We live in a world of bright Instagram filters, viral communication, and virtual travel. So when a woman set off on a solo spiritual pilgrimage on foot, dressed in black—without a launching a hashtag campaign or live-blogging her mission — the world abruptly paid attention. Somehow, the idea of a private journey — disconnected from the social community — seemed out of place in our virally-connected, campaign-oriented culture.
The fact that Elizabeth Poles — dubbed ‘The Woman in Black’ by her rampant Twitter followers — was walking, wearing the same dark clothes and hoping to be left alone, made her all the more prone to media attention. Facebook dedications and Twitter hashtags, tracked her every move like she was some kind of unicorn. When she finally reached her destination this week, her long journey said more about those of us who tracked it, than the woman who embarked on it. Here is what happened once Pole’s two-month pilgrimage became a public spectacle.
1. Her Identity Was Revealed
A family member identified the woman as Elizabeth Poles — a mother of two children, a widow and a U.S. Army veteran. According to her brother, Raymond Poles, Ms. Poles had been getting treatment at Veterans Affairs hospitals before embarking on her mysterious quest.
2. Her Journey Was Tracked
Poles has traveled more than five hundred miles — she’s been spotted in Kentucky, Ohio, Georgia and Tennessee. Her journey, which began in Alabama, recently concluded in Winchester, Virginia, where local police verified that she was from the area and intended to stay there.
Winchester police and the Woman In Black’s dedicated followers on social media have put out a notice to all interested parties: please respect the lady’s privacy.
Despite her request for privacy, a Facebook page tracking her progress was set up, and the hashtag #womaninblack became a virtual photo travel journal.
3. She Gained Spiritual Followers She Didn’t Ask For
Dedicated social media followers have offered many kinds of anonymous support. People who have encountered the Woman In Black have reported feeling calm and peaceful in her presence. One woman told BBCNews, “when I saw her from behind I started crying in my vehicle. We know there’s something driving her.” Another man reported that his “daughter said the woman had a sparkle/glow around her.” When he asked his children to further explain this “glow,” they could not. “Whatever this lady’s mission, she had an effect on my girls last night.”
4. She Inspired Random Acts of Kindness
The Woman in Black has inspired various random acts of kindness — locals have approached her with water, food, and offers for rides. Various Twitter parties have issued prayers or well wishes on The Woman’s behalf. One Facebook user said of her quest, “[she] has brought many people together and that itself is a blessing.”
5. She Remained a Mystery
All people have been able to gather about the meaning of Ms. Poles’ journey is that her quest might be vaguely spiritual; one popular video taken in a Wal-Mart parking lot depicts the woman fighting with a bystander about the book of Revelations. Onlookers report her saying, “We’ve already won.”