manta ray Bora Bora

Walking across that island was a life-changing experience for us. I tried to raise a young man who could handle himself in the wilderness and enjoy going out and make his own decisions.”  — Author and scientist Roman Dial

manta ray Bora Bora
Harrison Shiels meets a manta ray in Bora Bora. (Photo by: Michael Patrick Shiels)

Homeschooling Travel

Before the current public health interruptions, which include keeping kids home from school, there was a small percentage of parents who opted for what is known as “homeschooling.” There was an even smaller percentage who believed in “home away from homeschooling.”

In a television interview between CNN’s Emmy Award-winning travel food host Anthony Bourdain and Francis Ford Coppola, the Academy Award-winning director asked the globetrotting Bourdain whether he ever took his daughter on his adventures?

“When she was younger,” Bourdain explained. “Back then, if she missed the color ‘blue’ in kindergarten it was no big deal. Now that she’s older it’s a big deal if she’s out of school for two weeks.

Coppola then explained he’d parented with a different philosophy.

“I always rebelled against that,” he countered. “When I was in my child-raising period, if I was going to go away for more than two weeks, I took them out of school and took them with me. And the school screamed, but my children benefited. My little Sofia lived a year-and-a-half in the Philippines. The academic part – it comes. You never really stop learning.”

Television, Movies and Research

Like Bourdain’s far-flung Parts Unknown television episodes, Coppola directed films in locations around the world. Roman Dial’s work was different, but equally diverse in destinations since he was a Natural Geographic explorer and preeminent scientist.

Dial, too, included his young son, Cody, in his adventures throughout his formative years. He writes bravely about it in his book, The Adventurer’s Son.

Teaching through Travel

“My wife and I wanted to raise adventurous kids, so I took my son many places and I found it built a close bond between us. We’d do at least one trip and year through grade school and high school and into college,” said Dial, who cites Australia and Bhutan among their outdoor outings. “I tried to raise a young man who could handle himself in the wilderness and enjoy going out and make his own decisions.”

The father and son challenges included white water rafting, scuba diving, handling giant centipedes in a Borneo rainforest and chopping ice worms in Tibet.

“The times which were most challenging were physically demanding, like the time we were in a windstorm on an ice field when the wind collapsed the tent,” said Dial. “We did a 150-mile long adventure race. We had to stay warm and keep awake and so Cody learned how to deal with discomfort and put up with things. He had a good sense of humor about it. Sometimes I had to carry him and protect him, but that’s part of our jobs as fathers.”

When Dial mentioned carrying Cody, I thought about my personal fatherhood “teaching by travel” experiences were less intense.

I recall, by contrast, and with considerably less danger, carrying my little sleeping tyke Harrison out the gates of Walt Disney World still wearing his Mickey Mouse ears as the fireworks we’d tried to stay in the park long enough to see were exploding in the sky overhead.

Even the booming blasts were not enough to wake a boy who’d been running between rides all day with a Donald Duck lollipop in one hand and a balloon in the other. Central Florida is a lot different than Central America, which becomes, conversely, the “Saddest Place on Earth” for Dial, as his memoir eventually details. But the bonding he experienced with his Cody was evident early in his life.   

Roman Dial
Roman Dial and his dear son Cody. (Photo by: Morrow Publishing)

Call Me “Roman”

“When Cody was 6-years-old we went out to backpack on a remote Aleutian island in between Alaska and Russia. I picked it because there were no grizzly bears or dangerous rivers. Walking across that island was a life-changing experience for us,” Dial explained. “When the family we encountered who lived on one end of the island asked little Cody his name, he decided to introduce himself as ‘Roman,’ which was his middle name but my first name.”

Cody obviously admired and loved his father…and wanted to be like him.

But their story takes a tragic turn. When Cody, as an adult, disappears during a solo expedition into a Costa Rican rainforest, Dial is left questioning his “travel to teach” philosophy.

“I couldn’t help shake the feeling that everything I had done with him in the wild was a mistake. I might not have hurt the six-year-old boy then, but the suffering of a 27-year-old man lost and broken in the jungle now felt like my fault,” Dial writes. His two-year search for Cody leads him in his son’s footsteps through the uncharted jungle into the jungle Cody described and assessed in an email by messaging: “It should be difficult to get lost forever.”

Roman Dial outdoors
Roman Dial in the outdoors. (Photo by: Ben Weissenbach)

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree

A good book or film has the reader or viewer connected to the characters and wondering what we would do if presented with the same situations.

While most parents are not wildlife researchers like Dial with access to the deepest, darkest reaches of earth’s nature, there are opportunities in our own backyards for adventures and learning experiences.

I vividly recall a night when my father set up a “pup-tent” in our neighborhood fenced backyard for a night of “camping.” In terms of our “provisions”, the cookies didn’t last long, but the memories have.  

The rest of the “camping experiences” with my dad were rounds of golf on forested courses or fishing in a motorboat on Houghton Lake in Northern Michigan. My “fish tale” is that on a cold morning I tried to stay warm by gripping the rod and casting with my jacket sleeves over my hands…until, of course, the pole predictably went into the water and sank to the bottom.

In terms of nature, we saw Rock City, swam at Clearwater Beach, visited apple cider mills in the autumn and went sledding when it snowed.

My father’s mother, Helen, was a travel agent who brought us cultural souvenirs, like hand fans and string puppets and from far-flung lands like Tokyo and Spain and told stories of finding herself in the middle of unrest in South America.

I figured I would carry on her tradition when, as a travel writer, I wandered the famed Turkish Bazaar in Istanbul seeking a memento to spark my own little son’s imagination.

In that manic maze, there are plenty of curiosities to haggle over, but once I saw the curved-blade dagger with the jewel-encrusted handle and sheath, I knew it was the most imaginative item. I knew that Harrison, who was about nine-years-old, would only see an elaborate, dramatic item like that in an Indiana Jones movie or a cartoon. The dagger, though, would prove to him there are actual exotic, old-world destinations out there within reach of the culturally curious wandered.

You are probably thinking Harrison’s mother, Vera, was startled when I handed him the dagger. You are correct. She stored it in a glass curio cabinet where Harrison could see it but not reach it. That wasn’t the first time she was startled, though.

Michael Patrick Shiels Harrison Shiels
Life jacket buttoned on board for Harrison and Michael Patrick. (Photo by: Gladys Shiels)

Viva Las Vegas

Throughout our times traveling, the bonding opportunities and shared experiences, just as they were for Roman and Cody, were rich and memorable for Harrison and me.

The trips were mainly age-appropriate, though I never underestimated the power of subliminal or subconscious persuasion when taking young Harrison to see the art in Paris’s Musee d’Orsay into the gallery at the U.S. House Representatives. On one occasion, though, Harrison’s once-again startled mother almost put her foot down.

Vegas?!” his mother shouted “Are you crazy? That’s no place for you to take my eight-year-old son!”

I assured her we’d be swimming and watching the light shows and exploding volcano at The Mirage and the pirate show in front of Treasure Island. I’d even heard there was a Sponge Bob Square Pants ride at Circus Circus.

“Well, I hope you know what you’re doing,” she relented with her voice in the tone of a warning.  

So little Harrison and I winged it to Sin City for a long weekend of sensory overload.

Before you consider phoning child protective services to report me, you should know that I never gambled once on the trip. And we didn’t even stay at a casino hotel on the Strip. But the glitz and glamour began immediately when Harrison wanted his photo taken with the car driver holding the sign with his name on it who picked us up at McCarran Airport.

And you should have seen the look on the young man’s face when we were led into the giant two-bedroom sweeping suite at the J.W. Marriott in Summerlin. One push of a button opened the automatic drapes and revealed a 180-degree panoramic view of the Strip, behind the patio hedges, six miles below.

We found a welcome tray of nacho chips, beer, root beer and fancy chocolates, which Harrison dug into. After that, it didn’t take him long to explore the suite and come back asking me, “Why are there two toilets in each of the bathrooms?” He giggled like crazy, and so did I, when I explained what a bidet was, and demonstrated with my pants on.

My Vegas scheme was working very well when we rented a cabana for the day in the desert sun beside the J.W.’s massive swimming pool. We played countless games of Marco Polo in the part of the pool which winded under a waterfall and rock cave. Harrison lived large, ordered kiddie daiquiris and smiley face-cut French fries to the cabana, which had soft chaise recliners, a cold-water mist machine, and a television.

The lights of Glitter Gulch eventually beckoned so we hit the Strip. Harrison won a stuffed animal in the neon glowing arcade at Luxor, or maybe it was Excalibur. He gazed down at the lights of Freemont Street from high atop the Stratosphere Tower.

Then it happened.

While walking across from Caesar’s Palace, Harrison noticed a man walking along the street handing out little fliers. His bright yellow t-shirt had a message emblazoned on it: “GIRLS TO YOUR ROOM – $30.”

“Dad,” said Harrison, tugging on my arm. “What does it mean: ‘Girls to your room $30?’”

“What’s that?”

He pointed at the man and repeated, “Girls to your room: $30.”

Time seemed to stop. I thought as fast as I could.

“Cleaning ladies!” I finally blurted out. “That man is advertising for cleaning ladies. They come and, you know, clean your room.”

“Gee,” he said, “Can you call my mom? I should tell her about this.”

“Oh no!” I thought to myself.

“Why do you want to tell your mom that!?” I asked Harrison.

“Because she pays her cleaning lady 75 dollars!”

Las Vegas Harrison Shiels
Harrison Shiels in Vegas with a one-armed bandit. (Photo by: Michael Patrick Shiels)
Capitol steps
Harrison Shiels climbs the capitol steps. (Photo by: Vera Ambrose)

Contact Travel Writer Michael Patrick Shiels at [email protected] 

Michael Patrick Shiels

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