A 67-year-old hiker whose trail name was "Buffalo Bobby" suffered a fatal medical problem Thursday along the Appalachian Trail just 20 miles before he would have finished the 2,180-mile trail for the third time.
Robert Yerike, a free-spirited retired truck driver from Brick, N.J., had called his son, also named Robert, the day before. He was feeling good, eating a hamburger, had gone for a swim and wanted to make sure someone turned the water on in his house. He'd be home Sunday.
The Maine Warden Service told Yerike's grown children that he apparently had a stroke along the trail Thursday, the children told The Associated Press.
Another hiker, who found him unresponsive and vomiting, walked two miles to get cell phone service to summon help. Yerike (pronounced YEHR'-ik) then had to be carried two miles out of a rugged area known as the "100-Mile Wilderness" because bad weather made a helicopter rescue impossible.
He died later that night at northern Maine's Millinocket Hospital. Three of his six children drove late Thursday to Maine, where they met with wardens and identified their father.
"He looked strong; he didn't look sick. He looked strong and happy," said his daughter Julie Cardoso. "There's no other place that this man would rather be than on the trail."
The official cause of death wasn't available Friday. The state medical examiner's office did not perform an autopsy, and a local examiner reached no immediate conclusion, officials said.
Yerike was a former Army paratrooper who took up hiking about eight years ago after retiring from truck driving.
He made his first Appalachian Trail "thru-hike," as such journeys are known, in 2003. He lost more than 40 pounds despite eating as many as six meals a day, and he told The Asbury Park Press that he didn't plan on becoming one of the rare hikers to complete the trail more than once.
But by 2008, he changed his mind and hiked it again. He set off on his third six-month hike again this spring from the traditional starting point on Springer Mountain in Georgia.
He set off alone but met up with other hikers along the way. This time, his long trip took him through the torrential rains of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.
His family talked to him on the phone and followed news about him on the blog of another hiker with whom he sometimes traveled. Photos of him were posted there from the day he died.
His family, including eight grandchildren whose pictures were always on his cell phone, was excited they would finally see him again after half a year.
At home, Cardoso said, he honed a couple other post-retirement interests: Karate class on Tuesday and Thursday nights and going to the gym often.
"He'd go there and work his mouth, not his body," she joked.
Mulvihill reported from Haddonfield, N.J. AP news researcher Barbara Sambriski contributed to this report.