Healing on the Highway
July 08, 2015
By Carolyn Moore
WARROAD, Minn — It was the kind of March afternoon that makes headlines in northern Minnesota. It was St. Patrick’s Day 2013 and a late winter storm was on the horizon with the forecast calling for more snow in a cold month that had already seen above average snowfall for the area.
It was definitely the kind of weather then 59-year-old Warroad, Minn., resident Mark Engen didn't take chances with. On this blustery Sunday, Mark was due to make the 141 mile drive to Grand Forks, N.D., to fetch his wife, Jeanine, who was returning from a trip to Arizona. Her arrival wasn't scheduled until 7 p.m., but Mark, knowing the wintery mix would quickly slick up the roadways, left home with several hours to spare — even packing an overnight bag in case the couple decided to remain in Grand Forks for the night to wait out the storm.
It was a decision they wouldn't have to make.
Ninety miles into the drive, on stretch of MN 11 running through Kittson County, Engen faced something more dangerous than Mother Nature could conjure up.
At 2:19 p.m., a drunk driver — blood saturated with alcohol two times the legal limit — crossed the center line and smashed, head-on, into his car, and the world went dark.
Twenty-seven months later, Mark and Jeanine are inside a waiting room at the Hennepin County Medical Center, awaiting yet another doctor's visit. It's been a familiar place for the couple since the accident that nearly claimed Mark's life — and did end the lives of two passengers in the oncoming vehicle. His injuries were so severe, Jeanine was ushered off her plane by officials and rushed to the hospital to sign medical forms in case her husband, who had broken almost all his major bones, didn't pull through.
He's undergone several surgeries since to repair the injuries, and attended nearly two years of daily physical therapy to regain use of his most severely damaged left hip and ankle. It's been a painful road to recovery, and one that's been driven by an intense desire to, of all things, get back on the open road.
The Engens, you see, don't have a home in a neighborhood, or a farm in the countryside. “Our home is on wheels,” Mark smiles. “The RV is our home.”
For two decades, the couple has owned an RV, and their love for the accompanying nomadic culture has grown with their rig. Camping trips in a cozy 18-foot Winnebego have morphed into a yearly pilgrimage from Minnesota to Arizona aboard their 38-foot motorhome. Almost three years ago, they sold their house in Warroad and moved, full-time, into their rig.
One place they visit each year is Minot, N.D., to attend North America's largest Scandinavian festival, Norsk Høstfest. Jeanine says the late September event held on the North Dakota State Fairgrounds is a highlight of their year, the first pit stop along their winding road to warmer winter weather.
In those first difficult months following Mark's accident, parking their RV in their now-familiar spot inside Høstfest's campground (also located on the fairgrounds) was a goal that kept them motivated.
“We had to get to Minot,” Jeanine says. “Just getting to the festival, that was medicine. That was good for both of us.”
In order to get the green light to head to Høstfest — just six months after Mark's accident — the Engens had to clear more than just his physical hurdles.
“They wanted to keep me in the nursing home, but they agreed if I got an electric lift installed, I could get out and live in there,” Mark says.
Friends and family helped make that a reality, and Mark was able to move back in to his home on wheels. Today, Jeanine, chuckles about the homecoming.
“I had just retired. I was a nurse at the Roseau (Minn.) hospital, and I thought I was done with nursing and then this happened!” But caring for her husband, helping him to regain his strength and mobility, was a duty she didn't — and still doesn't — hesitate to assume. “You do what you have to do, and he needed help,” she shrugs.
And helping is something the couple knows well. Though they come to Norsk Høstfest to enjoy the music, food and Scandinavian culture, both are also volunteers for the festival, and Jeanine is part of the festival's accordion club.
“We just aren't the kind that sit around, and there's so much to do,” Jeanine says. “The more we help out, the easier it is for everybody.”
Becoming involved in Høstfest both as volunteers and as part of the RV park on its grounds has added to the experience for the Engens, too.
“We started out there as strangers and enjoyed it, but we've built a family since,” Mark says.
And as for the Høstfest campground itself? “We've been in many RV parks throughout our years of RVing, and it is tops,” Jeanine says. “Just to see this city of RVs build around you; it's amazing.”
“Høstfest goes above and beyond to make sure things are right and you're OK with where you are and that everything's working,” Mark agrees. “It's great to come in and see the same people. It's really the only time of the year we see this group.”
Attending the festival and soaking up its rich cultural elements is the catalyst for another big milestone on the couple's itinerary: they're going abroad — for the first time — to visit Norway this September.
“We've seen so much of Norway at Høstfest that we just have to go see it for ourselves,” Jeanine laughs. “At our age, it's time we do something like this.”
Just four days after they return to U.S. soil, the Engens will load up their RV and head west to Minot for their 20th year at Norsk Høstfest, which runs Sept. 29 to Oct. 3. And even though the open road might logically seem a place of anxiety, given the accident that nearly claimed his life, Mark says nothing — even that brush with death — can keep them from doing what they love.
“That's what they say: 'Getting there is half the fun,’ ” he says. “We have to go, you know?”
Jeanine agrees. “We're hitting the road and we're not turning around. You have to keep going, that's our goal. We have to go.”
ABOUT NORSK HØSTFEST
Norsk Høstfest is a nonprofit Scandinavian festival held annually in the fall in the North Dakota State Fair Center on the North Dakota State Fairgrounds in Minot, N.D., USA. Entering its 38th year, the festival has become North America’s largest Scandinavian festival with tens of thousands of people attending from all over the world. The festival features world-class entertainment, Scandinavian culture on display, handcrafted Norsk merchandise, authentic Scandinavian cuisine plus a fine dining establishment, En To Tre, led by chefs from Norway. Norsk Høstfest celebrates Scandinavian culture from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. To learn more, visit hostfest.com.
MEDIA AT NORSK HØSTFEST
Norsk Høstfest welcomes media coverage at the 2015 festival. If you are a member of the media and would like to report from the festival, please contact Leann Mellum at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.hostfest.com/about/media to obtain media credentials.