"It's my experience that most folk who ride trains could care less where they're going. For them it's the journey itself and the people they meet along the way. You see, at every stop this train makes, a little bit of America, a little bit of your country, gets on and says hello."
The Christmas Train
For over a century, railway post offices have carried holiday greetings across the country. And for generations, trains under the tree--in multicolor and black metal, electric and push toy, large and small--have thrilled many a wide-eyed child on a Christmas morning.
Trains travel on bridges high over the country's waters, wind their way on wildflower and grass-lined tracks through the plains, chug over high mountain peaks, and toot their arrival through small, rural towns and large, bustling cities.
Somewhere near the route of these "iron horses," accompanied by a few friends and armed with a camera, one might discover Mike Vandenberg, self-proclaimed "railfan."
Mike's attraction to trains was fueled while in college when he found his dad's old film camera. "It's a boyhood fascination that never went away," said Mike, who remembers playing with electric trains and a Matchbox push train as a child.
Born in Waconia in March 1979 to parents Stu and Judy Vandenberg, Mike attended school in the Westonka School District, along with sister Sara and brother Chris, and graduated from Mound-Westonka High School in 1997. He found his niche as a music and secondary education major at the University of Minnesota, Morris and earned a bachelor's degree in 2003. As a college student at Morris he played bass trombone with the renowned UMM Jazz Ensembles, conducted by Jim "Doc" Carlson, and also played tuba in the concert band and campus orchestra.
"While I was in college I worked for Carl Benson at Benson Drug," said Mike. "My dad, a retired pharmacist, knew Carl through their memberships on the State Board of Pharmacy."
While preparing for his college graduation, Mike attended a campus career day as he contemplated where to send his resume and seek employment. "The UMM Office of Admissions told me to send them a resume. Doc Carlson and Ken Hodgson (professors of music at Morris) inspired me to want to help students." Following his college graduation, Mike remained in Morris and is now an assistant director of admissions at UMM.
"I work with a pretty terrific group of coworkers," said Mike. "It's very rewarding to help a student go from knowing nothing about the college search process to selecting the right school for them...to help them figure out a pretty significant chapter of their life.
"Every year I get a letter from a student who tells me that I was the 'primary influence' about why they selected where to go to college. It can't get more meaningful than that."
Mike, who is slow to anger and "really laid back," has learned that life is short and tries not to take it too seriously.
"My mother Judy, who was a registered nurse, died from cancer on Sept. 27 of this year," said Mike. "She is the first really close family member I've lost. She was the person who helped to pull the rest of us through. Very active in her church, she had a good sense of humor and knew every hymn in the Lutheran hymnal."
A comparatively small family group that includes an aunt, an uncle and two cousins on each side, the Vandenberg family holiday traditions are relatively simple.
"We used to have a 15-foot tree, now it's probably more like 12 feet," said Mike. "We hold hands around the table and sing the doxology."
Back "on track" with his passion for trains, Mike said that his interest is "so much more than the train itself. We talk about more than just trains. It has helped me get through some tough times and situations."
Mike has followed and photographed trains on the tracks of Luverne, N.D., throughout west central Minnesota and beyond. "We took a four-day trip to Wyoming, camping and sitting near the tracks with a cooler. We spend all day, take naps in the grass and use a scanner to determine how long we have to wait for the next train to pass by." Railfans like Mike observe trespassing laws and use the Internet to learn about train routes and schedules. Occasionally they meet railroad workers, some of whom go along with the adventure on their day off.
"We learned once of a derailment that required Amtrak to come through Morris," said Mike, who had grabbed his camera and took photos as the train passed by. He has ridden Amtrak to Seattle, Whitefish, Mont., and Chicago.
Mike has had his train photos published in an official Amtrak vacation magazine as well as included in My Train Book, a children's board book published by Harper Collins. His photos can also be seen at www.mikevandenberg.com/.
He enjoys bicycling with girlfriend Kierstin Nygaard who teaches physical education and is the track coach in Hancock. "I'm also a public radio junkie and regularly watch PBS programming," he shared.
"I wasn't used to being from a small community where you know people well," said Mike, who has learned to know well even those with no connection to the college. "To prospective students who are in doubt about coming here, I ask: 'What might some of the advantages be? Maybe a place that makes you feel like people are looking out for you?' "--a small rural town settled, it's been said, because the trains stopped here.