At Home with Max Evans

Evans has published 25 books and won multiple Spur, Wrangler, and Owen Wister awards. Ever the humorist, he has colorful tales about everything from horses and coyotes to his artistic career and growing old.
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Evans has published 25 books and won multiple Spur, Wrangler, and Owen Wister awards. Ever the humorist, he has colorful tales about everything from horses and coyotes to his artistic career and growing old.
maxevans

You were born in Texas. What made you come to New Mexico?

Hi-Lo [Evans’ term for the area of northeastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado, the Oklahoma panhandle, and northern Texas] has shaped my life forever in whatever and everything I do. I came up from West Texas, near southeastern New Mexico, from Humble, where my father had started a town. It was mostly pasture and prairie and rolling hills. I grew up riding my first horse, Cricket, during the Great Depression and Great Drought. It was a great time to grow up, and it started and shaped my life. I had to hunt to help put food on the table. I had got the Hi-Lo in my mind early after my mother taught me to read at age 3. I had these mountains and mesas in my mind. I had heard of them from the drifting cowboys, who’d come down from Santa Fe. I was determined to go there and did by 11. I had learned to ride, and I took care of my aunt’s cattle, which got me ready for my first job at the Rafter EY on Glorieta Mesa south of Santa Fe. Ed Young was my first cow boss. He had been cowboying since the 1880s and ’90s. They made it rough on me, hard on me. When I learned, I learned to admit when I made mistakes. I made a hand by 14 in 1938. They paid me 75 cents a day. I eventually worked up to what cowboys made—$30 a month.

If you could ride into Hi-Lo Country again, where would you ride?

I would go out to a ranch near Corrumpa, in northeastern New Mexico. I did day labor there in the early ’40s before the war and when I returned in 1946–47 with Ferrill Smith’s outfit. It was about 100,000 acres, a big ranch to me. He’d let me hunt deer for meat. I’d do roundups and brandings. There’s a magical creek that comes down out of those mountains; that’s where I’d go. It’s magnificent country: mountains, canyons, malpais mesas, and grasslands—some of the best grass in the West. That volcanic dust, it gives mineralization to grass and really puts a bone on your calves and steers. The most beautiful thing in the world is seeing that grass, 10 to 12 inches tall, gold and waving in the wind. It goes on forever, as far as you can see. You might not be able to spot them, but in the crooks and crevasses, the animals were there. They call it “The Big Empty.” But it’s full of life to me.

Horses are prominent in all of your paintings, stories, and films. Why?

Everything we did in Lea County, when I was growing up, was a lot better horseback than it was on foot. It goes back to survival. You could go 20 miles horseback and do your work. You had pride in your horse, in yourself, in your work. There’s nothing better than to chase an old maverick cow critter horseback, making his life miserable, moving the cattle to find new grass, working that horse, working towards the gather. It’s a wondrous feeling. Only a cowboy can understand that experience—the challenge and danger of busting through brush and rocks to get that old critter. You have to be horseback to get it done.

Why are animals and the landscape primary characters?

They were here before we were. For millions and millions of years, they’ve had to survive. I have a respect for animals, especially coyotes; I hunted them, killed them, then I could not do it anymore. They were here first. To understand them, we have to become part of them. They are all individuals and don’t have to be us. And they have one up on us: They have grace. They even kill with grace.

Why is a person’s first horse special?

That is when you become acquainted with a different world. You are out there alone, and responsibilities fall on you together. You share the same experiences. A kid becomes as close to his first horse as to his brother, sister, or folks. You can get to thinking that you have the same blood. Your first horse is like your buddy in war—you become dependent on him for life. Your first horse is the first most important relationship in your life.

Did painting help your writing about working cowboys?

I imagine so. I never gave it a lot of thought, but it’s likely true. If you do a painting, you are capturing a moment in time, a single moment—a photograph of your mind. There’s all that color in the world. It is a great advantage to be a painter, but I wasn’t a painter long before I moved into writing. That’s when I started painting with words. Most of my stories are short little motion pictures.

What breed of horse would you own today?

A good cow horse. When I came back from WWII, the Quarter Horse became dominant for good reasons; they had good endurance and speed and were good in the branding pen. What is a Quarter Horse? No one really knows, but they bred them with strong quarters to be a good working cow horse. They have cow sense. Their ears will tense up with a different signal for cattle, coyotes, snakes, danger. They’ll tell you. Just watch their ears; they’ll communicate with you. You just have to pay attention and learn from them.

Why is humor so important to the cowboy?

That is survival. No phone, TV, radio, or mail. There’s nothing out there—just you, the animals, the rocks, nature, the work. What else is there? So you do your own plays, your own jokes, your own work. You have to have your own sense of humor about those rocks you get thrown into. You have to have humor to overcome blizzards, droughts, and heat. Humor becomes a natural part of life. Life is a tragic comedy; it starts that way and ends up that way.

Where is the trail taking you?

I don’t know. I am 88 years old—1,030 years old in cumulative time! I don’t know where you go at that age, but you don’t plan too far ahead. I am going to paint for as long a time as I have left... I have my easel up and a sack full of paints. All I have to do is start sketching and paint. I simply want to paint the Hi-Lo country: that lonely country, with maybe a coyote or a cow. But that is it.

To read an excerpt of Evan's One-Eyed Sky visit here.