Utah cave dweller thrives without money
November 27, 2009
MOAB, Utah (AP) – Daniel Suelo gets the same question, all the time.
The 48-year-old kneels in front of the desert cave he calls home, sips cedar tea from a chipped mug and explains, again, why he has intentionally lived the past nine years without using money.
It’s instinctual to live without money; it’s the way we were born, he says. It’s political. The addiction to money fuels corruption, he says, and he refuses to support a corrupt system. There’s also a spiritual basis for his life, a philosophical framework.
“The understanding that, really, we all possess nothing is the cornerstone of all spiritual endeavors and religions,” he says.
And there are health reasons. Suelo, who was born with the last name Shellabarger, is unfettered with worries about a mortgage or bills or income. Tanned, with a mop of gray locks framing his Buddy Holly glasses, he is a picture of contentment, his lithe frame stretched in the fall sun amid prickly pear cactus and red rock.
“I think taking things as they come naturally is the key to good health,” he says.
A decade ago, Suelo was dizzy with depression. His University of Colorado degree in anthropology wasn’t fulfilling. He had just returned from two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. He was disillusioned with his job working at homeless shelters and enclaves for battered women in Denver and Boulder.
Eventually, he concluded his growing despair was tied to fretting over his financial ability to maintain his stuff. Stuff, he realized, he didn’t need. So, he gave it all away.
“We use all our energy to maintain our possessions, and it becomes an ugly cycle,” he says.
He doesn’t barter or work for food or rent. Barter is another form of money, and Suelo doesn’t deal with any form of currency. Today, he embraces an ascetic life of “art and philosophizing.” He’s hardly the growling hermit, instead circling town on his trash-bin-built bike, engaging a wide circle of pals.
“He is truly the happiest person I have ever met. He is so deeply peaceful, it’s contagious,” says Damian Nash, Suelo’s college roommate and a high school teacher in Moab. “He is living proof that money can’t buy happiness.”
Every summer, when the heat in Moab reaches unbearable – especially for a cave-dweller – Suelo hits the road, visiting friends and gatherings along the West Coast, where he is known only as “Suelo.”
“I have no idea what the future holds, and I don’t worry about it. But the longer I do this, it seems absurd to go back,” he says. “It would be like going back to slavery. There’s just too much of a price to pay.”
His cozy cave is an hour’s stroll from town.
Maybe 15 feet by 5 feet, the one-man crevice is crammed with buckets holding a few days’ worth of rice and beans, books and cooking pots.
The hole in the wall is tidy, with his bedroll neatly folded into a nook. Cupped ridges on the wall hold knickknacks. While the cave carries a strong smell of patchouli oil, Suelo doesn’t import any odoriferous whiff of homelessness. He bathes daily in the stream below his cave. His clothes – which he found in the trash – are uncommonly formal for a man who camps year-round. Dress shoes and slacks, shirt buttoned to the top and a fresh wide-brimmed hat form a Suelo style that is more Bohemian chic than homeless bum.
Suelo lives an abundant albeit frugal life, thriving on the waste of a small town. Every week, he inspects Moab’s trash, finding more than he needs. Supermarket throwaways keep him well-fed. He eats healthily, often eschewing the abundant supply of day-old doughnuts or expired sweets – although, he says, chocolate is “my gold.”
The wild onions, watercress, prickly pear fruit, serviceberries, globe mallow and pine nuts that grow near his home add fresh-grown flair to the trash-bin-derived dishes he cooks over fire-branded coffee cans molded into stoves. He occasionally cooks roadkill gathered around Moab, and says he has never fallen ill from spoiled food.
The piles of trash behind Moab’s half-dozen self-storage facilities provide a steady supply of clothes, tools, bedding and utensils.
“People don’t realize how much perfectly good stuff is thrown away with just a blemish,” he says. “Even after all these years, I’m still asking myself, ‘Why would anyone throw this out?’ “
He used to bristle when he heard people call him a mooch, a leech or sponge off society. The occasional “get a job” comments from friends, family and readers of his blog (which he writes from computers in public libraries) don’t bother him much anymore. He says he has stopped worrying about what people think about him.
Filmmaker Gordon Stevenson a few years ago made a short documentary about Suelo called “Moneyless in Moab.” Response to the film was largely positive but varied. A few thought he was insane. Others saw a conflict in Suelo’s rejection of money but dependence on a society anchored in commerce.
“His lifestyle does depend on a group of people using money, and some people saw this as a contradiction, but Daniel comes out pretty clearly that he is a parasite of sorts,” Stevenson says. “Some people were angered by the idea that using money leaves you tainted or immoral. But I don’t think Daniel thinks like that. You might think he is, but he’s not judgmental.”
Nash hears often from people who harbor hostility toward his friend.
“I think he makes people angry because they have this belief that if only they had a little more money, they’d be happy,” Nash says. “His lifestyle is a challenge to their Holy Grail, the American consumer capitalist dream.”
There is one thing that makes Suelo seethe: store owners or police who tell him he can’t search a bin of garbage “for his own safety.” He’s had plenty of run-ins with both, but not so much in Moab, where he is well-known.
“They seem so mad about it. If they want to be livid about something, how about how much food we throw away,” he says. “I know that there is enough food to feed a village in one Dumpster behind Wal-Mart or Sam’s. All I’m taking is a few crumbs falling from this opulent table.”
Suelo often bows to the generosity of others, while never asking for help. Self-sufficiency isn’t a goal in his moneyless life, he says. So, he will sometimes house-sit, but it makes him antsy and he pines for his cave. If someone presses him to take something, he doesn’t argue. He recently began taking yoga classes offered by a friend. If they insist on giving him money, he gives it away immediately.
“We are all completely dependent on everyone else. The point is to live freely, in the present, freely giving and freely taking, which is the way of nature,” he says. “The idea is to give up control of credit and debt, and just trust the cycle of nature.”
Suelo’s friend Ray Pride nearly a decade ago took Suelo up to Alaska for two months of salmon fishing on his boat. After filling the holding tanks with thousands of pounds of bright-red sockeye salmon, Pride tried to slip some cash into Suelo’s stuff. Suelo was planning to camp and hitchhike around Alaska for a couple of months before hitchhiking back to Moab. Pride was sure he could use the money.
“He found it and left it on the boat,” says Pride, who lives in Moab. “So, I gave him $200 when I left at the airport.”
Suelo gave it away right there in the airport, and the next day, he says, “I found a backpack.”
He toured Alaska for two months, penniless, living off the land. He ate mussels, kelp and seaweed while along the coast; mushrooms, berries and fish when he hiked inland. That was the trip that began his purely moneyless journey.
Suelo grew up in an evangelical Christian home and is well-versed in biblical teaching. He also quotes from the Koran, the Torah, the Book of Mormon and an array of Hindu teachers. While hiking in Alaska, he mulled his spirit’s direction and felt a sort of hypocrite.
“Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you,” Suelo says, citing a passage from the book of Matthew. “Did I really believe that? The only way to know is to try it. I want to be able to talk from my heart and live it too.”