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The Leader

Chris Boswell: Alumni Profile
By Tom Reed

Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 2000, Vol. 16, No. 1

The term "expedition behavior" is one that doesn't have to be explained to NOLS alums. No expedition, no NOLS course, can be successful without good EB.

Chris Boswell first heard this term in 1972, when he came to Wyoming as a teenager enrolled on a NOLS adventure course. And on that course, the group's expedition behavior came unraveled.

"It was sort of a disaster, I was too young and a lot of people were too young," remembers Boswell. "It was a struggle."

But the experience wasn't enough to prevent Boswell from coming back to NOLS and back to Wyoming. He did just that in 1974, when he enrolled on a Wind River wilderness course that resulted in "the best four and a half weeks of my life ever. We had a doctor, a nurse, and a school teacher on the course. I was the youngest person. It was great that here I was this 16-year-old kid and I got to pal around with people in their 30s."

He enjoyed that expedition so much that he returned again to NOLS in 1976 to sea kayak in Prince William Sound, another wilderness experience that heavily affected Boswell's life.

Taking the bad with the good and not giving up seem to be themes that run through Boswell's life. Today, Boswell is a member of the Wyoming State Legislature, representing House District 39 in Sweetwater County in the southwestern corner of the state. One of only 17 Democrats in a Republican-dominated 60-member House, Boswell goes back to some of the early lessons he learned at NOLS almost daily. Boswell is the minority caucus chairman and has been elected to be the minority floor leader in the state's next legislative term. Those jobs call for moderation, organization and leadership--expedition behavior.

"If I shake my fist at either side, I'm not going to get anywhere," says Boswell. "I try to tap into expedition behavior to keep trying to reach some kind of a goal without self-destructing. You try to take care of each other as best you can on the way to the goal. That's kind of a pie in the sky thing when you are in politics, but I realized from my NOLS experience that there will be different people with different philosophies and you have to respect each other and try not to take too much on yourself and not think of yourself too highly. If you can do that, it just works out better for everyone else in the group."

After Boswell's experience on his wilderness course in 1974, he came back to Wyoming as a student at the University of Wyoming. Eventually he ended up in southwestern Wyoming in Green River. At first, he worked as a radio reporter, but eventually he purchased a business, a bar called the Embassy Tavern that he operates when he's not in the state capital in Cheyenne when the Legislature is in session.

Running a tavern is also a task that requires patience, says Boswell. "There are many times that I really, really like it, but it's a weird way to make a living," he says. "It's also difficult because there's always that 5-10 percent of your customers who just don't take care of themselves and they are involved in self-destructive behavior."

Boswell describes the Embassy as a neighborhood tavern. "It's a blue collar bar and Green River is a blue collar town. There's a good mix of people in that tavern."

Living and owning a business in a blue collar town has tempered some of Boswell's ideals over the years.

"I was very idealistic when I came to Wyoming," recalls Boswell. "I did not see great value in extracting minerals. It bothered me. I wasn't somebody who appreciated the basics, which is that mineral extraction is how we pay for everything out here. It's just an absolutely vital part of life here."

Southwestern Wyoming in particular is a hotbed of mineral extraction with extensive oil and gas reserves as well as trona, soda ash and other minerals. The people who work in these industries are Boswell's constituents and his tavern customers.

"I still have a healthy skepticism of the extraction industries as the result of being in the wilderness (as a NOLS student)," says Boswell. "I don't swallow everything that the extraction industries feed the legislators, that is tempered by my past feelings. But I am so conservative compared to the way I've been in the past. It works both ways. I'm not satisfied accepting the company line offered by lobbyists in Cheyenne and at the same time, I'm often skeptical of the lobbyists who work for the opposite side.

"You have to moderate and that often doesn't make people happy on either side," continues Boswell.

Which comes back to expedition behavior, as well as other forms of communication that Boswell first learned at NOLS.

As the minority caucus chair, Boswell often finds himself trotting out NOLS lessons. "You try to bring the group together, to keep people informed. It's very much a group dynamics situation. We are in such a minority down there (Cheyenne) that if we don't try to act as a core group, you just are going to hamstring the party. It is very much of a group effort that involves a lot of communication, a lot of group work."

These days when Boswell isn't working on legislation or running his tavern, he finds time to slip out into the woods on day hikes. "I really unfortunately don't get out that much anymore, but I try to," sighs Boswell. "I just got back from Yellowstone where I spent three days looking at wolves and living in a motel. That's about as much as I get out."

Not quite the same as sleeping atop Mt. Wilson, or climbing Geike during the night, but nowadays, Boswell works on another kind of expedition.

"Paul Petzoldt came and talked to us at the banquet (in 1974)," remembers Boswell. "He said something that I'll never forget. He said, 'You'll never be as close to this number of people in your life again.' He was right.'"



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