Bill Clevlen is a fan of America.
So, when he launched a travel website and radio program called “Bill on the Road” back in 2013, he decided to focus on the United States rather than, as many travel writers do, on exploring other countries and exotic locales.
After visiting hundreds of cities, large and small, and experiencing what they had to offer, he compiled a travel book, “100 Things to Do in America Before You Die.”
He says it is by no means a definitive list, and he would rather it be considered a place to start for someone who knew almost nothing about what the U.S. has to offer.
“My hope is that these suggestions will inspire family vacations or solo road trips, or simply serve as a gentle reminder of why we are so fortunate to be Americans,” he wrote in the preface to the book. “Remember, every road leads to another great destination. Go out there and rediscover America for yourself.”
Some things are pretty obvious for the list: ride a cable car in San Francisco, for example, or go to the top of the Gateway Arch in Clevlen’s hometown of St. Louis. It’s not surprising that seeing the Beatles’ drums at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or having a mint julep at the Kentucky Derby are on there.
The covered bridges of Madison County, Iowa, made the list along with icons such as Niagara Falls, the Hoover Dam, the Statue of Liberty, the White House and the Sept. 11 Memorial.
What might surprise Kansans, however, is that “Go Back in Time at Wichita’s Old Cowtown Museum” made the cut of the top 100.
“I got tired of people telling me to just skip Kansas, there’s nothing to do there,” Clevlen says. “I decided to see for myself, so I did some calling around. Old Cowtown Museum was one of the things that Visit Wichita mentioned that I should see.”
It was February when he visited Old Cowtown — not exactly peak season for an outdoor, living history museum spread across 30 acres along the Arkansas River.
“I was really impressed at the number of volunteers who came in just for my visit to the site,” he says. “There were a lot of people there who could tell me about the buildings, the history of Wichita in the Cowtown era and show me around exhibits. The pharmacy was open, there were people playing music, and everyone was incredibly nice.”
In the write-up in the book, Clevlen describes Old Cowtown as “a firsthand look at American life in the second half of the nineteenth century. Unlike a typical museum, Cowtown is a living time capsule of historic structures on an old dirt road along the banks of the Arkansas River. You can walk into each of the buildings and find costumed interpreters who will share stories and answer questions.
“In addition to the 54 buildings, a 10,000-piece collection of furniture, tools and documents helps tell the story of what life was like between 1865 and 1880.
“While you stroll the grounds, you can enter the local jail, look at medicine in the drugstore, or have a seat in the town’s church. One popular spot is Fritz Snitzler’s Saloon, where you can order a sarsaparilla or perhaps witness a gunfight between two rowdy locals.”
Clevlen says he left with a great impression of not just Cowtown, but the whole city of Wichita.
“I was surprised to find myself thinking, ‘This is really a nice city; this is a place I could live.’”
Jacky Goerzen, Old Cowtown Museum executive director, says it is not unusual for several volunteers to answer a call to come out when guests let the museum know about an upcoming visit, even in the off-season from late December to April, when the museum is open to the public but not fully staffed with paid interpreters.
“We have a great corps of volunteers that are really the backbone of what we do,” Goerzen says. “We are really proud of our museum and what it has to offer, and it’s exciting to get this kind of recognition.”
Old Cowtown Museum is located at 1865 W. Museum Blvd. in Wichita. It is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Thanks to a generous donor, admission is free on Sundays from April through October.