Monday, July 6, 2009

Call him Mr. Zimmerman

Published July 12, 2009 in the Post Register. UPDATE: Dick passed away April 21, 2010. 

SALMON – The world’s most famous hermit is 92 years old and lives in a hole. Still.

My wife, Kathleen, and I are in Salmon and I mention to our host something about “Dugout Dick,” aka Richard Zimmerman. She says his place is on the Salmon River seven miles up the road and he’ll give us a tour for a couple of bucks, if he is back from his most recent stay at a nursing home recovering from a second broken hip.

Since the middle of the last century, Zimmerman has lived in caves he dug and fashioned by bare hand and pickax and wheelbarrow. I’m reluctant to pay a visit, but Kathleen has never heard of Dugout Dick and wants to go. So, instead of heading to Salmon for dinner, we turn south and head up river. Following the directions we were given, we cross the river at an iron bridge and turn left on a dirt road.

Before long we come upon the first of Zimmerman’s creations – a place jutting out of the hillside at road level. A little farther up the road we see a white pickup truck and I move left a little to get around it. Sitting next to the truck in front of another dugout is a frail, frightfully thin man in an NRA ball cap and white beard.

We’ve found Dugout Dick.

Kathleen shouts from the truck, “Are you Dugout Dick?” It’s immediately clear he can't hear her, so she gets out and walks over to him while I park the truck. By the time I come back, Kathleen and Dugout Dick are chatting away. Well, Kathleen is shouting and once Dick understands what she was saying he is quietly replying.

His face is expressionless but his eyes are sharp, though he rarely makes eye contact. He has large, arthritic hands and can’t weigh more than 100 pounds, despite appearing to be nearly six feet tall. Eventually, I hand over five dollars and Dick stands, takes his cane, and begins a slow, careful walk up a switch-back path to his place. Time for another tour, one of many hundreds he’s given.

Zimmerman’s home is not the stuff of Tolkien – no gnarled wood furnishings or tea sets. Pictures from earlier days show that it once was primitive but tidy, but on our visit it is simply primitive. The man, after all, is 92 and, while he does have a renter or two who help him out and his neighbors along the river watch out for him, inviting him over for Sunday dinner and the like, he’s essentially living alone.

Sharon Osgood, our host at the bed and breakfast, tells of finding him and one of his renters in his broken down pickup on the side of the road last winter.

“He just had on a shirt and pants and was shivering like mad,” she says.

Over the years, Zimmerman has been made famous by stories in National Geographic and other magazines, television and online documentaries and dozens of newspaper articles. He’s told everyone how he was digging in the hillside one day and it occurred to him that he could go deep enough to make a home. That was 1948.

The fact that he’s still alive, let alone continuing to live in his dugout, is beyond remarkable. There’s a walker sitting outside his place, mostly unused. He clearly thinks the cane is more dignified.

The Salmon area is thick with stories about Zimmerman, his days as a miner and sheepherder, his days before that riding the rails, his conversion to the Pentecostal church, his yogurt made of goat’s milk and stinging nettle. Some in town wince a little at the nickname and prefer to call him “Mr. Zimmerman,” which does seem more fitting for a man of his age and public stature.

He remains justifiably proud of his place. It bespeaks ingenuity and independence, from the auto windshields he uses on the front of the cave to let in light to the tiny solar-powered light in the area that he uses as his kitchen. There’s water piped in from a nearby spring. The smell of wood smoke hangs heavy in the air and the walls are blackened by the soot of a wood stove. Adjacent to the kitchen, separated only by a vertical wooden beam, is his bedroom, furnished with two mattresses. The entire cave is perhaps 300 feet square.

Zimmerman and Kathleen sit and chat while I walk around the complex of caves – some of which he built with the express purpose of renting them out – and take pictures. When I return, Zimmerman is showing Kathleen the newspaper clippings attached to one wall and talking about his unhappy childhood in Indiana and Michigan.

“There used to be a garden down there,” he tells Kathleen, pointing to the land between his house and the Salmon River below. The spot has been taken over by local plants. Selling vegetables from his garden used to be a source of revenue for Zimmerman, in addition to doing odd jobs and renting out his caves. Nowadays, he gets a little disability money from his time in the armed forces and continues to make money as a landlord and tour guide.

He returns to his kitchen and finishes some store-bought yogurt while pointing out other features of the cave, including a pantry stocked haphazardly with bottled goods. Kathleen is fascinated and could stay for hours. Honestly, I’m a little creeped out by Zimmerman’s living conditions. I’m eager to leave, so Kathleen reluctantly agrees. Zimmerman sits down outside his place instead of going back downhill to his earlier roadside perch, and he returns our wave goodbye.

Just down the road, we stop at a place that Zimmerman calls his "natural deep freeze" -- a cave at the bottom of the hill so far underground that it stays cold even in the hot summer. It's cold, all right, but it smells of, well, it smells like the fridge needs a good cleaning. Next door, one of his rental cabins obviously has a tenant who is out at the time of our visit. The place is ankle deep in trash.

The next day, Kathleen says she could go back and spend the entire day. Instead, we have a breakfast of stuffed French toast and start our drive home.


  1. I grew up just around the corner from "dug out Dick". He was quiet but always nice. I am blessed to know him.