AZTEC — When Charles Buck began one of his many careers in banking in early 1950s Berkeley, Calif., he would have laughed at the irony of his current residence, the old Citizens Bank building on South Main Street, inherited from his mother. But Buck, who turns 85 on Nov. 28, forsook life in a teller's cage in favor of working in more wide-open spaces.
Buck is an Aztec institution, "elected" an Old Sorehead for his charitable fundraising in 1994, has been a longtime volunteer and is a booster for the town.
Easily over six feet tall and rail thin, Buck descends the 25 steep wood steps of his historic home with the help of a cane. What he lacks in velocity he makes up for with a healthy sense of humor. A fixture along Main Street and Aztec's surrounding hills on foot with his shelter-adopted dog, Lindy, or rolling down quieter alleyways on his new Manhattan adult tricycle, Buck rarely stands still.
The former Sorehead may be retired, but he has a sharp eye on the city of Aztec and its growth. No fan of TV and lacking computer skills, Buck, a lifelong bachelor, sees something today's world of hustle-and-bustle may be missing.
"Open spaces renew the spirit," Buck said. "And so do friends. Keeping up with them is more valuable and possible than many people think they have time for."
Buck plans to spend this Thanksgiving holiday with local friend, Donna Brown, and her husband, a friendship that goes back to his work on the board of Pioneer Village in the 1990s.
After a brief stint in newspaper advertising, Buck lit out for the territories with the Forest Service as a winter clerk in Death Valley. Over the course of nearly twenty years, Buck spent his days as an administrative clerk for the park service in California, Arizona, Utah, Michigan, and, finally Chaco Canyon National Park, where he retired in 1985. He made Aztec his home the same year.
"We lived in stunning, beautiful places where most people are lucky to take their two-week vacations," Buck said recently, in the second-floor sitting room of his home. "I was always drawn to hiking outdoors, photography, and more time outside, which is to say how lucky I've been."
These days, Buck, a lifelong bachelor, and his "purebred mutt," 6-year-old Lindy, adopted from the local animal shelter, take routine two-hour-long morning and evening walks through the back alleys and surrounding hills of Aztec to stay fit, lift the spirits, and make friends.
"If you're going to catch me these days," Buck mused, "you might check the parks or the hills behind Aztec High School for an older guy and his dog."
During his reign as an Old Sorehead in 1994, Buck found more and more opportunities to get involved to help Aztec grow as a stronger community that didn't lose sight of its natural beauty.
He served on Pioneer Village's board, giving tours of the museum to school kids when they arrived in droves each spring, and spent seven years as a part-time worker at the Aztec Recycling Center on Ash St., a job he absolutely loved. But, soon, he yearned for more free time in warmer climbs.
"I could feel my joints complaining and got itchy feet to get to Why, Arizona, for the winter," he said.
So, in 2001, Buck climbed into his three-quarter-ton pickup truck with a camper back and drove it down to a campground in Why, due north of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument where Buck was stationed in the 1980s. He travels there with Lindy each winter for four to five months "to hibernate under a blanket of stars," he said.
When his birthday rolls around next week, Buck will be busy loading up his truck for yet another trip to Why, his standard annual winter retreat. He will descend his home's steep staircase, his barbecue grill under one arm, and his cane in the other, and hit the road, a 550-mile trek.
But don't think Buck has lost any love for Aztec. Through the windows of his second story home, Buck can scan many of the surrounding hills and rooftops, calling him out of doors for another hike or, as he does a lot these days, a ride on his new Manhattan three-wheeler, outfitted with baskets and a copper bell on the handlebars.
"When I grocery shop, I go up to Safeway and pull along my wagon for the groceries," he said. "I used to ride my bike, but hip-replacement surgery last year compromised my balance."
Buck sees inevitable changes in his own life and those of the city's, all of which he laughs easily about. Buck is often laughing, smiling, or musing over the things he takes in from his pied a terre on Main Street.
"I went meat-free recently and love cooking with tofu or whipping together a bowl of yogurt topped with brewer's yeast and a dollop of honey," he said. "And if I am tired of that, I really enjoy Aztec's eateries, especially Thanthip (which is just across the street), Rubio's and The Bistro."
Living in a home directly overlooking Main Street has nothing but advantages, Buck said, though he can't wait for the arterial roadway to be built to relieve a lot of the congestion from big trucks that shake the walls and windows of his home as they roll past.
On Halloween, Buck, the former banker, donned a ghoulish mask and stood in front of his door offering nickels to trick-or-treaters during the city's "Safe Treats" event. "I wasn't going to give children candy," he said, aware the supply chain of sweets didn't require any help from him. "I handed out nickels, $26 dollars' worth. They cleaned me out in less than 50 minutes! The kids loved it."
Buck credited Mayor Sally Burbridge and City Manager Joshua Ray for helping Aztec get better.
"Since they have come along, I've seen great improvements to Aztec," Buck said, peering down on sun-splashed Main Street traffic below. "The plantings, the concrete that replaced the asphalt, the events that bring people out of doors, it all is a huge improvement." Even the neon Indian sign across the street that Buck said is now lit at night like his very own night-light, all make a difference and keep him eager to come back from Why with Lindy in tow each spring.
"What's so nice about Aztec," Buck said, "is that in less than 10 minutes, I'm in the hills, and I can let Lindy loose."