Lore and Legends
Mysteries of the Wood River Valley
ILLUSTRATIONS Michael Wertz
(page 3 of 4)
MOSS MAN OF FRENCHMAN'S BEND
Even by the mid-1980s, the young and restless of the Wood River Valley had a subset that sustained itself by lackadaisical work and a host of chemical concoctions. And, thus, the story of the Moss Man begins.
In March of 1984, cross-country skiers reported to the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office that a man—with peeling skin and green moss on his back—was living in the wide, shallow, natural mineral hot pool at Frenchman’s Bend in the Smoky Mountains, about ten miles west of Ketchum on Warm Springs Road. On the ground nearby were the man’s frozen clothes.
The deputies extracted the semi-coherent, 6’ 2’’ interloper and carted him off to the old St. Moritz Hospital, where doctors were flabbergasted. The man, then 20-year-old Hailey resident Timothy Hammerbeck, claimed to have been living in the pool for 28 days.
After initially settling in for a long, quiet, speed-heightened soak, Hammerback was horrified to discover that his clothes, lying on the ground by the hot springs, had frozen. It was bitterly cold, and putting on his icy outfit, he declared, was out of the question. Even leaving the pool for a few moments to get fresh water from Warm Springs Creek resulted in his feet beginning to freeze. So he stayed in the 90-plus-degree water, only leaving as infrequently as possible to get a drink. He figured there would soon be a spring thaw and he could get back into his clothes.
Having resigned himself to being trapped in the hot water, Hammerback held fast to his resolve and bobbed around for days that flowed into weeks. He was observed by some people who dismissed him as unhinged and moved on. A man on a snowmobile gave him a bottle of beer—his only nourishment—and, as he later recalled, “probably the best beer I ever had in my life.” The hospital doctor estimated he lost 60 pounds during his immersion.
Current Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling, one of the officers who came to extract Hammerback, told Outside magazine for an article done more than a decade after the soggy event that the Moss Man had basically spent the winter sleeping in the post office, before taking his historic dip.
“He had moss growing on him.”
The man’s sister-in-law wasn’t surprised by what may have been the longest hot tub stay in American history. It seemed he consumed amphetamines like popcorn. “His brains are really scrambled,” she told the Mountain Express shortly after the her soft-boiled brother-in-law was rescued.
The Moss Man, who said his nickname is embarrassing, reportedly had numerous strange visions while soaking, including watching a white wolf stalk and kill a deer. Moss Man’s visions helped inspire a bunch of Valley locals to create a short-lived festival a dozen years later in honor of the man who temporarily became half-human, half-plant. The Moss Man Commemoration and Pagan Fun Fest of Ketchum, Idaho, though, soon disappeared into the same blurry history that swallowed up its namesake.
But the Moss Man declared he has fond memories of his sojourn at Frenchman’s Bend, although he’d prefer to let that part of his life fade into obscurity.
“I’ve got a job now,” he told Outside, on the condition he not be identified, adding that he’d moved to the practical Midwest, where people would never consider taking up residence in an outdoor hot tub as a sensible real estate play, even if rent free. “People might get the wrong idea about me if they found out I’d lived in the water for a while. It was hard at first, staying there all by myself. But after a couple of weeks, I just started feeling peaceful,” he said.
“It’s also possible,” the Moss Man admitted, “that the drugs had a little bit of influence.” Maybe just a little.