Safety Harbor man doesn’t let age stop him from exploring

Rudy Scheffer of Safety Harbor poses in front of photos of his adventures around the world.

As a teenager growing up in Frankfurt, Germany, Rudy Scheffer contracted a terrible and glorious illness. Five decades later, the malady has not decreased its fever, and there appears to be no sign of a cure. Not that Scheffer wants one.

Scheffer of Safety Harbor was infected with the travel bug when, as a 16-year-old foreign exchange student, he went to school in France and Britain and got his first exposure to different cultures, languages, food and ways of doing things.

“If you’re not exposed to (travel) in your life growing up, you probably don’t get it,” Scheffer said.

Youthful stays with host families combined with his love of the outdoors evolved into leading groups of like-minded people through raw nature and to walks through exotic locations in Africa and Asia. He’s photographed polar bears in the Arctic and climbed 20,000 feet up Mount Everest. Scheffer is now a national leader in organizing hikes for the national Sierra Club to some of the most unspoiled areas in the United States and beyond.

“Traveling has been in my blood all my life,” Scheffer said.

He came to the United States at 18 to study electrical engineering and a friend in the American military he had met in England convinced him to join the Air Force as a way to pay for college. Thwarted by his eyesight in his goal to be a pilot and by his accent to be an air traffic controller, Scheffer was trained in microwave and radio relays.

His life in the military only fed his love of the outdoors and adventure. During his four and a half years in the Air Force, he was stationed in Italy, on top of a 10,000-foot peak.

“I loved the mountains, loved living in the mountains, on the mountains, loved learning how to ski,” Scheffer reminisces.

When he returned to the United States, Scheffer was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, where he met his first wife, mustered out and worked at Honeywell while he went to school part-time and earned a degree in computer science. He went on to GTE (now Verizon), where he spent 36 years, retiring in 2008 as a software database manager.

In all those years, his interest in the outdoors and travel “was always parallel” to his paying job.

Scheffer joined the Sierra Club in 1988 and shortly afterward became an outings leader for a local group, organizing weekend and week-long backpack trips through many of Florida’s state parks. He bought a pop-up camper so he could share his love of adventuring with his children. They joined him on backpack outings as they got older. Several times, he took the family to Europe.

“We traveled as much as we could,” Scheffer said. “I lived in a modest home all my life. Drove old cars so I could spend money on traveling. I wasn’t into new cars, having lots of toys in the house, and fancy houses was not what I wanted to do in life. I wanted to just see the world.”

And indeed he has. During a trip to Nepal in the late 1980s, he decided that if he had organized the trip, he would have arranged the route differently. The next year, he was back, leading his own trip with several friends. Now, there’s hardly a point on the globe that Scheffer hasn’t walked upon: Tanzania, Botswana, Nepal (more than once), New Zealand, Czech Republic, Vietnam, Bhutan, India, Tibet. By his count, he’s been to more than 100 countries. That’s not counting outings around the United States, in places such as Puerto Rico, Alaska, Montana and the High Sierras of California.

If Scheffer has had any difficulties on these excursions, he doesn’t relate them. What he remembers is the people. On a car trip in New Zealand, he and his companions found themselves with no place to sleep for the night. An innkeeper who had no vacancies told them to go get dinner nearby while he asked around. Before they could finish eating, the innkeeper reported he had found a family across the street that could put them up for the night in a basement apartment.

In Tibet, he and his group were invited into a local home to share the family’s food and drink. The drink was fermented yak milk, which the Tibetans call tiger milk.

“You drink it out of bamboo straws and a bamboo cup,” Scheffer recalled, “sitting around in this smoke-filled room.”

No one in his group wanted to try the alcoholic concoction. As the leader, Scheffer felt it was only diplomatic that he gave it a try.

“Somebody had to,” he explained.

But it was “horrible tasting,” he said, grimacing even as he remembers the moment. A shot of brandy took away the taste.

The spectrum of his peripatetic ways has taught Scheffer some valuable lessons.

“People are always very friendly to you if you make a little effort to accommodate them with their language and not come across like the – I shouldn’t say the ugly American – the ugly traveler, acting rudely or expecting them to know your language or your style or making faces about their food. As long as you come across as … polite and ask for help, people all over the world are more than willing to help you,” he said.

In 1998, while still working at Verizon, Scheffer, by then a licensed travel agent, started his own company, Around the World Adventures. With his accumulation of years at the telephone company, his trips sometimes lasted several weeks.

On retirement, the trips he organized and led intensified. About the same time, he was named national outings leader for the Sierra Club, overseeing the hundreds of domestic and international Club-sponsored trips led by experienced outdoor enthusiasts every year.

At 68, Scheffer said he’s healthy.

“I don’t feel any different that I did 35 years ago, 40 years ago,” he said.

But he admitted he spends more time organizing trips and less time leading them.

“The problem is finding enough time. I’m pretty busy all day long. I go to the gym three times a week, do yoga Monday mornings and Friday afternoon play table tennis.”

Still, Scheffer can’t shake that bug. In early March, he will take a group of 16 to Vietnam, and a week later, another group of eight. In the interval between the excursions, he and his wife, Nancy, will visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia. In late spring, he will lead a two-week hike through the Czech Republic. In August, he co-leads a llama trek in Wyoming. It will be his first time dealing with llamas.

He wonders what adventures that will hold.