The morning ritual is simple and slow: a cup of sharp tea brewed from the needles of piñon and juniper trees, a swim in the cold emerald water where the creek pools in the red rock. Then, two naked cavemen lounging under the Utah sun. Around noon, we forage along the banks and under the cliffs, looking for the stuff of a stir-fry dinner. We find mustard plants among the rocks, the raw leaves as satisfying as cauliflower, and down in the cool of the creekwhere Suelo gets his water and takes his baths (no soap for him) we cull watercress in heads as big as supermarket lettuce, and on the bank we spot a lode of wild onions, with bulbs that pop clean from the soil. In leaner times, Suelo's gatherings include ants, grubs, termites, lizards, and roadkill. He recently found a deer, freshly run over, and carved it up and boiled it. "The best venison of my life," he says.
I tell him that living without money seems difficult. What about starvation? He's never gone without a meal (friends in Moab sometimes feed him). What about getting deadly ill? It happened once, after eating a cactus he misidentifiedhe vomited, fell into a delirium, thought he was dying, even wrote a note for those who would find his corpse. But he got better. That it's hard is exactly the point, he says. "Hardship is a good thing. We need the challenge. Our bodies need it. Our immune systems need it. My hardships are simple, right at handthey're manageable." When I tell him about my rent back in New York$2,400 a monthhe shakes his head. What's left unsaid is that I'm here writing about him to make money, for a magazine that depends for its survival on the advertising revenue of conspicuous consumption. As he prepares a cooking fire, Suelo tells me that years ago he had a neighbor in the canyon, an alcoholic who lived in a cave bigger than his. The old man would pan for gold in the stream and net enough cash each month to buy the beer that kept him drunk. Suelo considers the riches of our own forage. "What if we saw gold for what it is?" he says meditatively. "Gold is pretty but virtually useless. Somebody decided it has worth, and everybody accepted this decision. The natives in the Americas thought Europeans were insane because of their lust for such a useless yellow substance."
He sautés the watercress, mustard leaves, and wild onions, mixing in fresh almonds he picked from a friend's orchard and ghee made from Dumpster-dived butter, and we eat out of his soot-caked pans. From the perch on the cliff, the life of the sadhu seems reasonable. But I don't want to live in a cave. I like indoor plumbing (Suelo squats). I like electricity. Still, there's an obvious beauty in the simplicity of subsistence. It's an un-American notion these days. We don't revere our ascetics, and we dismiss the idea that money could be some kind of consensual delusion. For most of us, it's as real as the next house payment. Suelo doesn't take public assistance or use food stamps, but he does survive in part on our reality, the discarded surfeit of the money system that he denouncesa system, as it happens, that recently looked like it was headed for the cliff.