The Mayday Experiment: Bye Bye, Bertha

Ding-dong, the witch is dead. And by witch, I mean Bertha: my cranky, undependable but still beloved 1992 Ford F250 diesel truck.

I bought Bertha when I decided to go forward with this project, simply so that I could buy supplies and transport the tiny house — but just driving around town turned into a bit of a challenge. Bertha smelled bad and had no muffler; her turning radius was so horrible that parking was often difficult, and I had to climb her like a monkey since she had no running boards. Nevertheless, I quickly grew to love my almost-junker, with her badass running lights that scraped the top of parking garages, International Harvester window decals and retro paint job. And there was the added bonus of dudes pulling up next to me at stoplights, hitting on me by saying, “I loooove how your truck smells.”(True story: it was a thing.) It was my intention that Bertha would eventually smell like French fries from biodiesel, but I never got that far.

She wasn’t the greatest truck, but she was what I could afford, and after meeting a kid from a Craigslist ad in a parking lot at Garrison and Sixth, it seemed like she would do. Of course, I quickly discovered that the kid had lied to me about so many things that I eventually began to even doubt her mileage: What had seemed like a very reasonable 175,000 miles couldn’t have possibly been accurate, given all of the wear and tear on the poor thing. And he certainly wasn’t returning my texts or calls – adding to my feeling that perhaps her engine had already turned, or she'd suffered something even more sinister.

Nevertheless, I dutifully poured money into Bertha – new struts, a new clutch (which only slightly eased the workout on my calf muscles and increased my likelihood of getting her into reverse by a mere 30 percent, tops) and a flurry of repairs had her running as well as could be expected, although she still managed to strand me with regularity. Three separate towing incidents ended with her starting nonchalantly at the mechanic’s, offering no indication of what had caused her previous reluctance to start. Bertha’s ways were mysterious and cantankerous. And after completing half of her repairs with still a long way to go, I decided to stop throwing good money after bad and hope for the best – she had already sucked up more cash than her blue-book value.

The final straw? Bertha had managed to leave me stranded a number of times, but never as terrifyingly as this time. While picking up a long-overdue sculpture repair from down near the Denver Tech Center where it had been clear-coated, I heard a sort of steady drumbeat start to come from the engine. I had been noticing the last couple of days that Bertha had been running choppy, and I’d made a mental note to see if I could get her to the mechanic in the next week or so —  but I actually rarely drive any distance at all, so it hadn’t been in the forefront of my mind, and I'd had her oil checked on our last visit to the mechanic not that long ago. But this drumbeat was insistent, and quickly began to turn to a rattle, and then a harsh clanging. In a panic, I looked for the nearest exit, but I was at that point of I-225 where it begins to turn to I-70, and I wouldn’t be able to get off until Peoria. But Bertha had other ideas.

With a loud BANG the engine stopped and I struggled to keep her on the road, leaving curvy skid-marks as I wrestled the power steering and brakes. She glided to a halt just after the overpass, not even granting me shade in her final moments.

I’m not sure if there is a spot more terrifying to break down. Right at the point of a tight curve, cars and trucks whizzed by a mere foot away at 65 miles per hour, and the 90+ degree temperatures were enhanced by the beating sun. Thankfully, I had renewed my AAA membership and quickly called, listening to atrocious hold music for what seemed like a longer span of time than it had taken to drive down there in the first place. With only one interminable disconnection, the operator and I managed to figure out how to communicate the odd space I found myself in, and she assured me that the ninety-minute wait time was merely a suggestion but that I would certainly be a priority and she would send the police immediately.

I switched seats to gain a little more shade and a little less whooshing from passing vehicles and waited, playing Words With Friends and uploading videos of oncoming traffic to Instagram in between texts with alarmed friends. Eventually a cop showed up, only to basically assure me that while he had indeed showed up he could do nothing — so he left, a momentary but welcome distraction. I wish he would have at least brought me water, because by this time I was sweating up a storm on what was supposed to be a quick errand.

After about two hours, a tow truck pulled up behind me, and the driver, with a sense of urgency that seemed odd given how long I’d been sitting there, asked me to get out of Bertha and into his truck. And after a few quick groans of his truck’s winch and some lashing of chains, we were off, chatting about Denver’s growth and how there was always traffic now.

Not knowing where else to have her towed, I took her to my long-time mechanic – not because he works on diesels, mind you (a fact he reminds me of every time), but because I trust him and he’s honest. But I didn’t really need his opinion to know…that bang was the bang of death. It was loud and definitive. Still, he dutifully looked and informed me a couple of days later that yes, she was probably dead, and the engine was seized. A call to a diesel mechanic confirmed that was Bertha’s last ride, as it would take $5,000 to $6,000 to rebuild the engine, and she just isn’t worth it.

So now I’m stuck. The broken windows felt like a step back — but the loss of Bertha feels like five steps back. There's nowno way to move the tiny house, short of the expensive act of renting a truck.  Although Bertha was my main transportation, I can get by with the light rail and Uber…but I cannot move the tiny house, and picking up lumber just became a bigger pain. Which would seem to leave me stuck, in more ways than one.

If anyone reading this has a truck they want to donate or any good ideas, I am all ears. In the meantime, I'm taking this opportunity to regroup and figure things out…focus on building and getting ducks in a row. After all, from here there’s no place to go but forward.

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here or here. See more of her work at
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Lauri Lynnxe Murphy