In the first year of the 21st century, a man standing by a highway in the middle of America pulled from his pocket his life savings – $30 – laid it inside a phone booth, and walked away. He was 39 years old, came from a good family, and had been to college. He was not mentally ill, nor an addict. His decision appears to have been an act of free will by a competent adult.
In the 12 years since, as the Dow Jones skyrocketed to its all-time high, Daniel Suelo has not earned, received, or spent a single dollar. In an era when anyone who could sign his name qualified for a mortgage, Suelo did not apply for loans or write IOUs. He didn't even barter. As the public debt soared, he did not pay taxes, or accept any form of government handout.
Instead he set up house in caves in the Utah canyonlands, where he forages mulberries and wild onions, scavenges road-kill raccoons and squirrels, pulls expired groceries from dumpsters, and is often fed by friends and strangers. "My philosophy is to use only what is freely given or discarded & what is already present & already running," he writes. While the rest of us grapple with tax deductions and mortgages, Suelo no longer holds so much as an ID card.
Yet the man who sleeps under bridges and prospects in trash cans is not a typical hobo. He does not panhandle, and he often works – declining payment for his efforts. While he is driven by spiritual beliefs and longings, he is not associated with any church. And although he lives in a cave, he is not a hermit: He is relentlessly social, remains close with friends and family, and engages in discussions with strangers via the website he maintains from the public library. He has crisscrossed the West by bicycle, hopped freight trains, hitched through nearly every state in the union, hauled nets on a Bering Sea trawler and spear-fished salmon in Alaska streams.
"I know it is possible to live with zero money," Suelo declares.
I had met Suelo long before he gave up money, in Moab, Utah, a haven for seekers and dropouts. We ran in the same circle, worked a stint together as cooks, and squatted on public lands. But over the years, we drifted our separate ways, geographically and otherwise.
I had heard of Daniel's attempt to live without money, and I'd assumed he had simply lost his mind. For my part, I was no longer an itinerant river guide, but a professional writer. I had acquired a second car and a second house, contributed to a retirement account, and filed 53 pages of tax returns.
Then came 2008. Twenty trillion dollars in world assets were incinerated by bad mortgages and speculation. The real-estate bubble splattered into foreclosure and bankruptcy, taking down with it the pensions and savings and jobs of millions of people.
My paltry retirement account became paltrier.
Suddenly that big monthly payment on my home didn't seem like money well spent. No number of trips to Home Depot would make the house worth what I had paid for it. Those naysayers who forecast that my generation, born in the 1960s and 1970s, would be the first in America's history to be worse off than their parents: Maybe they had a point.
Suelo meanwhile had gained a little notoriety, thanks to stories in Details magazine and the Denver Post, and an interview with the BBC. His blog and website got tens of thousands of hits. As I pored over the writings he had compiled, from Thomas Jefferson and Socrates, I began to think about the choices he had made. Here was someone who had said all along what the rest of us were being forced to contemplate for the first time, now that our bubble of prosperity had burst: money was an illusion.
"I simply got tired of acknowledging as real this most common worldwide belief called money," cried this voice in the desert. "I simply got tired of being unreal."
Daniel had opted out entirely, rejected what I had pursued. What was I missing out on?
Finally I decided to find out.
I returned to Moab and was staying with friends, a married couple.
I had exchanged a few e-mails with Suelo, but we had failed to make a foolproof plan. Of course he had no phone. And apart from any question of cave etiquette – was it okay to just drop by? – I didn't know where to locate him in the vast wilderness.
I sent an e-mail, then sat back and hoped that he wandered out of the canyon soon, and logged on at the library.
A day passed. It was fall, and the air was sunny and cool and crisp. I sat on my friends' porch, sipping a glass of fresh watermelon juice. One of my hosts, Melony (her real name, I swear), considered watermelon a wonder food, filled with antioxidants and electrolytes and vitamins. She swore it had cured her of a five-year illness that no doctor, medication, or allergy panels could solve, and she drank the red potion three times a day. But with the harvest over, and both markets in town sold out, she was running low. With winter approaching, she was contemplating doing something desperate, like ordering them on the Internet.
Another day passed, and still no word from Suelo.
And then an apparition appeared. A bicycle was approaching: dark mount, dark rider. Horn-rimmed glasses emerged between grey hair and beard. The rider wore a black felt bolero cinched under his chin. His gaze was forward, serene. As he pedalled toward me I made out a plastic crate of apples and oranges lashed to a rear rack.
I rushed into the street and called, "Daniel!" He slowed to a halt, then turned the bike around and looked at me, puzzled, until I identified myself.
"Oh, it's you," he said.
For a dude who lives in a cave, Suelo displayed a positively keen sense of style. His trousers were cuffed with rolls above boxy workman shoes. A plaid flannel over a tight black T-shirt revealed a slice of trim belly above a leather belt.
I invited him in and introduced him to Melony and her husband, Mathew. Melony poured glasses of watermelon juice – the last of her cache, she told us.
Suelo perked up.
"Do you know about the melon patch?" he said.
"That field between the creeks," he said, nodding toward the street. "There's hundreds of melons over there. Watermelon. Crenshaws. Squash and pumpkins, too. I've been eating them for months."
"Whose are they?" I said.
"Some guy." He shrugged. "After Obama was elected, he thought the whole system would collapse, so he planted his fallow fields. But the end-times didn't come, so he left everything to rot."
Mathew and Melony and I followed Suelo onto the street. He pushed his bike along the road, leading us to a swath of desert farmland. Someone had planted peach trees, pear trees, apple trees. Only the serpent and the naked lady were missing.
And there were hundreds of melons.
Suelo picked up one the size of a pony keg and raised it overhead, then heaved it down. It burst at his feet with a whump. He scooped up the flesh, and lapped it from his palms.
Wordlessly, Mathew and Melony shovelled watermelon into their mouths as the syrup dripped toward their elbows.
Looking across the fields, we could see that Mathew and Melony's house stood just 100 yards away from this Eden. It seemed truly mystical how unfindable, moneyless Suelo had materialized from the ether and led us across the desert, to Melontopia. To the abundance.
Mathew and Melony and I filled our arms with melons, hoarding them like iGadgets we'd liberated from Best Buy after a hurricane. But Suelo chose only a single, small green fruit. He lowered it into his crate and silently pedalled off.
From The Man Who Quit Money, by Mark Sundeen. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Mark Sundeen, 2012.
Click here to visit Daniel Suelo's website, Living without Money.