Daniel Suelo is easily the most famous homeless person in America. His story has been featured in Details, ABC News, BBC, The Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Oregonian, and a host of other publications. And last year, a division of Penguin Books published a book about Suelo’s life, “The Man Who Quit Money.”
Suelo, 51, who changed his given name from Shellabarger, (Suelo means “soil” in Spanish) spends most of his time sleeping in a cave but he’s not your ordinary homeless person. He’s a college graduate (University of Colorado Boulder) who served in the Peace Corps and once held regular 9-5 jobs before completely swearing off money in the Fall of 2000. In fact, society might view him as homeless, but in fact, he has two homes – one inside a small cave near Arches National Park and a small tent site on private property within the city limits of Moab, Utah.
Since he gave up using money, people from around the world have made the pilgrimage to Moab to seek Suelo’s advice on how to live for free. He runs his website from the public library in Moab and is happy to share his living without money survival skills with anyone who cares to listen.
It was freezing at night in Moab last week. I know you do some house sitting for people in the winter, but are you still sleeping outdoors even in this weather?
Right now I’m house sitting but I was living out just a few weeks ago. It’s not that bad when I’m in my sleeping bag and tent; it’s not as bad as people think it is.
What kind of sleeping bag and tent do you have?
I’ve had different sleeping bags. I find them in dumpsters or just lying around. I double up sleeping bags in the winter.
I imagine you have to sleep with quite a few layers of clothing?
Not really. I take my pants off and just sleep with a shirt and underwear.
So when you have a house-sitting gig, you don’t dread going back to your cave when it’s over?
No, not at all. I feel more liberated when I sleep outside. This is the first year I’ve used a tent. I used to just use a tarp. I found two tents – and I put the small one inside the larger one and it’s actually quite insulated in there. I light two or three candles and I’m amazed how warm it is. I’m warmer in there than in a house.
Has your life changed since the book came out?
In a lot of ways, it has. I went on half of the book tour with the author and I’ve had a lot more visitors.
How was the book tour?
We didn’t stay in any hotels. Penguin Books gave Mark a very low budget for the tour. He wanted me to come along so we crashed with friends and strangers. Sometimes we didn’t know where we were going to sleep that night and someone would always offer us a place and we camped out a few times. It was really fun. It’s fun not knowing where you’re going to sleep at night.
Do you think he envies your lifestyle?
In some ways, I think he does. He used to kind of live this way himself, so it’s nostalgic for him.
You both worked at a restaurant in Moab together, right?
Right – we worked at a natural foods restaurant together that isn’t here any more.
Have you had to move to a different cave since the book came out?
No. People still can’t find that place. Over the past decade, I’m always camping in different places, but I have this one cave that’s been pretty stable for me.
In the book, there’s a scene where a ranger evicted you from a cave. So after you were evicted did you move to a new cave?
Yeah, I switched caves. I found a much more stealth one.
Tell me about your cave?
It’s way back in one of the canyons here. It’s way up on a ledge. It’s quite stealth. I’d say it’s about an hour walk from the nearest road.
But you also have a crash pad set up outside on someone’s private property in Moab, right?
Right. I have a tent there too.
What’s your cave like?
It goes back about 15-20 feet. It’s like a crevice in a cliff. It’s about 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide, 15 feet back. I have a few buckets of food in there, plus my sleeping bag, some books, and I built a little wood stove from a cookie tin. And I have candles and oil lamps too.
What percentage of what you eat comes from garbage bins?
When I’m here in Moab, 80% of my food is castoffs, stuff from dumpsters. The rest I forage – wild edibles and people give me things, though I discourage people from buying me anything.
So if I bought you some muffins you wouldn’t eat them?
I do it but I discourage people from doing that.
Is the stuff you find in garbage bins mostly expired?
Most of it is past the sell-by date but not the eat-by date. I don’t think I eat more expired food than anyone else. A lot of the food I find in dumpsters isn’t even expired.
I know you love to travel. What kind of travel tips can you offer?
Traveling is easy. I travel more now than I did when I had money. I just go out and hitchhike.
Is it hard to get rides?
It’s harder than it used to be but it depends on where you’re going.
How long do you usually wait for rides?
I would say it’s usually half hour to an hour. My hair is gray now and when you’re hitchhiking at this age, people wonder why. Why you aren’t settled down with a job and a car? A young person is out for adventure but when you’re older people think you might be mentally ill. Sometimes people will say, ‘You’re not an ax murderer are you?’
But if you were, you probably wouldn’t admit it, would you?
That’s what I tell them.
And they still let you in the car?
Yeah. It’s just a release of tension. A joke.
So how does one avoid looking like an ax murderer while hitchhiking?
Just be yourself. Smiling is good if it’s genuine. Be clean. A couple years ago, I found a guitar in a dumpster, and I’ve found that people are more likely to pick you up if you’re carrying a guitar.
You can’t be an ax murderer if you’re carrying a guitar, right?
Do you travel with a tent and a sleeping bag?
I don’t carry a tent – that’s too bulky. I just bring a tarp and a sleeping bag usually. There are so many places to sleep. I usually just find a grove of trees somewhere, or in abandoned houses, or the roof of a building, places like that. Someone gave me a hammock and one time, the people I was with, we strung hammocks up in a park in San Diego between trees about 20-30 feet high and no one thinks to look up, so you’re stealth sleeping up there.
Most of the reviews of the book were positive, but some people said you were a mooch or a parasite.
We braced ourselves before the book tour for that because there’s been so many nasty comments about me on the Internet but people were positive on the book tour. It’s easier to be nasty when you’re anonymous on the Internet.
In a lot of ways, the negativity feels confirming though. I’m glad I’m riling people up, making them think. People aren’t going to think unless they’re upset.
I read in the book that people are sometimes hostile toward you when they encounter you dumpster diving?
Sometimes I ignore people, other times I challenge them. Why is it that throwing away food is fine but retrieving it in a world where people are starving is bad?
Will you have to retire from this lifestyle when you get too old?
I don’t want to go back to using money. Worrying about the future is the worst thing you can do. The Peace Pilgrim was my hero – she walked the country for almost 30 years and she was like 80 and was still healthy. She was in an auto accident; otherwise she could have kept going.
When you follow your heart and don’t baby your body too much, you’re healthier than someone who’s sitting in a nursing home. I’m a strong believer in natural selection though. When it’s my time to go, I’ll go.
I know you do some volunteer work but how do you spend your time when you’re not on the road?
I do a lot of reading and writing. I hike.
I’m sure Mark Sundeen didn’t get rich writing this book, but he did make money off of your story. Does that make you uncomfortable?
Not really. Most authors don’t make much. He’s struggling like everyone else. I feel good about helping him make a living. People say you aren’t contributing to society, well what is contributing to society? Why does there have to have a monetary value for it to be considered a contribution?
How do you contribute to society?
I guess I would ask somebody, ‘What does a tree or a dog or a bird contribute to society? Is stopping to talk to someone in the street contributing to society?’ Or if they don’t have time to stop and talk because they have to get to work, are they contributing to society?
Have you been tempted to use money over the last 10-12 years?
I’ve taken things people bought for me – more for their sake than mine. People want to be generous and they like to give. Most of the time, I get too much and I want less.
You don’t ever walk by a bakery, for example, and see something in the window and think – that looks delicious; I wish I could go inside and buy that?
Honestly, I don’t feel that way. There’s a grand feeling of gratitude when things come on their own time. In the money culture, we spoil that sense of fun and gratitude. I like the feeling of hunger when I experience it, but I don’t experience it that often.
Do you hope that people will follow our example in living without money?
Deep down, I like the idea that my example might inspire people but I won’t worry about it if people don’t want to do it. I do like to proselyte though.
Why do you love to travel?
This is why I live the way I do – I don’t like to be tied down. I feel more free to travel now than when I had money even though it’s harder to get places. I just get up and go when I want to. I like the sense of freedom that travel offers. Especially when the travel is random. Sometimes I don’t know where I’m going. I have no idea what’s around the next corner. And I like that.
[Photo credits: Daniel Suelo, GQ]