THERE IS ENJOYING the outdoors and then, there is really enjoying the beauty of the outdoors wherever you might find it.

Sometimes, the outdoors is simply looking out your window, watching chickadees and nuthatches go to work on the suet bag and sunflower seed feeder you have set out to satisfy their need for food, and your desire to enjoy their simple beauty.

At other times, the outdoors may be gazing upward at a 12,600-foot mountain peak that you are about to climb or it may be standing on a cliff above Gitche Gumee watching massive waves of 20 feet or more crashing against a solid wall of rock on a wild and woolly autumn morning.

I find beauty, peace and sometimes, even a tingle of danger in the outdoors, whether it be floating quietly on a small, hidden North Woods lake fishing for bluegills or riding white-knuckle in a boat very unsuited for doing battle with 6-foot breakers on Lake Michigan.

My lovely wife and I enjoyed outdoor beauty of several kinds last Sunday, as we headed north for the port city of Duluth, Minn., where we spent two wonderful hours that evening wandering the largest free-of-charge walk-through display of Christmas lights in North America.

Bentleyville began as a home display of outdoor lighted decorations, much as I set up each year on my lawn, by a man who began his lighting adventure in a small town in far north Minnesota. After a time, Mr. Bentley moved near Cloquet, Minn., where his home display grew. 

Eventually though, the lights display became too much and so Mr. Bentley retired from putting up the display. He retired, that is, until the mayor of Duluth called asking him if he would work with the city and an army of volunteers to set up a massive display of Christmas lights almost on the shore of Lake Superior itself in the city of Duluth. Fortunately, Mr. Bentley agreed to the proposition, and Bentleyville was born.

My wife and I first visited Bentleyville with a group of about 15 friends last year. We had a fabulous view of the entire display from our 14th-floor lake-view room in the Radisson Hotel and a closeup view of the 5 million lights that make up the display during the evening along with several thousand other Christmas lights afficionados. Suffice it to say, as a longtime lover of Christmas lights of any kind, I was hooked. This year for our visit, we decided to wait until a Sunday to make the trip northward in hopes of enjoying the lights with a somewhat smaller crowd.

During the trip north, as she usually does on road trips, my wife either read or napped while I drove and watched the beauty of north Wisconsin slide by. Snowbanks were high in Hurley and along the shore of Chequamegon Bay in Ashland a covering of crusty ice tamed what would have been boisterous waves on a breezy afternoon.

Farther north, near Ironwood, Mich., a deer actually crossed the highway in front of me. As I passed by, I watched it and three others wallowing through belly-deep snow as they plowed their way through an open hardwood forest lining the road. I wondered as I passed them by if all four would survive a winter starting so early with snow so deep.

As we crossed the Bois Brule River in the town of Brule, I gave it my usual quick glance, seeing the dark, dancing water rushing downstream where some 20 miles or so away it would meet with Lake Superior. As always when I see that revered river, my thoughts instantly went to the beloved stories written by my hero of outdoor writing, Gordon MacQuarrie. And as usual, when I thought of MacQuarrie, my thoughts went instantly to the pranks and hijinks of the Old Duck Hunters Association Inc. Those stories, written from the late 1920s until MacQuarrie’s untimely death from a heart attack at age 56 in 1956, have held me in awe through literally scores of readings and rereadings.

From the Brule it was on to Superior across the Blatnik Bridge, from which we could watch two huge freighters out on the big lake, thence a short distance into Duluth and the Radisson.

It was about 3 p.m., when we arrived so I had to wait another three hours before we would make our way several blocks from the hotel to the entrance to Bentleyville. The wait was worth it. We were just two little children along with a very sizeable crowd of other children from 2 to 92, as they say, walking the wide, lighted pathways through Bentleyville.

Mrs. Claus’ bakery and the free hot chocolate, cookies and popcorn stands were there along with strolling Rudolph, Santa, penguin, fuzzy dog and other costumed characters who each have their picture taken with children and “big kids” probably a million times each night that the display is open for its approximate month-long run.

The centerpiece of the display is arguably the 160-foot Christmas tree which is constructed of what must be tens of thousands of lights which change colors, flash and blink through each night of the display.

At one point there are two hand-lettered billboards, one highlighting things you don’t want to know about Bentleyville; the other pointing out some of the facts and figures that are Bentleyville.

The second sign includes real numbers such as the nine weeks of setup it took, beginning Sept. 21 with hundreds of volunteers working 36,600 hours to make the display a reality. It includes the 40 full cords of wood it takes to feed the many warming fires scattered throughout the display, the 6 miles of rope lights used, the 12,000 extension cords it takes to light up the 5 million lights, the 400,000 cookies given away, the 15,000 pounds of hot chocolate given away, the 134,107 marshmallows roasted, the 4,000 pounds of popcorn popped and given away, and the 25,000 winter hats given away to children.

Bentleyville is an outdoor vision of beauty, and I suspect visiting the display has become and will continue to be a tradition for me and my wife to be a part of for years to come.

As they might say, you can never take Christmas out of the boy. 

In the case of this boy, truer words could never be spoken.