BOISE – Known as the “Salmon River Caveman,” Richard Zimmerman lived an essentially 19th-century lifestyle, a digital-age anachronism who never owned a telephone or a television and lived almost entirely off the land.
“He was in his home at the caves at the end, and it was his wish to die there,” said Connie Fitte, who lived across the river. “He was the epitome of the free spirit.”
Zimmerman had been in declining health when he died Wednesday at the age of 94.
Few knew him by his given name. To friends and visitors to his jumble of cavelike homes scrabbled from a rocky shoulder of the Salmon River, he was Dugout Dick.
He was the last of Idaho’s river-canyon loners who dated back to territorial days and included canyon contemporaries with names like Beaver Dick, Cougar Dave and Wheelbarrow Annie, Buckskin Bill (real name Sylvan Hart) and Free Press Frances Wisner. Fiercely independent, they lived eccentric lives on their own terms and made the state more interesting just by being here.
Most, like Zimmerman, came from someplace else. Drawn by Idaho’s remoteness and wild places removed from social pressures, they came and spent their lives here, leaving only in death.
Some became reluctant celebrities, interviewed about their unusual lifestyles and courted by media heavyweights. Zimmerman was featured in National Geographic magazine and spurned repeated invitations to appear on the “Tonight Show.”
“I ride Greyhounds, not airplanes,” he said in a 1993 Idaho Statesman interview. “Besides, the show isn’t in California. The show is here.”
Cort Conley, who included Zimmerman in his 1994 book “Idaho Loners,” said that “like Thoreau, he often must have smiled at how much he didn’t need. What gave him uncommon grace and dignity for me were his spiritual life, his musical artistry, his unperturbed acceptance of life as it is, and being a WWII veteran who had served his country and harbored no expectations in return.”
His metamorphosis to Dugout Dick began when he crossed a wooden bridge over the Salmon River in 1947 and built a makeshift home on the side of a hill. He spent the rest of his life there, fashioning one cavelike dwelling after another, furnishing them with castoff doors, car windows, old tires and other leavings.
“I have everything here,” he said. “I got lots of rocks and rubber tires. I have plenty of straw and fruit and vegetables, my dog and my cats and my guitars. I make wine to cook with. There’s nothing I really need.”
Some of his caves were 60 feet deep. Though he “never meant to build an apartment house,” he earned spending money by renting them for $2 a night. Some renters spent one night; others chose the $25 monthly rate and stayed for months or years.
He lived in a cave by choice. Moved by a friend to a care center in Salmon at age 93 because he was in failing health, he walked out and hitchhiked home.
Bruce Long, who rented one of Dugout Dick’s caves and looked after him, said the care center “had bingo and TV, but things like that held no interest for him. He just wanted to live in his cave.
“People said he was the only person they’d ever known who was absolutely self-sufficient. He didn’t work for anybody. He worked for himself.”
Born in Indiana in 1916, Zimmerman grew up on farms in Indiana and Michigan, the son of a moonshiner with a mean streak. He rebelled against his domineering father and ran away at a young age, riding the rails west and learning the hobo songs he later would play on a battered guitar for guests at his caves.
He punched cows and worked as a farmhand, settling in Idaho’s Lemhi Valley in 1937 and making ends meet by cutting firewood and herding sheep. In 1942, he joined the Army and served as a truck driver in the Pacific during World War II. When his service ended, he returned to Idaho and never left.
He raised goats and chickens, tended a bountiful vegetable garden and orchard, and stored what he couldn’t eat or sell in a root cellar. A lifelong victim of a quarrelsome stomach, he survived largely on what he could grow or make. Homemade yogurt ranked among his proudest achievements.
He was married once, briefly, to a pen-pal bride from Mexico. The other woman in his life, Bonnie Trositt, tired of life in a cave, left him for a job as a potato sorter and was murdered by her roommate. He claimed to see her spirit in the flickering light of a kerosene lamp on the cave walls.
He rarely went to church, but read and quoted continually from the Bible.
Services are pending. A brother, Raymond Zimmerman, has requested that his remains be sent to Illinois.