CRAWFORD NOTCH, N.H. -- This is how it was explained to the kid as he was standing on Mount Willard on a flat stretch of trail, its dirt and rock littered only a bit with the first red and yellow leaves of the season:
``In the beginning, a daddy is younger and a baby is light, so the daddy carries the baby all the time."
The kid listened, tired.
``Then the daddy gets older and the child gets bigger, so the daddy carries less often, pretty much only when he has to."
The kid, 4, stared straight, dead in his tracks.
``And then at some point, when exactly neither the daddy nor the child know s beforehand, it becomes the child's job to carry the daddy."
The kid blinked.
``Will you be ready when it's time? Will you help carry daddy?"
Long pause from the kid, then: ``Yes."
He reached to grab a hand, then marched boldly the last steps to a rocky ledge with a sweeping vista of the first hints of autumn across the Presidential Range. The kid had come to Crawford Notch in the heart of the White Mountains only for a night, but a big one: a first camping trip alone with his dad to mark the passing of a season, and of another year of a young life.
Summer is for swimming holes and serendipity; fall is for camp fires and taking stock. Evenings cool quickly. Mornings warm slowly. Pace allows reflection. State campgrounds throughout New Hampshire, some open a few more weeks at least, offer an excellent autumn base camp.
When the kid arrived at the Dry River Campground the afternoon before his Mount Willard climb, a ranger mentioned that the forecast called for a thunderstorm, then a plunge in temperature overnight.
``It's like going from summer to fall in one jump," the ranger said.
The jump came at 4:18 p.m., more or less, with heavy thunder, lightning , and rain that tested the seams of a 14-year-old tent. The kid, who had voted for stories and crafts in the tent even before the rain began to fall, barely blinked while cutting snowflakes from construction paper with the scissors of a Leatherman tool.
``A wolf growling," the kid said.
Then another rumble and roll.
``That's like lots of big trains going really fast," he said. ``I can hear the click and clacks."
Then came crashes overhead.
``Or a big building construction site," the kid said.
He leaned against the edge of the tent, bringing another warning about water leaking in.
``Oh, I forgot," he said.
He labored to write large letters on a piece of paper: ``L- A- A- M- N- A- C."
``What's that spell?" he asked.
The answer, obvious to some: ``Laamnac."
``What's that spell?" he asked again.
Less obvious, perhaps: ``Dulcaah."
``I'm spelling so many funny words," he said, rising to his knees proudly. Then he rolled against the tent wall again.
``Oh, sorry," he said. ``I forgot."
Afterward, with ground and branches still heavy with rain, the kid headed down a short trail to the Dry River, a shallow stretch of stones and chilled pools. He splashed from one to the next, slipping and stopping, finally, to scoop up a fuscia-colored leaf. It would be a gift, he announced, for his little sister.
``This is perfect," the kid said, holding the leaf high. ``She loves hot pink!"
A few minutes later he tore the leaf while walking on the trail. And the gift?
``Oh, sorry," he said. ``I forgot."
The kid crawled into a sleeping bag and, immediately fell asleep. Too bad for him, because the tent held several books of poems. He could have fallen to sleep to this, by William Carlos Williams:
The moth under the eaves with wings like the bark of a tree, lies symmetrically still -- And love is a curious soft-winged thing unmoving under the eaves when the leaves fall.
By morning, the ranger's forecast had held true. Clouds had cleared to the soft blue wash of dawn. The temperature hovered only in the 40s. True, July thunderstorms can roll in fast. But this storm felt like good bye, broken heat already fled from the White Mountains for another year.
The kid got to light the morning campfire.
``We share everything in the country, right?" he said, holding out a tin cup of cold milk. ``Except s'mores!"
Full on toasted monkey bread and a spoonful or two of hot oatmeal, the kid signed on for the Mount Willard climb. Only a few steps up the trail, he began to stall. First to fish: Near a brook bank he lifted a crooked stick over the water's edge and waited. Then he scrambled back to the trail and detoured through a ``secret passage."
The trail steepened, passed a deep pool in the brook, and the kid's legs grew tired. He dropped for a rest, then he negotiated his first shoulder ride of the climb. His mind began to focus on the terrain passing beneath his dangling feet.
``How are mountains made?" he asked.
His dad, as porter, searched for an easy answer: ``Well, tectonic plates collide . . ."
``What keeps mountains up?"
The porter, a bit short of breath: ``There's a lot under . . ."
``What makes gravity?"
The porter, straying toward the limits of his scientific knowledge: ``The earth spins and . . ."
``What made the earth?"
Keep it simple: ``Either there was an explosion and gas and matter collided and . . . or God worked very hard for seven days."
The kid sat silently for a few moments, then caught his breath.
``I think there was a magic astronaut up in space, and then he came down to earth," the kid said. ``And then. And then. He became a magic builder. And he built earth. And then. And then. He built everything. And then there came a magic planter. And planted trees. And then. Daddy, I can tell you what. And then someone put the animals. The fish. And someone built the dinosaur bones."
Contact Tom Haines at firstname.lastname@example.org.