The Mayday Experiment: Out With the Old, In With the New

There have been several setbacks since the beginning of this project, but none greater than losing my Ford F250, Bertha. Leaking oil out her tailpipe, she came to her final resting place at the inconvenient and terrifying juncture of I-225 and I-70, right at the bend in the road. Waiting for a tow truck to arrive for three hours and hoping one of the cars whizzing by wouldn't sideswipe me, I had a lot of time to ponder what I should do — because the huge clunking sound and the engine grinding to a halt were unmistakably bad signs. And after putting as much money as I had into this 1992 beast, it was hard to justify putting in any more. I didn’t need my mechanic to tell me that Bertha was dead, though I dutifully had her towed there, not knowing what else to do. Ding-dong, the witch was dead, and so were a lot of my plans.

After successful outings at both RedLine and the Denver Art Museum with the Mayday Experiment, I had been eagerly planning to take the tiny house to schools in the fall and maybe a couple of festivals or events, both to help fundraise and to begin the process of having the conversations that are at the heart of this project. Those plans were now halted dead in the water, and the anxiety began.

Not only did it worry me that I couldn’t move the tiny house in an emergency (what if there was a nearby fire, with sparks flying toward my dry-framed construction? What if I had to move out of my studio, as so many friends have had to do in New Denver?), but the majority of the time, tiny is parked outside my studio in my driveway, parallel to the street so it won’t block the sidewalk or traffic. This means it is at a constant tilt, and after the incident with the broken jack, I wasn’t prone to trusting leveling it that way for any long-term solution. And though Marcus Hyde of Denver Homeless Out Loud has been generous in helping me move it when necessary, it was clear I needed a way to move it on my own. Despite searching far and wide on ye olde Internet, I still hadn’t found a place locally where I could rent a truck with the necessary towing capacity to make that an easy option.

I had been fundraising and working hard to save for the next step in the process: the siding, which really needs to be done before winter, to the tune of about $1,500 for the lumber alone. Add to that the urgency and expense of the competing need for broken windows to be replaced before winter (young neighborhood vandals had done the damage), and I didn’t see how I would be able to afford a vehicle any time soon.

Still, I perused Craigslist, dreaming, with trucks feeling impossibly out of reach. I wasn’t even thinking about vans until my friend Jon Julien messaged me and told me about his neighbor’s conversion van. He was confident that it could tow the tiny house. He had lived next to this older couple for many years, and watched while they took vacations in a van they’d owned since it was new in 1992. Jon trusted them and I trusted Jon, but the $2,200 they wanted for the van was just too out of reach, especially while I was working toward making rent while also trying to pull together enough for the siding and windows. Still, I had a feeling about this van and told Jon I would try to figure something out. He gave me his neighbor’s number, and I spun and pondered how I could come up with the money, thinking about it for a couple of weeks.

After a while, I had almost let go of this mythical conversion van, transforming thoughts of it into a ghost of my desires and accepting my truckless fate. But then Jon messaged me again and told me that someone had seen the van on Craigslist and that his neighbors, Harold and Dorothy, had lowered the price to $1,495. Conversion vans, it seems, aren’t all that popular, and they were tired of waiting. The guy hadn’t come over yet, though, and Jon told me the owners were charmed by the story of what I was doing and said he was sure they would bump me to the front of the line.

Desperate, I did what all desperate people do: I called Mom.

My mother is amazing, and I feel fortunate. An artist herself, she has always supported my dreams and encouraged me, from providing me every art supply imaginable as a child to looking the other way when I stole her good brushes as an angry, bratty teen. She always knew I was an artist and pushed me, supporting everything I’ve ever done with not only love, but a smart critique. I grew up going to her art openings and coming home to her painting at the kitchen counter after school, hunched over her insanely detailed, jewel-toned paintings. When divorce made her a single mother and she got a job, she stopped painting altogether, feeling that if she couldn’t do it all day she didn’t want to do it at all (and she was also exhausted at the end of a long day in an office). I’ve always been keenly aware of my mom’s sacrifice and have felt responsible for it, and it’s been part of what drives me to keep going when I want to quit, as happens to us all. 

The other thing my mom is amazing at is saving and being financially responsible, something that I wish she had somehow passed on to me. So even though she is on a fixed income, she was able to scrape up a short-term loan until I could sell poor Bertha for parts (many of which I paid to have installed less than a year ago).

Excited, I called up Jon’s neighbors, Dorothy and Harold. Dorothy was expecting me to call, and we made arrangements to meet at their northwest Denver home, a pink Victorian that they had renovated themselves and had lived in most of their lives.

When I arrived, Dorothy was as sweet as could be. And so was the van, in excellent condition. Though it was equal to Bertha in towing capacity, it wasn’t jacked up to the same height, so I no longer had to climb in like a monkey swinging into a tree. A white van with a blue-velvet and oak interior, it had been impeccably cared for – the ashtrays in the little table in the back even still had a factory-applied protective film on them. From the blue shag carpet to the engine, every inch of it was cleaned and cared for. And with only 135,000 miles, mostly collected on Harold and Dorothy’s vacations, it was a great deal. It even had the same trailer brakes that Bertha had, so I wouldn’t have to learn a new system. It was perfect, save for the fact that it used gasoline, not diesel. So for the long-term journey I would still need something more sustainable — but for being able to move the house to level it without leaving tiny susceptible to a ticket, it would be just fine. And with a switch-operated fold-down bed, it could be a spare bedroom in a pinch, or even a place to stay in a bigger pinch.

Dorothy took me for a ride, leaving Harold behind with their Siamese cat. I told her about the Mayday Experiment, and we talked about the fact that many of the things it takes to be sustainable were things that our grandparents did – so why would anyone think these ideas are crazy now? “You’re a woman after my own heart!” Dorothy exclaimed, and I felt a deep bond of kinship with this lovely octogenarian I had just met. I half-joked to her when she showed me the fold-down bed in the back, “Well, in Denver’s gentrification, this can be my hedge against homelessness!” She grabbed my cheeks and stared me straight in the eyes and said, “You will never be homeless: I always have a spare room!” I gave her a huge hug – imagine such love from someone you’ve just met! It made my heart almost hurt as it swelled to bursting.

Agreeing to buy the van on the spot, I drove to Lakewood in my mom’s borrowed car to pick her up and bring her back to see the van and pay Dorothy and Harold, who had sweetly already knocked $100 off of the price. Back at the pink Victorian, we sat and visited with Dorothy and Harold under their tidy grape arbor, with swelling green grapes peeking between curled vines and leaves. Dorothy did most of the talking, and Harold looked at her with a sweet kindness that only a lifetime together can inspire. They shared stories of road trips and spoke of their drywall business, rescuing the house from the disrepair they had found it in years before, and family. We lamented the changes in Denver and discussed the fact that if they cashed in and sold they couldn't afford to move somewhere new in Denver anyway.  By the time we left, they felt like old friends. 

When I returned with the temporary tags, Harold was there to greet me, taking off the plates. He showed me a couple of quirks – the blue shag plug to cover the hole in the carpet if I removed the table, which was in as good of shape as the day they bought it. We talked about the original price ($18,000 new!), and he showed me how everything worked. I asked about Dorothy and he said, “She can’t bear to see it go. She doesn’t want to see it drive off."  I understood completely.

On Facebook, I posted a proud pic of my new ride and asked for name suggestions. Friends came up with hysterical suggestions – Melissa May said, “The least molesty name to me is Margie,” and Leeman Markee suggested Vantasm. Jessica Joy, my former assistant who insisted Bertha’s name was actually Faith, said that this one was named Sally. Michelle Baldwin had the genius suggestion of Mrs. Roper. But it was my friend Undine Brod who had the winning suggestion, one that should have been obvious from the start: Why not name her after Dorothy?

From the instant she said it, it felt right. And because every car has room for a last name, I decided she would henceforth be named Dorothy Harold, in honor of her first owners. (Though my friends at the Denver Modernism Show last weekend dubbed it the “Shaggin’ Wagon,” which is a good nickname.)

Finally, the Mayday Experiment is mobile again!  

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