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'It was pure survival': One man fights despair, frostbite in the polar vortex

Mary Lynn Smith, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Weather News

MINNEAPOLIS -- As the temperatures plummeted, Jay Mitchell huddled in his truck thinking he would die in the relentless cold.

He'd spent the past three weeks living in his vehicle. Cancer killed his wife a month earlier and he lost the month-to-month lease on his home in Randall, Minn. He had nowhere to go because he refused to give up his 10-year-old dog.

"He's all I have left in the world," Mitchell said from his hospital bed in the burn unit at Hennepin County Medical Center. "All my other family is in the ground."

Mitchell, 57, and his dog, Hero, moved into his '94, single-bench-seat pickup truck Jan. 2. He'd spent his meager savings to bury his wife, Kathy.

"I wanted to make sure her funeral was dignified," he said.

He had taken care of her for two years and knew her death was inevitable. And yet, it seemed unfathomable that he would have to live on without her after 27 years of marriage.

"We had a love that a lot of people hope to find," he said.

Grieving the love of his life, who "disintegrated before my eyes," his sorrow soon was subsumed by a fight to stay alive.

He and Hero buried themselves under a pile of blankets in the truck, sleeping an hour at a time, turning on the engine every so often to gain some precious heat.

"It was pure survival, an hour at a time," said Mitchell, who spent years working construction and odd jobs as a handyman. They moved from one Walmart parking lot to another, parking in the sun during the day, trying to stay out of harm's way at night.

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