What Dick Zimmerman did was live in something like a cave alongside Idaho’s Salmon River.
Zimmerman had ridden the rails for a few years, bouncing around the country and working odd jobs when, at age 32, he decided to become a hermit. There may be no better place to do that than Idaho. He picked a boulder strewn slope along the river about 20 miles south of the city of Salmon.
He made himself a home by moving rocks around and forming boulder and shale walls tucked back into a rockslide with a log front. The four-room rock-sheltered house featured a natural refrigerator in back, taking advantage of a vein of ice that had formed over the centuries beneath the talus slope.
Zimmerman decided to make a little money by building more dugouts in the rocks and renting them out to people who wanted the experience of sleeping in a cave in Idaho’s backcountry. Against common sense, there was no shortage of such people.
Eventually, Zimmerman earned the name “Dugout Dick” for his 20 some rental properties scattered up and down the hillside, none of which would likely make the grade for Air B n B. He used whatever building materials he could scrounge, old tires, worn out carpeting, pieces of siding from an abandoned trailer. Floors were often concrete overlaid with linoleum scraps. Each had a wood stove and a bed or two. For windows he used scrap glass, even car windshields. The roofs were typically rough-cut logs topped with scraps of siding and carpeting and covered with sod. You could have the experience of sleeping in one of those hand-built dugouts for a couple of dollars a night, with a discount if you wanted to stay for 30 days. To get a sense of what the rentals were like, check this little YouTube podcast.
Dugout Dick married once in 1968. He met his wife through a lonely-hearts club. They corresponded, got hitched, and she came to live with him along the Salmon. She didn’t take to the life and eventually drifted away. Zimmerman later had a girlfriend from Idaho Falls, according to Cort Conley’s Idaho Loners. She spent time with Dick off and on, but came to a sad ending, murdered by her roommate in town.
Dugout Dick was less of a hermit than one might suppose. He went to town regularly, traveled a little, and didn’t live a life all that secluded. You could throw a rock from his home in the hillside across the river and nearly hit highway 93. Still, his odd lifestyle made him famous. A Scandinavian company did a documentary about the man. The magazine stories drew the curious to his “caves.”
Dick’s home, and the rentals he built, were on land under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management. While he was alive, they tolerated the ramshackle little town he had built on and in the hillside. After his death at age 94 in 2010 the BLM took down all but one of his constructions. Today there is an interpretive sign near that old dugout.
Image: Dugout Dick in front of a sign that advertised him as the “Salmon River Cave Man.”
Image: Dugout Dick’s copy of the National Geographic magazine that featured his oddball story is on display at the Museum of Idaho in Idaho Falls.