I suppose the first time I crossed paths with Richard Zimmerman (Dugout Dick) was when I was seven or eight years old. I grew up in Salmon, Idaho, and I knew most of the people my folks associated with and some they didn’t. Dad was always polite and treated everyone with respect and kindness regardless of where they lived, how they dressed, or the career they chose, and he taught his kids to do likewise. The only reason Dugout was different than some I knew in Salmon was because he was known to me and others as “the cave guy.” The fact that he chose to live in some old, hand-made caves was intriguing to me and perhaps a bit odd. I knew how cold winters got in Salmon!
My dad and I were talking about him one time and dad recalled a conversation he had with Dugout a couple years before. The story went something like this: Dick was serving in the U.S. military. His group was out on patrol, and he ran out of water. So, he peed into his canteen and drank that until he could find some fresh water.
As a kid, I wondered what kind of maniac would drink pee – there had to be other options! But then I heard some survivalists talking about this very subject, and they claimed urine could be used as a liquid survival ration for a short time if there was no water to be had. The point is, that’s the story that, to me, defined Dugout for the rest of the time I knew him. But like I was taught, I took an interest in Dugout, greeted him on the street, listened to his stories, and called him ‘sir’ when it was appropriate.
Richard Zimmerman arrived in Salmon, Idaho in around 1948. That’s the time he decided to become a hermit. In today’s terms, they’re known as ‘solitaries.’ With his own hands, a pick and shovel, and a wheelbarrow, he dug into a rockslide on some land near the banks of the Salmon River about 20 miles south of town. It was BLM property, and I guess he figured nobody wanted it. Who views a rockslide as prime real estate? Probably not even the BLM. But his hard work and ingenuity paid off. Before long, he had a few ‘rooms’ carved into the hillside, custom-fit with odds and ends rustic framing along with some old windows and doors he probably found in a junk pile somewhere.
Like the saying goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” I suppose that’s what defined Dick’s way of life and his decision to make do with whatever he could find. I overheard a few conversations around town that often went something like this.
“Those trashy-looking shanties across the river there by Elk Bend sure are an eyesore!” “Well, you know, those are Dugout Dick’s caves, and he lives there; that’s his home! He’s alright – not hurting anyone. Leave him alone.”
And that’s usually where the talk would end. The fact is, Dick was a nice guy and harmless. And maybe to some people, he represented a life of freedom – living the American Dream on his own terms. He certainly didn’t bother anyone; and nobody bothered him, as far as I knew. Salmon was a place you could live on your own terms – a place where if you didn’t bother anyone, people left you alone and didn’t ask a lot of questions.
According to family lore, my ancestors lived in caves when they migrated to Idaho from Kansas in the 1800s. It was their only option at the time. They were some of the first settlers on the scene in the Camas Prairie. According to their journals, cave-dwelling isn’t so bad if that’s all you’ve got.
Mike Hicks, my dad, drove a school bus up the river in the 1970s. Every couple weeks, Dick would hitch a ride into town on the morning bus and be at the bus stop in the afternoon to catch a ride back home. I remember Dick climbing aboard the bus. I suppose, in retrospect, he looked just like a caveman, aside from his blue jeans, the flannel shirt, and the hardhat he wore. The beard and bushy hair, along with his calloused hands were the giveaway. But he was polite, and the kids showed him respect – some even conversed with him, asking how he was doing and what he planned to do in town that day.
“Oh, gonna get me a few groceries and maybe go see a friend,” he would say in his fast, clipped style of speech. I think he really liked the company, and perhaps he looked forward to those journeys into town once in awhile.
Before showing up in Salmon, Dick was a 20th Century drifter. He spent some time in the military. He hunted and fished. He worked as a farmhand on a few ranches; he did some general roustabout work, and then he showed up in Salmon at the age of 32. It wasn’t long before he traveled up the river to a rockslide nobody wanted and claimed it for his own.
Like I mentioned, most of the times I saw Dick, he was wearing a hardhat – the kind you might see workers wear at a construction site. “You bump your head a lot when you live in a cave,” Dick said one time. In his heyday, Dick had 14 caves he rented for $2 a night or $25 a month. I didn’t know anyone who stayed in his caves, but I heard there were some out-of-staters traveling through who did so. I suppose if you wanted to have a memorable time in the wilds of Idaho and a good story to tell your friends back home, a night in one of Dick’s caves would be the place to do it. And to have Dick serenade you with his guitar and old hobo songs would be a great memory!
Recently, I took a little trip to Salmon to see what’s left of Dick’s place. The BLM left one of his main caves — the one he lived in — and removed the rest. Other than that, a few walls and trails are all that’s left of Dick’s 60 years of livelihood and handiwork. Thirty yards from Dick’s cave dwelling is a vehicle turnout and some signs reminding the curious public who Dugout Dick was and what he was all about. To the young, perhaps he is a legend; to the rest of us, he’s just a kind old guy who called a cave his home.
Personally, I didn’t really consider Dugout any more of a celebrity than some of the other old-timers I knew around town – like old Ollie the Swede and some others. Salmon was a unique place where some unique people lived. And because of that, Dugout Dick just seemed to fit in and lived life on his own terms. The American Dream means different things to different folks. Some may seek riches or fame; some just want to live in a cave along the river.