Cody Roman Dial was born during a warm spell in Fairbanks, February 22, 1987, thirty years ago today. He died when a tropical hardwood toppled on his camp in Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica during a solo, off-trail trek in July 2014.
Those of us who knew him knew him as physical, intellectual, family and friend-centered. He enjoyed packrafting whitewater, reading as research and recreation, Dungeons and Dragons as immersive games at once fantastic and analytic. He liked scuba-diving and skate-skiing, spicy food, and modern music. He introduced many to Radiohead, the Kills, the Black Keys, kim-chee and exotic tropical fruits.
He wore no tattoos, no piercings, no pretense, no nonsense. He was affectionate, strong, authentic. Girls around the world swooned over his Harry Potter look: cheekbones, hair, wire-rimmed glasses.
He read voraciously, perceptively, too. Once, in a budget hotel room in Kota Kinabalu on the island of Borneo he read two books over four days: The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russell Wallace and Stranger in the Forest by Eric Hansen, regional classics separated by a century. He noted that “Hansen describes Chinese men sitting at their doorstep in exactly the same way as Wallace. In fact, there’s a couple places he uses the same imagery.”
Cody Roman was a respectful son, a teasing brother, a loyal friend. A chef who excelled at sauces without measure, he took pleasure in cooking for others. He baked pies for potlucks and preferred Cherry Garcia to all other ice cream and bacon to all other meat.
On a hike across Umnak Island at six, he took to calling himself “Roman”. Over the next two decades that’s what most of us called him.
Even as a young boy, Cody Roman displayed an intelligent courage. He was careful and cautious but adventurous, experienced and skilled. He was wise in risk, but not averse to it.
At 11 in Costa Rica he caught a nectar-eating bat near the Pacific and a strawberry poison dart frog near the Atlantic. At 12 he swam beneath a waterfall in northern Australia and grabbed a side-necked turtle, surfacing with an outstretched arm clutching the reptile, excited and grinning.
At 27 he wrote his family and friends as he traveled south through Latin America. He emailed us about hiking up to see monarch butterflies in Mexico’s Sierra Madre, diving down to swim with whale sharks in the Caribbean, finding Mayan ruins in Guatemala’s Peten, descending canyons in Honduras, dodging narcos in Nicaragua.
He told some his trek in Costa Rica was training to cross Panama’s notorious Darien Gap.
As a teen in Anchorage he commuted by mountain bike year-round. He pioneered whitewater packrafting in Ship Creek, the Brooks Range, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. He raced across the Talkeetna Mountains in the Wilderness Classic carrying his packraft on his bike, and then his bike on his packraft. He crossed France by bus with a gaggle of high school seniors. He bike toured across the mid-Atlantic.
He was a gifted story teller, both orally and in writing, telling stories less about him than about those around him – what he saw, not what he felt. He liked to hug and be hugged, to lift weights and climb rock un-roped, to swim and explore.
He once articulated that something amusing made him smile, but something funny made him laugh. Somehow Cody Roman was quiet but not shy, affectionate but not weak, often caring but sometimes distant.
He could wield a scowl with some precision, made sharper by muscular arms, but his heart was big, too, his compassion a reward for love, his affection physical.
He had a habit of scratching his head with both hands, of thinking before speaking. He shared his treats. He didn’t complain. He pitched-in to help, rather than sit-back and watch.
He’d rather try and risk failing than not try at all.
During a road-trip he sent home post cards and bourbon, limited-edition from Kentucky for his family and friends to enjoy. We did, still do, savoring in that mash of corn, malt, and rye warm memories that linger.
Conceived in the Brooks Range, Cody Roman was an Alaskan, born and raised. He went to Chester Valley Elementary, Steller Secondary, attended William and Mary on a scholarship, with help from student loans and family. After graduating in biology, he moved back to Anchorage, took a year off, then entered the graduate program in environmental science at Alaska Pacific University.
He avoided debt and saved, paying off his student loans by 23.
He worked summers and holidays over a decade at the USGS Molecular Ecology Lab, starting at 16 in the school district’s mentorship program. There he learned to extract DNA, run PCRs, read LiCor gels. He looked forward to next gen sequencing and eDNA.
For his master’s degree he sequenced the DNA of a thumb-sized isopod called Saduria entomon. The genetic samples from around the Arctic he collected himself from Teshekpuk Lake, Barrow, Kaktovik, Cook Inlet, or from other scientists in Scandinavia, Bristol Bay, and the Chigniks.
By 25 he’d published peer-reviewed journal articles on the DNA of snowy owls and the biogeography of ice worms. He did field-work, too, catching shrews and voles in Gates of the Arctic, Cape Krusenstern, Bering Land Bridge, Nogahabara Sand Dunes, the North Slope, and on JBER.
He loved to share what he knew or debate what he thought and eagerly, insatiably, sought to know more about everything, but especially history, economics, and science.
He was careful, knowledgeable, curious and creative. He thought critically in science and spoke cynically of politics but helped with his hands when he could.
His future was bright, promising, wide-open.