rainforest thousands of miles away.

Dial's new book is an account of his frantic search, hacking through dense jungle, sorting through confusing, contradictory tips from locals and engaging private investigators and even a reality TV crew, exploring the possibility of foul play in the disappearance. The book is also a reflection on the risks of extreme wilderness adventures and a parent's responsibility for his son's safety. Roman Dial is a professor of mathematics and biology at Alaska Pacific University. His book is called "The Adventurer's Son."

Well, Roman Dial, welcome to FRESH AIR. You do pack rafting and all kinds of stuff. And then when you had your son Roman, you wanted to show him the joy of this. And you went on this amazing journey when he was 6 years old. You want to describe this?

ROMAN DIAL: Sure. Yeah. When he turned 6, I took him to Umnak Island, which is the third Aleutian island in the chain in Alaska. And it's a remote island. It's about 60 miles long, and I wanted to walk with him from one end to the other. And I picked the island because it had this World War II history on one end, and it had an Aleut village at the other end, and in between was a geyser basin like Yellowstone might have a geyser basin. And I wanted to show this to him.

So we landed at this old World War II military base, and there was a family living there. And the plane landed, and they gave this family the mail. And the man - the father asked me, well, what's your name? And I said, well, I'm Roman Dial. And I was sort of hoping that he'd heard of me, but he didn't know who I was. And he bent down to my son, and he goes, well, what's your name, little guy? And my son says, well, I'm Roman, too. And I was just like, wow. You know, he's calling himself Roman, which was his middle name. And so ever after that, he was - his name was Roman.

And we walked about 60 miles, and he didn't carry a pack, and so sometimes, I had to carry him. But it was an amazing, life-changing trip for both of us.

DAVIES: So your son Roman, who was 27 when he went on the trip where he disappeared, was quite a skilled outdoorsman himself, right? You want to just give us a sense of some of the challenges that he had taken on?

DIAL: Well, sure. Just prior to his disappearance in Costa Rica, he'd gone down this river called the Patuca River in Honduras, and it's one of the most, you know, dangerous places in Central America. And I don't mean dangerous from snakes or falling off of mountains, but it's sort of, like, a transport region for cocaine coming from Colombia and then heading into Honduras and traveling to Guatemala and Mexico and up to the United States. So I didn't know that about this, and at the time, you know, he was going down there. And it's, like, a big biosphere preserve also on the map. It looks like a big wilderness area that's natural. And he and a young Canadian man went down that river together.

And before that, he had gone on a solo trip and walked across pretty much the biggest wilderness in Guatemala, called El Peten. And he went on, like, a, you know, eight- or 10-day trip - solo trip walking on, you know, thin jungle trails and Jeep roads and across this wilderness area. And he'd been collecting jungles through Central America for about six months before he reached Costa Rica. And then, as a young man, you know, we pretty much did a trip every year somewhere in the world. And, you know, sometimes, we went pack rafting, like, down the Grand Canyon of the Colorado or down the Franklin River in Australia. And we'd done trips in Arctic Alaska. And when he was, I think, like, 12 or 13, maybe, I guess - maybe he was 14 - we skied across a big ice field.

You know, I kind of hoped that he would be an outdoors partner for me for life, and so I tried to do something with him every year. And he was very accomplished. He could find game trails, and he was an expert pack rafter and an expert camper. And he knew how to get along with people, and he did his chores. You know, he'd cook, and he'd set up the tent and carry his weight. Yeah, he was a great outdoorsman.

DAVIES: And you were close, and he was really good at staying in touch while he was on the road, right? So you wouldn't worry.

DIAL: Yeah, we've always been a pretty close family. And so when he was in Central America, he would send these emails, and he would say, oh, here's where I am. And going to, you know, be off the grid for a while. Here's what I'm going to do. And he'd give a pretty, you know, good description of what his plans were, and then he'd go do this adventure. And then he'd come out, and he'd say, hey. You know, like, when he walked across El Peten, he said, hey. I just got out. I thought I'd let you guys know I'm OK. I'll send you more tomorrow after I get cleaned up. And then he'd write, you know, like, a great, big, long story about his adventures.

DAVIES: So that was reassuring, obviously, to his parents far, far away in Alaska. So in Central America, he goes to this little peninsula - the very southern end of Costa Rica on the Pacific side called the Osa. You want to just describe this region?

DIAL: Sure. The Osa Peninsula has a big national park - you know, big by Central American standards. I think it's, like, a hundred thousand acres, maybe. And the Osa Peninsula itself kind of juts off from the rest of Costa Rica kind of like a bent arm. It's about, you know, the farthest you can get away from, you know, San Jose in Costa Rica. And it's a little piece of sort of, like, South American jungle there. I mean, they've got jaguars, and they've got the giant poisonous snake, the bushmaster. And they've got king vultures, and they've got wild animals there.

And it's a beautiful rainforest, and he and I had been there twice before - once on a tropical ecology class that I took from my university down there and he was, I think, 11. And then a couple of years later, I went on a research trip down there and brought him on that. So he'd been there, and he wanted to go back. And it's just a beautiful place. It's right on the coast, with spectacular beaches and cliffs and then giant trees and then rugged mountains.

DAVIES: Right. So he sends a note saying he's going to go hiking in the national park on his own, which was against the rules, right? You're really supposed to have a guide there, right?

DIAL: Right. Well, when we went there back in the late '90s and the early 2000s, you didn't need a guide. They didn't really care where you went. You could go on- and off-trail, for example. So my son showed up, and he found out that they weren't letting people in unless they had a guide. And guides cost a lot of money, and he'd sort of been avoiding guides the whole time he'd been in Central America. I mean, we rarely hired guides on all of our family trips and worldly trips, you know, because it's a lot more adventurous to do it on your own. So he decided to go in on his own, and he was worried about getting caught, so he was bushwhacking off-trail.

DAVIES: And there's an email that he sends about his plans, which you didn't read carefully when you got it. I have to say, this is one of the more painful moments of the story. You want to describe this?

DIAL: Yeah, I - it was - you know, he - I knew he was collecting these jungles, and I knew that he wanted to go to Panama and cross the Darien Gap. And I didn't really want him to do that, but it - all of these were his own trips. And I've spent my life planning to do some crazy trip and had people tell me no, and I wasn't going to tell him no when he was planning his own crazy trips because those crazy trips are what make us grow the most, I guess.

So he'd sent these detailed plans, but they were kind of threaded with this email batch about maps. You know, he was, like - we'd been talking about maps. He needed a good topo map for his adventures. And we'd been talking, and I'd just come back from my own kind of wilderness trip here in Alaska. And I'd been gone for a week, and, you know, I had household things to do. And I saw that email, and I thought, oh, it's just about maps. I don't need to read it right now because I, you know, had to catch up. And then my wife and I - we went salmon fishing.

Then we came back, and we hadn't heard from him. It had been a couple of weeks. And I thought, wow. What did that email say? I better go look at it. And I looked at the email, and I read to the bottom where it was sort of threaded. And he said, oh, I'm heading off into the jungle. And I'll be gone, you know, four or five days. And, you know, like, the last line was something like, you know, I'll be bound by trails to this side and the ocean to that side. And it should be impossible to get lost forever. And I looked at when he'd sent this, and it'd been, like, two weeks. And so he was ten days overdue at that point. And I was just - oh, my God. And I was racked with a lot of feelings, like terror and guilt and urgency.

And so I - yeah, I dropped everything, and I, you know, got an airplane ticket to fly the next day. And then I asked a really good friend of mine, Thai Verzone, to come help me because he can speak Spanish. And he's real friendly, and he's been all over the world. And everybody likes him.


DIAL: So I took off and went to Costa Rica.

DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, I have to say, this moment would hit any parent right in the chest. I've got kids who are adults. And the notion that, suddenly, your kid has disappeared, is unaccounted for and you are thousands of miles away is such a horror. So you get to Costa Rica as quickly as you can. You get to this area. And there are local officials to deal with. There's the Ministry of Environment and Energy, which actually runs the park. There's the local police. You want to get out there because you have a clue as to where he might have been from his description, but it's not so simple. You meet with some of the officials. There's a guy there named Dandi (ph). You know, what did he tell you?

DIAL: Well, right. I got there. And, you know, I didn't ask the Red Cross. I didn't ask any of these people for help. All I did was email. And I made some phone calls and said, look. You know, my son is missing. I called the embassy, and I said, my son is missing. But, you know, I didn't expect them - I wasn't hoping they were going to do anything. I wanted to go down there and do everything that I could. It was - I thought it was my responsibility, not theirs.

And then when I got there, I kind of discovered that they didn't really even - they weren't even looking where I said he planned to go. And then they were pursuing this lead where somebody had seen my son, they claimed, with this local drug dealer walking on a trail outside of the park. And that just didn't add up to me. Like, you know, my son's been sending these emails for months about these wild adventures he's been going on, and he'd said, you know, explicitly that he eschewed guides. And here he was with a guide on a tourist trail outside of the park. It just didn't add up. But everybody treated me as if I was just a typical parent who didn't really know their child.

DAVIES: Right. And let's give this guy a name. Pata Lora - right? - he was sort of a local miscreant and, you said, maybe a drug dealer.

DIAL: Yeah.

DAVIES: Roman Dial's book is "The Adventurer's Son." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Roman Dial. He's a professor of mathematics and biology at Alaska Pacific University and an accomplished outdoorsman. He has a new book about searching for his son after his disappearance in a Central American rainforest. It's called "The Adventurer's Son."

While you're in this area of Costa Rica going through these frustrating experiences, you describe lying at this lodge where you were staying and imagining the ways one could suffer and die in this jungle. What were some of the perils that he would've faced?

DIAL: Wow. Well, you know, it was a really painful experience. And I've - you know, my Ph.D. is in tropical rainforest ecology. And I've done research in jungles, you know, in Asia and Australia and South America - or Central America and South America. And so I was aware of the hazards in the jungle, and I could imagine that he was just, you know - he was bitten by a snake. I mean, there aren't that many poisonous snakes in Borneo, for example, but in Central and South America, there's a lot of poisonous snakes. And, you know, you can see, like, a poisonous snake once every few days, practically. I mean, I think fer-de-lances kill thousands of people a year in Central America alone. And there's the great, big bushmaster, and there's a little palm viper, a little - short, little viper that hangs from bushes about eye level. And people tend to get bit in the face or the neck by these things.

And I thought, well, that could have happened to him. And I thought, you know, he could have slipped because he's off trail. He could have slipped and broken a leg. And he could be - you know, have sepsis because things, you know, go bad. Infections happen quickly in the tropics. And then there - it sounds absurd because we live in, you know, houses without trees around, but the word widow-maker is a word that refers to trees and branches that fall down and kill people who are camping, for example. And I've been in the rainforest enough to realize that when it rains and the wind blows that trees fall down, and it becomes very dangerous.

And so those were the things. And then there was also the possibility - because this place has lawless, you know, people moving drugs. It's got people mining for gold. And once you break one law, it's easier to break other laws. So there was also the possibility of foul play.

DAVIES: Right. And in terms of the treefalls, you have big trees with shallow roots and then these torrential storms, and so it is a real risk to have one of these trees topple over. You discover that there was kind of a history of violence on this Osa Peninsula, right?

DIAL: Oh, right.

DAVIES: Some specific examples.

DIAL: Yeah. Well, I - even the Swede who founded the national park, who had the idea for the national park of Corcovado in the first place - he was murdered in the jungle back in the '70s. And then, you know, within the last - I don't know - five or 10 years - I don't remember the dates exactly - there was a Canadian woman who was shot at her cocoa plantation right on the border of the park. There was an American woman who was smothered in her house, and her iPod and her iPhone were stolen. And then there was two Austrians buying gold and then selling gold in Dos Brazos, and somebody, you know, murdered them and stole their car and, you know, dismembered them and buried them in the sand and then actually lived in their house.

And in Costa Rica, you can't have a murder conviction without a body. And so even though everybody knew that this guy had done it - and it turns out he's, like, Pata Lora's uncle or something - it turned out that this guy had actually killed him. And when a tourist found the remains washed out of a sandy beach where, you know, a creek changed its path, and they were able to arrest this guy.

DAVIES: So you're at this place, and you're trying to get into the park over the objections of the authorities and, at times, under threat of arrest, when you can, to search. At one point, they arrange for a helicopter search. Was this helpful?

DIAL: Well, you know, I didn't turn it down at all because I knew that if it were me and I was lost and broken and in a soggy, wet tent eating lizards in the jungle and I heard a helicopter fly over, I would know that they were looking for me. And so I agreed to it. And I actually flew in it for, I don't know, less than an hour or maybe half an hour. And flying around the park, I mean, it looks like - you know, it looks like somebody took a sheet of notebook paper and crumpled it up in their hands, and that's how, you know, rugged the terrain is.

And I looked down, and the forest is tall, and it's multilayered, and there was - there'd be no way to see somebody there. And I knew that there were people down there. There were miners, and there were farmers, and there were tourists, and I never saw anybody. And I was - had my nose pressed to the glass looking for my son, hoping maybe he'd dragged himself out onto a creek bottom or onto a landslide someplace that I could see him. But I didn't see him. And it made me realize that I needed to be in the jungle on foot looking.

DAVIES: So you're there for weeks, and with the passage of time, you know, he doesn't turn up, and you don't find him. What were your emotions like at this point?

DIAL: Well, you know, here's - there's a lot of different things happening - is, first, you know, I went down there, and I was sure I was just going to find him and bring him home alive. I'd been involved with rescues before and brought people home, and I thought this was going to be one of those. And as time passed and I realized that, you know, he - it was less and less likely I was going to find him alive, and - but I still - you know, it's like - it's a continuum; it's not an on-and-off switch where you go from hoping he's alive to knowing he's dead. And even after six weeks down there, I thought he could still be alive, and we were still looking.

When I returned around Christmastime a few months later, you know - of course, my wife and I were hopeful that maybe he would - he just left the country, and I went to Panama to look for him. I thought maybe he would have just sort of abandoned us somehow. But it didn't add up. You know, some people said, oh, he's just doing his own thing, and he doesn't need to tell you. But I - we couldn't see our son doing that. But I was still hopeful he was alive and just having some adventure somewhere else.

And it wasn't until, you know, I heard from the embassy that they'd found his gear. There was a lot of his gear that was missing that I'd never found anywhere, and it turns out it had been at the hostel all the time all along in a big backpack that he'd bought in Mexico that I was not familiar with that was actually next to the yellow bag. And inside this big backpack were a bunch of things that I knew he needed for - not for this jungle camping but for other things. And so it just deepened the mystery of what had happened to him.

DAVIES: Right. After you'd been down there for a while, you finally - your wife Peggy was in Alaska, you know, working the phones, trying to get public officials in the U.S. seeing if there was a way to get U.S. military help, which it seemed there was a prospect for but didn't pan out. And you finally emailed her and said, I'm coming home. And she said no, right?

DIAL: Right. Yeah, I mean, I was - you know, I'd looked in the jungle, and I'd finally gotten some permission. And, you know, I'd never asked - I didn't - the idea of the military help wasn't my idea; it was other people. And I wasn't going to say no. You know, I just - it seemed like a good idea, and I wasn't going to say no. But all I wanted to do was go down there and look. And when I couldn't find him, I was kind of depressed, and I didn't know where to look, and I had to go.

And I - when I was in the jungle, I'd always hope, well, when I - if I go back to town, maybe he's shown himself and he's there. And then when I was in town, I'd be like, God, I can't be here in town; I got to get back in the jungle. And it was a difficult time. And I guess I was just sort of overwhelmed by a month of looking and not finding, and I wanted to head home. I missed my family. And - but my wife was, you know - no, you've got to stay down there. And then she came down to help.

DAVIES: Yeah, I got the feeling that she needed to go there and follow the route that her son had described and try for herself to find him, right?

DIAL: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I - you know, I'm reading a book right now where people actually disappear in wilderness all over the United States kind of at a relatively frequent rate. And so, you know, for us to go and actually look, it was very helpful. I mean, I would - if I - whenever I couldn't look, I felt helpless, and I was much more depressed. But when I looked, I could feel like I was actually doing something, and I knew that it was good for her as well.

DAVIES: Roman Dial's book is "The Adventurer's Son." After a break, he'll talk about how the search for his son changed when he and his wife agreed to cooperate with a production company that wanted to make a TV documentary about the case. Also, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Scratched," Elizabeth Tallent's new memoir about perfectionism and writer's block. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest is Roman Dial, whose new book "The Adventurer's Son" is about his search for his 27-year-old son, an experienced wilderness explorer, after he disappeared in a Central American rainforest. One of the people investigators suspected had something to do with his son's disappearance was a reputed local drug dealer named Pata Lora. After searching for months in a remote area of Costa Rica without success, Dial and his wife accepted an offer of help from a source that would complicate the effort.

You and your wife were eventually contacted by a TV production company, among one of many that had pitched you. And this one seemed to have some promise because it included a former Air Force paratrooper who would go with you into the jungle and assist you in a rigorous search for your son and then a former DEA investigator who would conduct a criminal investigation. So you agreed to sign a contract with them because it seemed as if it might be helpful in getting at the truth. As it turned out, they couldn't get permits from the Costa Rican authorities to get into the rainforest to search. So the focus became the criminal investigation.

And this investigator, Carson Ulrich, at one point gets you in a room with cameras rolling, reveals that they think they have solved the case, and they tell you what happened. What did he tell you?

DIAL: Well, it actually wasn't even in a studio; it was in a hot, stuffy, kind of open-air room at noontime in the middle of the day. And it was 90 degrees up there, and it was, like, 100% humidity.

DAVIES: This is in Costa Rica.

DIAL: It was in Costa Rica. And I had just flown back from Alaska, and they were all excited, the producers and the director. We've got really important news for you. People have been working hard to get information, and we're going to give you the whole lowdown here. Come on up. And so I went up, and there were, like, three cameramen and bright lights and Carson sitting at this table and Ken sitting at the table, and they put me between them. And Carson says, look - this is really hard to tell you, but we found out that your son was abducted by miners, and then he was murdered. And then he paused, and he said, this is the hardest part to tell you - he was dismembered and fed to the sharks in the ocean. And it was all, you know, predicated on the Pata Lora story. It's what he said.

And I was just shocked because here I had come down, and you know, I signed up for this TV show hoping that they would be able to help me, but instead, all they had done is sort of staged this really kind of dramatic moment where, like, on live - well, with the cameras rolling, they had this expert investigator, you know, tell me that my son had been murdered and dismembered and fed to sharks. And all I could think of is, you know, oh, no, another Pata Lora story. This is not the guy that I want. So it felt really exploitive right there.

DAVIES: Right. You know, you do write that there were times after being sold - told so many times, it's part Pata Lora; he was involved in the murder. And you just don't know what - like a lot of parents, don't know what your kids were up to. Was there a point at which you doubted yourself and came to believe them?

DIAL: Well, absolutely. I mean, I'm - you know, I'm wrong a lot of the times. In this whole search, I was wrong over and over and over again, and maybe I was wrong about my son. Maybe he'd been lying about all the things that he'd been doing. Maybe this - the person that I thought he was wasn't who he was, and he was a different person who would be with Pata Lora on a trail outside of the park, not doing what he said he would do. So I had to - I did. I doubted myself, and I embraced this idea, and I carried that story forward.

DAVIES: They eventually got Pata Lora into kind of a hut or a cabin in Costa Rica and, with hidden cameras, recorded an interview with him in which he tells a story that he took your son - was with your son. And they were in the presence of these illegal miners, and then Pata Lora ran away before they did whatever they were going to do. So it wasn't exactly clear or conclusive, and it was certainly not the only version he had told.

DIAL: It's kind of funny because I did - I was pushing the story. And I even told the story to the OIJ, who's the head investigative organization in Costa Rica. And then...

DAVIES: The equivalent of their - the FBI kind of, right? Yeah.

DIAL: Yep. Exactly. And then I - I mean, I went down on multiple trips with the OIJ and the police and the park rangers looking for a body on the part Pata Lora trail, so to speak, where we thought it would be. And we went on the secret trail that the Guichos, these miners who supposedly killed my son - and Pata Lora's story was always changing. But we chased all of these leads and found nothing.

And the show was about to come out. And my wife and I went to Washington, D.C., kind of in a last-ditch effort to sort of get the FBI to kind of get involved. And again, this is stuff that I was always - I didn't - I wouldn't have thought to do this, but other people were encouraging me to do it, you know. And I - and my wife - you know, and it seemed like a good idea. I mean, yeah, I - if there's a $10 bill on the floor, I'm going to pick it up, you know. And so I - we went to the FBI. And I'd found the backpack that my son had purchased, so I kind of knew something about - you know, I'd done some investigative work.

And I met with the FBI, and they said sort of the same thing that they'd always said, that they can't do anything unless there's, you know, a body, and they can't get involved with Costa Rican criminal - you know, crime unless there's a body or a ransom request. And so we left the FBI, and I picked up my phone at security, and there was a message from Costa Rica. And I called the number, and it was the consul general at the embassy. And they said, Ramon, a body has been found near Dos Brazos, and we think it may be your son. There was some camping gear there.

DAVIES: Wow. So this is, like, right as this documentary series is going to come out that purports to have solved the crime. And in fact, this gives a whole different picture. What happened next?

DIAL: Well, yep. That was a Thursday that we were at the FBI, if I remember right. And Sunday, three or four days later, is going to be the first episode of the show. And so, you know, of course, I fly down to Costa Rica immediately. I want to get to this site before they start bringing stuff up.

And the next day, on Friday, the embassy sends me some texts, and it's - they're photographs of the equipment that they've found at the site. And sure enough, it's all my son's stuff. You know, like, I'd made a poster of equipment that he would have had as, like, a reward poster, and there were the green shoes that I'd put on the poster, and there was the sleeping pad that was yellow on one side and silver on the other. There was that in one of these photographs. And there was the backpack that I'd found that he'd bought in a North Face store. And there was a blue headlamp that I had given him in Anchorage. And there was the compass that I had given him in Anchorage. And there was his stuff, and it was him.

So we flew down there, and I hurried into the jungle. And sure enough, they're bringing up his remains. And as we walked out with all of this stuff and we got to Dos Brazos, well, there was the production company, you know, wanting to get the story. And the producer, he was dumbfounded. He was - I don't think he ever said it, but I sense that he believed - it was my feeling. You know, I could be wrong, but it was my feeling that he believed that there was some sort of conspiracy here.

DAVIES: Right. It's just too convenient that right as my terrific documentary is going to come out, this new surprise evidence emerges. You went to the site. You want to just describe being there, what you saw and how it made you feel, you and your wife?

DIAL: Sure. You know, I went there twice. I went there once the day that they were bringing the remains up. I wanted to get there before they brought everything up because I wanted to make sure - I wanted to see for myself and evaluate for myself if it had been an accident or if he'd been murdered there. And it was in a shallow canyon that was only about, you know, half a mile from where I'd camped multiple times looking for him. It was in the same drainage that I'd hiked up and down. I never got up that high because there were waterfalls between lower down and where he was found that I didn't pass.

But it was really close, and it was off trail, and it was in a place nobody would really go to. He was found by a miner who was looking for - I think the miner was looking for him because what happened is in the run up to this TV show, the channel was running, you know, like, trailers of this TV show that was coming, and the trailers were these really gruesome reenactments of what everybody thought was the murder of my son. So there would be, like, you know, miners with bloody machetes and a young man facedown in the creek - all this sort of, you know, titillating, buzz-creating recreation.

And then the people in the village, Dos Brazos, this - they were making their village look like a bunch of, you know, murderers. And they are trying to start up a tourism sort of economy there because they're right on the edge of Corcovado. And this guy, this miner, I think the locals encouraged him to go into the jungle and look harder because this show is going to make them look bad.

DAVIES: When you and the other investigators looked at the remains and the articles that were there, what did they tell you about whether he might have been the victim of violence?

DIAL: Well, there was a forensic anthropologist who worked for the OIJ, and she had told me at the site - because I met them as they were, like, you know, 50 yards walking up from the site, and the site was the bottom of this canyon with a big tree fall in the middle of the canyon, and all of his stuff had kind of collected in this tree fall. And then they came up, and she said, yeah, well, we looked at the bones, and there's no sign of trauma. There was - there were no machete hack marks on the bones. There were no, like, bullet fractures. And it didn't look like there had been any trauma to the bones.

And another ranger who had - was carrying up his gear - and it was a very emotional point because I'd been, you know, for two years, I'd been looking for my son. And I, you know, was - I hoped for the best, but I was expecting the worst. And then here was the worst, and he was dead. And it was a really painful moment. But at the same time, like, in the sort of deep valley of grief, I felt like we were on a little hilltop of hope in the sense that, on this little hilltop, at least we knew what had happened. And when I - it seemed like he hadn't been murdered. I can't see why somebody would have murdered him in the bottom of this canyon.

And it looked to me like maybe a tree had fallen on him, or one of the rangers said they thought that a snake had bitten him because they found a fer-de-lance down there. And fer-de-lances, you know, they live in the same area, small area, their whole life. They don't go very far. So...

DAVIES: Fer-de-lance is a kind of viper there, a kind of snake, right?

DIAL: Yep. It's a very - it's a kind of snake that kills more people in Central America than any other kind of snake. So that made sense to me. But when I looked at his - like, this big stove that he'd had, and it looked like he'd made a camp. Like, you know, I - his compass was not around his neck. It was laying on a log, and it had the bearing to where he was headed on the Rio Claro, and his Visqueen tarp was outside of his pack, and his headlamp was out. So it looked like he'd made camp. His foam pad was out. And his stove - he'd had a stove out with a cook pot.

But the stove, you know, cook camping stove, the burner head had been snapped off, as if something heavy had broken it. And similarly, the canister of fuel had a huge dent in it, like a real - like a log had hit it. Like, it - is a shallow, wide dent. And so it seemed to me that maybe a log had fallen. And there was - all of this stuff was underneath of this - the crown of a tree, a big rainforest tree.

DAVIES: And another critical piece of it is that his passport and money were still there, right? So he hadn't been robbed.

DIAL: Right. Yeah. So Ken said, well, I'm only going to believe that it was an accident if his money and his passport are there. And sure enough, they were there.

DAVIES: Roman Dial's book "The Adventurer's Son." We'll talk some more after a break.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Roman Dial. He's a professor of mathematics and biology at Alaska Pacific University and an accomplished outdoorsman. He has a new book about searching for his son after his son's disappearance in a Central American rainforest. It's called "The Adventurer's Son."

How long after your son's disappearance did you and your family finally, you know, get this final answer as to what had happened to him?

DIAL: Well he - you know, it was July 2014 when I finally realized, reading this email, that he was missing, and it was May 2016 when I went down to Costa Rica to see his remains. And then it was, like, November of 2016 that we brought home, you know, his ashes.

DAVIES: Right. You know, the painful question that hangs over this story, you know, is about whether the risks of this kind of wilderness adventure are worth it. And I guess - and you write in the book about this, about whether the experiences that you had introduced your son to, introduced him to this life of amazing adventures which carried risk, whether that left you with some measure of guilt or responsibility for what had happened. How do you think about that?

DIAL: Well, if - I write about in my book. Could I just read that passage in my book?

DAVIES: Yeah, yeah.

DIAL: OK. I have it here. It's in the epilogue at the - near the end. And I write, (reading) the questions I asked myself in Costa Rica - was I responsible? Would I have raised him differently? Had I paid close enough attention? Had I been too selfish? These are questions I still wrestle with and perhaps always will. But I know that, like the four most famous lines in Tennyson's poem "In Memoriam A.H.H.," the bond that we had was better to have than have not. Would I have raised Roman the same way knowing that he would die on a path I led him along? The answer is obvious, but the question is really unfair. We never know the future. There is no single moment in Roman's upbringing that can be traced forward to his death, no chain of events, no cause and effect. Accidents happen. Time has passed, and while these questions no longer crowd my heart, they linger.

DAVIES: Do you have any annual ritual for remembering him and celebrating his life?

DIAL: You know, he just had a birthday the other day. And Peggy and I went out with one of his former girlfriends and another friend of his, and we had lunch together. You know, I'd have to say I don't, you know, but I feel like I sort of celebrate him in some way, you know, every day or every week. I - he's never far from my thoughts.

DAVIES: You know, there were so many amazing experiences that you had in Borneo and the Himalayas. And you're still someone who takes joy in getting out in the wilderness. Do you kind of picture him with you at times?

DIAL: Yeah, many times. You know, I recently got a message where - somebody had read my book, and they asked me if it had changed my spirituality in some way. And I think I'm a spiritual person. I'm not really a religious person. You know, I don't really know what's going on beyond us. And - but I do - there's so many funny little coincidences that happen that make me think about him in funny little ways that I feel like his spirit is still alive and around me.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, on this question of risk versus, you know - risk and adventure like this, the one thing that has occurred to me is it seems the risks are higher when you travel alone in places where bad things can happen. Has it made you think differently about that?

DIAL: Oh, absolutely. I've never been much of a soloist myself. I - you know, I've done some solo trips, but I don't really - you know, I don't enjoy them that much. I'd rather share things with people. I mean, if I see something beautiful, it's just so much more satisfying to go, wow. Isn't that incredible? And to talk and to share - I - you know, I like people. And I much prefer to share with people in the outdoors, and it is safer.

But what this whole - I don't know what to call it, exactly - this process has shown me is that, for 40 years, I was extremely selfish and that I would go out and do risky things because it was a thrill that made me feel good. And I never really realized that when we die, you know, we're dead, and we don't feel anything. And the people we leave behind, the people who love us the most - those are the people who hurt the most. And I just sort of - you know, sure, I'm 59. My testosterone's drawing up. I'm not going to be as risky. But this has made me rethink risk in general.

DAVIES: Right, because the danger isn't to you as much as it is your survivors, your family, the people who love you.

DIAL: Yeah, that's exactly right.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, Roman Dial, thank you for sharing your story. Thanks for talking with us.

DIAL: Well, thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: Roman Dial's book is "The Adventurer's Son."

After a break, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Scratched," Elizabeth Tallent's new memoir about perfectionism and writer's block. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORATONE'S "FRONTIERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Remembering Michael Apted, Creator Of The 'Up' Documentary Series

The documentarian, who died Jan. 7, spent decades following the lives of a group of British citizens, updating their stories with a new episode every seven years. Originally broadcast in 2013.


Remembering Neil Sheehan, Vietnam War Correspondent Who Revealed The Pentagon Papers

Sheehan, who died Jan. 7, broke the story of the Pentagon Papers and wrote A Bright Shining Lie, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Vietnam War. Originally broadcast in 1988.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.


Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue