Saturday, April 24, 2010

Dugout Dick: A rememberance

This post was published in the Post Register April 27, 2010.

In one of his last media interviews, Richard Zimmerman reminisced last summer about the days he had an orchard outside his self-made caves along the Salmon River and proudly displayed dozens of articles written about him over the years.

At 93, he was thin, frail and hunched. His hearing was nearly gone and his speech difficult to understand. He’d just come out of a stay in a rehabilitation center to recover from a broken hip. It was one of the few times in the prior 60-plus years that he’d stayed somewhere other than his caves near Elk Bend south of Salmon.

Yet, there he was, making his way up the zigzag trail to his main cave, where he welcomed his visitors into his home. It was cluttered but comfortable, cool in the summer, reasonably warm in the winter, lit only occasionally by a single small light bulb powered by a solar battery.

His lease on the land died with him last week when he passed away of natural causes just the way he would have wanted to -- in his cave. It now reverts to the federal government which, if it follows through on announced plans, will turn Dick’s series of caves into an interpretive area celebrating Zimmerman’s life and ingenuity. There is no reasonable alternative to this -- we won’t see Dick’s sort again anytime soon.

Zimmerman became a living oxymoron, a famous hermit. He clearly relished the role. Over the years he had hosted National Geographic, film crews and dozens of journalists, a nearly imperceptible twinkle in his eye. He knew his story was unique, and he had no qualms about making a little pocket change in exchange for telling it.

While he was an interesting story to journalists and people who read their stories about him, the people around Salmon just knew him as “Mr. Zimmerman.” They clearly felt protective of him, taking great care to tell stories about Dick that exposed his humanity and tenderness instead of focusing on how different he was from the rest of us.

As Post Register writer and longtime Salmon resident Laura Zuckerman wrote last week: “While tales of Zimmerman's alternative lifestyle were the stuff of friendly curiosity from outsiders, Salmon area residents tended to see him less as an anachronism and more as a rugged individualist in a community that honors that status.”

Salmon runs deep with stories about Dick, and they’re likely to grow to myth with his passing. For a hermit, he was known personally to many. For years he’d hitchhike into town nearly every day, until he finally bought a pickup and would drive himself. He was treated with kindness and respect, not as a curiosity.

By last summer, his body tired and his faculties waning, he continued to welcome guests without the least sign of wariness or resentment. He was proud of the life he’d quite literally carved out of the side of a mountain with his bare hands. His legacy will outlast those of many people who are more conventionally famous, and that is as it should be.

1 comment:

  1. Your paper gave us good stories about him, thanks for sharing.