Homeless by Choice: How to Live for Free in America

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More than a decade ago, Daniel Suelo closed his bank account and moved into a desert cave. Here's how he eats, sleeps, and evades the law.

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"Our whole society is designed so that you have to have money," Daniel Suelo says. "You have to be a part of the capitalist system. It's illegal to live outside of it."

Suelo has defied these laws. His primary residence is the canyons near Arches National Park, where he has lived in a dozen caves tucked into sandstone nooks. In the fall of 2002, two years after quitting money, he homesteaded a majestic alcove high on a cliff, two hundred feet across and fifty feet tall. Sitting inside and gazing into the gorge below felt like heralding himself to the world from inside the bell of a trumpet.

Suelo's grotto was a two-hour walk from pavement, and he settled in for the long haul. He chipped at the rocky ground to create a wide, flat bed, and lined it with tarps and pads and sleeping bags that had been left out with someone else's trash. He built wood-burning cook-stoves from old tin cans. He learned to forage for cactus pods, yucca seeds, wildflowers, and the watercress that grew in the creek. He drank from springs, bathed in the creek. From a chunk of talus he carved a statue, a ponderous head like some monolith from Easter Island.

In warm months the cave attracted occasional hikers, and when Suelo was away, he left a note. Feel free to camp here. What's mine is yours. Eat any of my food. Read my books. Take them with you if you'd like. Visitors left notes in return, saying they were pleased with his caretaking.

money-cover.jpgThen one day, after several years of peace, a ranger from the Bureau of Land Management arrived to evict him. Suelo had long since violated the fourteen-day limit.

"If I were hiking along here and I saw this camp," said the ranger, "I'd feel like I wasn't allowed here, that it was someone else's space. But this is public land." The ranger wrote a ticket for $120.

"Well, I don't use money," Suelo said. "So I can't pay this." Not only did he not use money, he had discarded his passport and driver's license. He had even discarded his legal surname, Shellabarger, in favor of Suelo, Spanish for "soil." 

The ranger felt conflicted. He'd spent years chasing vandals and grave robbers through these canyons; he knew that Suelo was not harming the land. In some ways, Suelo was a model steward. The ranger offered to drive him to the next county to see a judge and resolve the citation.

The next day, these odd bedfellows, a penniless hobo and a federal law enforcer, climbed into a shimmering government-issue truck and sped across the desert. As they drove, Suelo outlined his philosophy of moneyless living while the ranger explained why he had become a land manager-- to stop people from destroying nature. "And then someone like you comes along," he said, "and I struggle with my conscience."

They arrived at the courthouse. The judge was a kindly white-haired man. "So you live without money," he drawled. "This is an honorable thing. But we live in the modern world. We have all these laws for a reason."

Suelo hears this all the time: that we're living in different times now, that however noble his values, their practice is obsolete. He even heard it once when he knocked on the door of a Buddhist monastery and asked to spend the night, and a monk informed him that rates began at fifty dollars. The Buddha himself would have been turned away, Suelo observed.

"We're living in a different age than the Buddha," he was told. But Suelo simply doesn't accept this distinction.

To the Utah judge casting about for an appropriate sentence, Suelo suggested service at a shelter for abused women and children. They agreed on twenty hours. Suelo volunteered regularly at the shelter anyway, so the punishment was a bit like sending Brer Rabbit back to the briar patch. And within a few weeks of eviction from his grand manor, he found a new cave, this time a tiny crevice where he would not be discovered.

It's tempting to conclude that Suelo's years in the wilderness have transformed him into a crusader for the earth. And clearly his lifestyle has a lower impact than virtually anybody else's in America. Without a car or a home to heat and cool, he produces hardly any carbon dioxide. Foraging for wild raspberries and spearfishing salmon has close to zero environmental cost--no production, no transportation. And although food gathered from a dumpster must be grown and processed and shipped, rescuing it from the trash actually prevents the further expenditure of energy to haul and bury that excess in a landfill.

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Mark Sundeen is the author of the book The Man Who Quit Money. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, and The Believer

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