‘Woman in black,’ who appealed to US fascination with wanderers, reaches home

While some Americans said a nosy culture should just leave her alone, many others have had another reaction more commonly afforded those on a spiritual or mystical quest: reverence and respect.

A 50-something Army veteran who caused an Internet sensation as she traveled nearly 500 miles by foot, clad in long, black robes and sandals, has apparently reached what she calls “home” in Winchester, Va., police in Virginia say.

Elizabeth Poles traveled for two months, and was seen from Georgia to West Virginia in her wanderings. Those who tried to give her food and water or otherwise help her were often rebuffed.

When police took her into what they called “protective custody” this week, they reported that she said, “I wish people would mind their own business.”

The “woman in black” drew growing attention as sightings were reported on Twitter, under #womaninblack, as well as on a Facebook page with 60,000 likes dedicated to “reminding people to open their hearts and become a little less judgmental and more willing to lend a hand to those in need.”

While some Americans have complained that a busybody culture should just leave her alone, many have had another reaction, more commonly afforded to those who are on a spiritual or mystical quest: reverence, respect, even personal introspection.

“Safe travels and may your heart find peace among the flowers on the road side, beauty in the tears you cry each day,” writes Tracey Ellis Esteve, on the “Where Is the Woman in Black?” Facebook page. “I hope that your travels bring you nothing but good things and healing.”

America has long had a fascination with wanderers, drifters, and vagabonds. Other famous wanderers include T Bone Slim, a Finnish-born hobo writer; Alexander Supertramp, or Christopher McCandless, the Emory University graduate whose strange and tragic personal journey became the book and movie “Into The Wild”; and Utah Phillips, who ran for president in the 1970s as a member of the Do-Nothing Party.

In 1999, “The Straight Story” documented an elderly man who hopped on a riding mower for a journey to make amends with his brother.

More immediately, America’s backroads are continuously being traversed by long-distance wanderers and bikers, many of whom are on the road for charity. And like Ms. Poles, many are veterans. This spring, former Marine Matt Littrell of Colorado, who spent two deployments in Iraq, rode his horse 2,000 miles across the country to raise money and awareness for other veterans.

This phenomenon, and America’s fascination with it, was given humorous treatment in the movie “Forrest Gump.” Tom Hanks, as Gump, coincidentally also a veteran by this point in the movie, attracts a huge following while running across the country, and is asked by reporters if he is running for women’s rights, or world peace. “I just felt like running,” he replies.

Ms. Poles’ journey started earlier this summer in Phenix City, Ala., where she was receiving Veterans Administration treatment. She lost her husband in 2008 and her father in 2009.

Raymond Poles, her brother, told Reuters that since shaving her head, donning black robes and refusing to go to church, she has disappeared for months at a time. Mr. Poles told the wire service that his sister is a loving and kind-hearted person who was traveling to Virginia, where she was born and raised. She has told police that she is on a religious quest.

“I am in awe of the #womaninblack,” one Twitter user noted. “Her journey reminds me that even when you've lost everything, the walk continues.”

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