Rudy Maxa has four homes now -- or none -- depending on how you look at it. After living in Washington, D.C., most of his adult life, Maxa, 54, one of America's most prolific and engaging travel writers, has moved from the city he loves to be with the woman he loves.
"He says it's nothing to move here to be with me," said his fiancée, Ana Scofield, 38, of White Bear Lake, "but I view it as a huge sacrifice."
The week before moving, Maxa had been drinking cobra bile with a snake salesman in Hong Kong and basking in Thailand's 96 degrees. Now he was up to his keister in snow, a neatness freak surrounded by boxes begging to be unpacked.
Officially, Maxa -- known to 5 million public radio listeners as "The Savvy Traveler" and to tens of millions of public TV viewers as host of "Smart Travels -- Europe With Rudy Maxa" -- is renting an apartment on Ford Parkway in St. Paul. But mostly he's storing his 600 bottles of wine there.
He owns a home in Bangkok, but has never lived there. He and Scofield have purchased a $619,000 loft in downtown St. Paul but it's under construction.
So Maxa temporarily hunkers down in Scofield's White Bear Lake bungalow with her and her two teenagers, sleeping on the pull-out couch and rising at 3:45 a.m. to run his multi-pronged travel business from a laptop computer.
Scofield's kids take delight in Maxa's tourist-like wonder: "Like they delayed the opening of the [St. Paul] ice palace for two hours because it was too cold?" Maxa chortles. "How could it be too cold for an ice palace?"
The day before, he saw his first snow rake -- "for snow?". Last winter, he saw a light plane fitted with skis land on White Bear Lake. A fisherman got out and the plane took off.
"I couldn't wait," Maxa laughed. "I called everybody on that one."
Sex scandals and headlines
Maxa never could have planned this life. It was fate braiding together loose threads beginning in childhood. He was an Army brat who figured that people just moved every couple of years. Even then, he loved breaking news and turning heads.
When Maxa was 9, living on the Fort Knox military reservation in Kentucky, somebody hit a car on his street. He hand-printed a dozen newspapers: "Car Accident This Afternoon on 5th Street."
By the time Maxa was a reporter at the Washington Post, he had lived in Cleveland, Germany, Georgia, Kentucky and Washington, D.C., and had developed an instinct for others' vices, virtues and quirks of character.
At age 26, Maxa and a Post colleague broke the story of Rep. Wayne Hays, D-Ohio, putting his mistress, Elizabeth Ray, on the U.S. House payroll.
When Hustler magazine editor Larry Flynt accepted Christ into his life, he called Maxa. Flynt made the call from his private jet, also carrying evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton, sister of then-President Jimmy Carter.
"They were both sobbing on the phone as their Learjet passed over Iowa. Larry had seen a vision of St. John the Baptist," Maxa said. "Larry's sobbing. Ruth is sobbing. And I'm typing as fast as I can."
Promises of a huge raise, autonomy and travel lured Maxa to the staff of the Washingtonian magazine, where he mixed celebrity profiles with gossipy columns, trenchant observations of politics and an occasional real-life cloak-and-dagger thriller.
He became notorious with editors for turning Washington assignments into junkets to Paris or the South Pacific.
Thirteen years ago, Maxa got a call from Marketplace, a fledgling public radio business show. Maxa was wanted for political commentary. He wasn't interested. How about some edgy, consumer-oriented travel pieces instead?
"After a year or two, people would come up to me, 'Wait a minute! I know that voice.' It was like a wine expert trying to figure out which plot in Burgundy that pinot noir came from."
Six years later, Maxa's popular segment was expanded to a weekly hourlong version of "The Savvy Traveler," which he hosted for four years.
"Travel really puts your life into perspective," Maxa said. "People become so focused on their lives and the things that irritate them. Little pebbles become boulders. You tend to forget there's this big, wide wonderful world out there."
Gradually, travel consumed more and more of Maxa's life. American Express paid him $90,000 for an online travel column. Groups asked him to speak and paid him fees of $5,000 to $10,000. Five years ago he created Rudy Maxa's Traveler Newsletter.
But by far his largest audience -- tens of millions of viewers on 270 public TV stations -- has come from the "Smart Travels" series, in which Maxa provides hassle-free, cost-efficient ways to see his favorite European haunts -- and offers up the next grabber scene.
Like the one in the Hong Kong snake shop.
"This 80-year-old guy reaches in and pulls out these vipers -- cobras," Maxa says. "With an X-Acto knife, he cut an incision and popped the gallbladder out. It looked like a little brown egg. He perched it on the edge of a cup and emptied the dark bile into a cup."
The old man added a dash of rice wine and handed the cup to Maxa to drink.
"Now I know when somebody reads that she'll turn to her husband and go, 'Harold! You gotta read this!' "
Scofield also drank the bile. She was there in the snake shop. But in Maxa's retelling, the experience becomes visceral and thrilling -- like life with him.
They met on Thanksgiving Day 2001 at the Los Angeles home of Maxa's longtime friend Peter Greenberg, travel editor of the "Today" show.
Scofield was divorced, had two teenagers and didn't want a boyfriend. Maxa was the father of grown children and had a longtime live-in girlfriend. Over a lengthy but "formal and very correct" dinner, Maxa and Scofield hit it off. Her mother is Colombian and Scofield grew up in Saudi Arabia, where her father worked.
Maxa mentioned that he was giving a speech in Duluth in a couple months. Perhaps they could meet for lunch.
"I thought, 'If I didn't have a girlfriend and if I wasn't so much in love . . . ' " Maxa laughed. They didn't communicate for several months.
"Then my girlfriend woke up one morning and decided she wanted to have children," Maxa said. "I'm 54 and I didn't want at my next child's high school graduation to be carrying an oxygen tank down the aisle."
Suddenly available, Maxa called Scofield. They've been dating long-distance since.
"At first I thought, 'This isn't going to work,' " Scofield said. "But Rudy changed my whole perspective. He says people drive an hour and a half every day to get to work in L.A. What's an extra hour in a plane?"
In December, Scofield quit her job as a data specialist at the University of St. Thomas in order to help with the computer side of Maxa's business and to be free to travel.
Now she and Maxa sit close in a booth at the St. Paul Grill, sharing a tunafish sandwich, enthralled by the luxury of time together. Maxa is the fast-talking, charismatic storyteller in a natty blue blazer. Scofield is the soft-spoken beauty in the drapy suit -- the sensible counterweight to his impulsiveness.
Maxa is on a tear, recounting Scofield's virtues. He loves her voice, her kids. She's smart, grounded and very sane.
"And she's a great kisser!"
Scofield blushes. That's not the first thing she'd tell a stranger.
"Am I a good kisser?" he teases. She can't stop smiling. She loves Maxa's love of adventure, his buoyant humor, his willingness to uproot himself in midlife, the constant surprise of his radio-perfect voice.
All this came to them from a world brimming with surprise. And, says Maxa, not one moment of it could have been planned.
Kay Miller is at email@example.com.
"Smart Travels -- Europe with Rudy Maxa," the third season of 13 travel episodes, premieres April 10 at 5 p.m. on TPT Channel 2. For Rudy Maxa's Traveler Newsletter, go to http://www.rudymaxa.com