The RPCV who quit money (and the writer who told his tale)

In 2000, a man in Moab, Utah left his life savings — $30 — in a phone booth and walked away. Twelve years later that man — Daniel Suelo — enjoys an apparently full and sane life without money, credit, barter or government hand-outs, as he fulfills a vision of the good life inspired by his spiritual guides: Jesus, Buddha and wandering Hindu monks.

Suelo, whose real name is Daniel Shellabarger, is an RPCV who served in the village of El Hato in the Andes, Ecuador (1988-89) as a health PCV.

A friend of Suelo’s, former river guide and now writer Mark Sundeen, has written a book that traces the path and the singular idea that led Suelo to his extreme lifestyle. In The Man Who Quit Money, Sundeen delivers a myth for our times — one that happens to be a true story .

The Man Who Quit Money is an account of how one man learned to live, sanely and happily, without earning, receiving, or spending a single cent. Suelo doesn’t pay taxes, or accept food stamps or welfare. He lives in caves in the Utah canyon lands, forages for wild foods and gourmet discards. He no longer carries an I.D. Yet he manages to amply fulfill not only the basic human needs for shelter, food, and warmth, but, to an enviable degree, satisfies the universal desires for companionship, purpose, and spiritual engagement.

clip_image002When he dropped out, Daniel Suelo was thirty-nine years old, came from a good family, and had attended college. He was not mentally ill, nor was he an addict. His decision appears to have been an act of free will by a competent adult. In the twelve 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 to eight, ten, finally thirteen trillion dollars, he did not pay taxes, or accept food stamps, welfare, or any other form of government handout.

Instead he set up house in caves in the Utah canyon lands, where he seeks out 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.

He sleeps under bridges and prospects in trash cans, but he 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 a monk, nor is he 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 in Moab. 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, harvested mussels and kelp from Pacific beaches, spearfished salmon in Alaska streams, and braved three months of storms atop an ancient hemlock tree.

“I know it is possible to live with zero money,” Suelo declares. “Abundantly.”

The Mark Sundeen/Daniel Suelo connection
Mark Sundeen ran across his old acquaintance Daniel Suelo a few years ago in a market in Moab. Suelo, deeply weathered and wearing threadbare clothes, looked at Sundeen with a beatific smile from across an aisle. Sundeen fled the store immediately. He walked away with an anger that didn’t even quite make sense to him at the time.

This had been the second time the two men’s roads had diverged.

They both arrived in Moab roughly 15 years earlier, each consciously leaving the more workaday world behind. Sundeen lived in a tent; Suelo house-sat. Both were highly educated and purposefully underemployed. Sundeen, originally from Manhattan Beach, California had graduated from Stanford and would later earn a master’s degree in writing from USC. Suelo, a University of Colorado graduate and former Peace Corps Volunteer, was a self-made theologian of a sort who’d left behind a fundamentalist childhood and a career in social work. They’d worked together as cooks at a natural food restaurant called Honest Ozzie’s.

Sundeen went on to become a river raft guide and Outward Bound leader before eventually launching his career as an author. In addition to three books, he has been a contributor to such national publications as the New York Times and Outside magazine. After a decade of scrambling to make $8,000 a year, he achieved some degree of financial success — he owned a house in Montana and maintained property in Moab.

Suelo had gone the opposite direction. He took to living in caves in the nearby canyon lands. The more time he spent in nature, and the more he studied its ways, the more convinced he became that there was a simpler, perhaps better way to live. His journey into willful moneylessness occurred by degrees — sojourns to India, Alaska, Oregon, and Nova Scotia would play a role — but by the time Sundeen laid eyes upon Suelo again during that brief encounter in Moab he had been joyfully living without a cent for years.

Word had traveled. Sundeen knew that his former friend had chosen this unusual path, and assumed he’d lost his mind. The poor condition of that friendly smile seemed to confirm it — Suelo had bad teeth Sundeen noticed. But his revulsion, he later realized, was about more than Suelo’s darkened teeth.

“I should not be forced to look at his sorry mouth,” Sundeen wrote. “The sight made me ashamed — of my own excellent dental condition, my disposable income, my rental property — as if he had accused me directly. My shame made me mad.”

Not long after that chance meeting, Suelo gained some national attention with an article written about him in Details magazine. The editor of Sundeen’s previous book called him up after reading the story.

“Hey, do you still live in Moab?” the editor asked.

“No,” Sundeen said.

“Well, I’ve been reading about this guy who lives down there without money,” the editor said. “Have you ever heard of him?”

“Yeah. I’ve known that guy 15 years. We used to work at a restaurant together.”

The editor sent an email to Suelo — who maintains his own website from the Moab Public Library — and asked if he’d be interested in being the subject of a book. Suelo remembered Sundeen and in fact had read his books. He agreed, while noting that he couldn’t take any money for participating, “otherwise it would render the whole thing nonsense.”

Sundeen returned to Moab. He didn’t know exactly how to locate Suelo. He sent a message and hoped that his subject would emerge from his cave and check his email. Then, sure enough, sitting on the front porch of a friend’s home where he was staying, Sundeen saw a familiar figure serenely pedaling a bicycle down the road in front of him. He ran out in the road and called his name, “Daniel!”

Suelo turned and made his way to Sundeen, who couldn’t help noticing how stylish he looked for somebody who was essentially a homeless man. He wore a black felt bolero hat. “He looked like a cross between a Great Depression hobo and a vagabound French painter — Buster Keaton meets Paul Gaguin,” Sundeen wrote.

Thus began their adventure together, which culminated in this month’s release of man-who-uit-moneyThe Man Who Quit Money.

Eat, Pray, Love bestselling writer Elizabeth Gilbert on the book jacket writes, “This is a beautiful, thoughtful, and wonderful book. I suspect I may find myself thinking about it every day for the rest of my life.”

Sundeen, in an interview this week, said that he does not consider himself a spiritual person but after spending time with Suelo he cannot rightly believe that things are entirely coincidental — including the parallel lines of his and Daniel’s life intersecting once again to produce this book.

“The thing I am really proud of about this book is I don’t think anyone else could have written it,” Sundeen said. “Someone else could have written a different book. But you had to be in Moab in the ’90s to really understand the kind of influence . . . and not only that, but you had to have at least some experience living this way to understand that it’s not a joke — that it’s not that he couldn’t hack it, and that’s what people, I think especially on the East Coast and possibly in Southern California, might think. ‘Oh, he couldn’t hack it.’ Or, ‘He’s insane.’ Or, ‘He’s immature.” It’s not a joke: there is real freedom to be found. And if you don’t go for it and you don’t live this way, you will never know about it, and you will probably be kind of skeptical about it.”

The book
Sundeen’s journey with Suelo — which is Spanish for soil and Suelo’s adopted name, replacing Shellabarger — began with a backpack trip to the man’s caves. “What was surprising about the first cave was that it was tiny — you couldn’t stand up inside,” he said. “It felt like a hide-out for a mountain lion. The next cave was spacious with a great view of the canyon and a place to build a campfire . . . At night you could see the stars and hear the creek rushing through the reeds.”

Sundeen is a gifted reporter in part because he is unsparing in his own search beyond the surface of things. Early on, he asked Suelo for a reading list to provide some background into his way of thinking. Suelo came back with a list of 30 books that included many of the world’s major religious texts. Both the subject matter and the writer of The Man Who Quit Money are almost shockingly erudite — Sundeen also researched what amounted to the economic history of mankind — but the book pulls off the trick of carrying this erudition lightly, traveling as it does into the byways of America and deep into its desert heart.

Suelo is not singular in what he is doing — in India, for example, many people, called sadhus, have forsaken material possession. Sundeen said the story is important to him largely because of the timing and place of Suelo’s endeavor. This has been a time, after all, of disappearing money in America.

“I don’t anticipate a lot of people following his path, and neither does he,” Sundeen said. “Daniel is not married and does not have children, so nobody relies on him for his financial support. Many people who hear about him come visit and try living without money, but most only last a few weeks or months . . .. What people can take away is: If he can survive on next to nothing, maybe we can survive with less. Of course there are a lot of Americans who think such thinking is absurd: it is our right to have as much stuff as we want, so why would we try to have less? But there are an equal number who find the amount of stuff we have overwhelming, who would rather live a more simple life based on deeper connections with people, with nature, with God. These people might find in Suelo some inspiration to live more simply, and more in alignment with their deeper values.”

Though he has abandoned his evangelical upbringing, Suelo is still essentially attempting to live according to not only Jesus’ teachings (Sundeen quotes the gospels: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor . . .”) but Buddha, Mohammed, and other spiritual leaders, many who perhaps not coincidentally also emerged from the scarcity of deserts. Which is not to say that Suelo aspires to be or is a religious figure, at all — he is simply a man in search of his own sense of security. He wants to be at home, everywhere.

“I’m employed by the universe,” Suelo writes. “Since everywhere I go is the universe, I am always secure. Life has flourished for billions of years like this. I never knew such security before I gave up money. Wealth is what we are dependent on for security. My wealth never leaves me. Do you think Bill Gates is more secure than I?”

One Comment

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  • “Daniel is not married and does not have children, so nobody relies on him for his financial support….”

    That is the secret.

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