Walk across America
Devastated by his sister’s death, Brett Bramble set out on an odyssey to draw attention to the heroin epidemic.
Brett Bramble could hardly believe his eyes. More than two dozen people had traveled to Cape Henlopen off the coast of Delaware to see him and his black Lab mix Domino off.
For some, it was a simple show of support. For others, the connection was much deeper. Like Brett, they were members of a growing and gruesome club crumbling under the weight of heroin addiction.
As a cold mist fell, Brett reached down and splashed water on his 6-year-old daughter and then turned to take his first steps across the country. His mom Pam and about a dozen other family members followed closely behind for a mile before they hugged him and said their goodbyes. Brett, tears streaming down his face, turned and watched them walk away.
It was March 13, 2016, just two days and two years shy of the day his sister, Brittany Bramble, died from a heroin overdose.
He’d started planning this 3,200-mile trek across America not long after that tragic day.
And in the interim, he’d taken every opportunity to talk about Brittany to anyone who would listen, to rail against drug abuse and to search his soul.
A thrillseeker who has always liked to push the limits of physical exertion, Brett rappelled off the side of Intercontinental hotel in Buckhead to raise money and awareness about drug addiction.
“The advocating felt good,” he said.
But it wasn’t enough.
One night, unable to sleep, the idea of walking across the country popped into his head. It seemed like a pipe dream, but he found himself researching other people who had done it. He was surprised how many there were. Most of them did it to raise awareness about various social causes.
A week or two later, Brett was sitting alone in his living room in Midtown.
Do this for your sister, a voice inside him said.
“It scared me because I knew I had to do it,” he said.
The next moment, he took out his iPhone, tapped the Snapchat app and held it up in front of his face.
“I’m going to walk across America for Brittany,” he recorded himself saying. And then he posted it.
2. Started with pain pills
Brittany Leigh Bramble was the second of Pam McDaniel and Thomas “Buzzy” Bramble’s three children.
Brett was only 9 months old when Pam felt nauseated and knew she was pregnant again. But it didn’t matter. For as long as she could remember, Pam wanted to be a stay-at-home mom.
“That was my aspiration in life,” she said.
Pam assumed she was destined to parent a gaggle of boys.
“I never believed I’d be the mother of a girl,” she said. “She was special from that very moment.”
Brittany was a good baby who grew into a sweet little girl. From age 3, she loved to dance and spent a lot of time at her grandmother’s Norcross dance school, Barbara Bramble’s Dance Center. She took tap and jazz, but ballet was her favorite.
“She wanted to be a ballerina,” Pam said.
When she wasn’t dancing, Brittany liked to help out at her stepfather’s homeless outreach program, performing in plays, serving meals or simply sitting and talking with the people who sought aid from the ministry.
“She got pure joy from going and helping people a little less off than we were,” Brett said.
Then she arrived at Parkview High School, where boys and drugs got in the way of all that.
“She was very social,” said Pam. “School to her wasn’t about academics. It was about who’s doing what.”
At Parkview it seemed there were more people doing drugs than not, Brett and Brittany included.
They started out smoking marijuana and eventually began popping pain pills pilfered from family medicine cabinets.
Brett would eventually quit cold turkey.
Brittany, though, continued.
She graduated from Parkview in 2003 and two years later got married. Three sons followed in quick succession. After her third child, doctors discovered Brittany had a degenerative disc in her back and began to prescribe her pills to manage the pain. By the time she was 26, Brittany was taking Lortab, a highly addictive opioid.
In 2013, Brittany dissolved her marriage and moved in with her mother and stepfather. That’s when Pam discovered the full extent of her daughter’s addiction, and it wasn’t just prescription medication. Brittany was on meth.
Pam insisted Brittany seek help and checked her into the Lakeview Behavioral Health Hospital in Norcross. After one weekend, Brittany checked herself out.
Still, she seemed to have improved.
Brittany was more than a daughter to Pam, they were friends. They shopped together. They shared recipes. They traded parenting tips. They talked about getting matching tattoos.
Pam searched the internet for just the right one and found a black silhouette of a mother holding her daughter. They had it inscribed on their right ankles.
But just a couple of weeks later, Brittany, now 28, sat her mother down and confided a shocking truth.
Mom, I almost died the other night, Brittany said.
She’d overdosed on heroin and was rushed to the hospital where she had been revived.
Pam grew sick with worry.
Brittany, you are the reason my heart beats, she told her daughter. I can’t go on without you.
I know, Mommy, Brittany answered. I won’t let that happen.
3. A life cut short
One week later, around 3 a.m. March 15, 2014, the phone rang at the McDaniel home. Rodney McDaniel took the call then turned to wake Pam.
Startled, she asked if she were late for work.
Brittany’s dead, he told her.
No, she’s not, Pam shot back.
A 911 operator for 16 years, Pam had taken her share of calls like this but never imagined she’d be on the receiving end of one.
“I felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest,” Pam said. “I wished I had handcuffed her to the bed and not let her out of my sight.”
At Eastside Medical Center in Snellville, where Brittany had arrived already dead, Pam was escorted to the room where her daughter’s body lay. The first thing she saw was the tattoo.
Four days later, close to 200 people turned out to celebrate Brittany’s short life at Eternal Hills Funeral Home Chapel, in Snellville.
Brett was among those who shared memories of his sister.
“She was my favorite person in the world,” he told the crowd. “Had you asked me a week ago who was the one person that I couldn’t live without, I would answer three, but Brittany most likely would’ve been first on the list.
“We were unbeatable in Cranium,” he continued. “One line on a piece of paper and she already knew what I was trying to draw. We had that heart-to-heart connection.”
Even then, Brett felt the urge to warn others about the danger of drugs.
“Life gets hard as you get older and people have different ways of dealing with it,” he said. “Keep Brittany in your mind as an example of where drugs can lead you. It doesn’t seem fair to us now, but I assure you that her purpose was, and will continue to be, served.”
One of Brett and Brittany’s last conversations was about heroin and how deadly it was. She wanted to quit using, but years of drug abuse had hijacked her brain. She hoped Brett could help her kick the habit.
Brett told her he’d quit hanging out with users, joined a support group and learned to apply the cognitive behavioral tips he learned there. And finding out his girlfriend was pregnant with his child gave him the motivation to clean up his act.
He hoped those things would work for Brittany, too, but they didn’t.
That made heroin Brett Bramble’s arch enemy.
4. Living for two
Born just 18 months apart, Brett and Brittany enjoyed the same circle of friends through much of elementary and middle school. Wherever Brett went, there was Brittany, too.
When he played football with the Colorado Buffaloes, Brittany was on the sidelines at Fitzgerald Field in Tucker as a team cheerleader. When he picked up skateboarding, she was there, rooting him on.
They’d do just about anything to draw a laugh from each other and whoever else was watching.
Once while attending a Parkview High School football game, Brittany pushed him around the stadium in a wheelchair the entire game.
“It was funny because everybody knew I didn’t need a wheelchair,” he said. “She’d park me somewhere and once she was far enough away, I’d get up and walk away.”
Brett established himself as a daredevil early on. As a kid, “Mom, watch me,” could have been his mantra, he said.
“I’ve always been that person. If there was something tall, I wanted to climb it and jump off.”
He still does, taking every opportunity to go skydiving or run with bulls or hike the Appalachian Trail in the dead of winter.
“Those are just regular days for me,” he said.
Despite all they shared, Brett never tried heroin, but he knew enough about the power of drugs to empathize with his sister’s struggle.
He’d started smoking pot in middle school to mask the pain he felt after he was molested by someone close to his family, he said. Drug use led him into crime. The threat of jail time loomed when he learned his girlfriend was pregnant. It was enough to change the trajectory of Brett’s life.
“I settled down,” he said.
And after earning certification, he was trying to make a go at being a life coach because he wanted to help people.
When Brittany died in 2014, he said, everything changed. He grew consumed with making her life count, with somehow making sure her memory lived on.
No sooner had Brett posted that Snapchat video than he was in preparation mode for his cross-country trek, reading books and blogs, talking to people who had done it before. He began to walk everywhere he went in order to strengthen his legs. He went on overnight backpacking trips. He researched gear and purchased what he needed. He launched a GoFundMe campaign, packed up his Midtown apartment, and put his belongings in storage.
“It was insane,” he said.
Brett was surprised at how quickly his plans came together and how many people supported his effort.
More than 200 people donated $15,969. In exchange, he promised to post periodic updates to his blog and share facts about the perils of drug abuse.
Every dollar he didn’t spend, he said he’d donate to charity or start his own nonprofit to continue the work he’d started.
He parked his car in a friend’s driveway and stored his furniture in her basement.
On March 10, Brett left Atlanta with his mom, daughter, Domino and his trusty Doggyride cart, which he used to transport his food, water and camping gear. He named it Lt. Dan after the character in “Forrest Gump.”
After pit stops in Philadelphia and New Jersey to see family, he arrived three days later in Cape Henlopen, where Brett set out on the American Discovery Trail, a series of paths and roads that cuts through the center of the country and ends at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
Nearly two dozen people who’d heard about his story on Facebook and television news met him there bearing money and gifts of food, a safety vest and T-shirts sporting images of loved ones who’d fallen victim to heroin.
He walked 15 miles that first day. Around 5 p.m. he stopped near Milton, Delaware, where he’d made arrangements to spend the night with a gentleman he’d found on www.couchsurfing.com.
“I’m so freaking happy that my first day was filled with positive connections. It still wasn’t easy, but it was all good. It is supposed to rain a lot tonight and it’s cold up here!
“Tomorrow will be tough but I think I can fight through it. Have rain and 18ish miles to make tomorrow. We’ll see how that goes … Off to bed now. Domino is already snoring.”
Early the next morning, he filled up on bacon, sausage and eggs and headed out again.
Brett gave himself a year to make it to San Francisco. He hoped the attention he brought to Brittany’s death would prevent another family from going through the pain he endured losing Brittany. He thought if he did something big enough like walk across the country, that it would force people to acknowledge his message: Heroin was an epidemic and something needed to be done to stop its destruction. He wanted to tell Brittany’s story, and although he didn’t want his trek to be about him, there was a lot of personal stuff propelling him to walk, too.
For the most part, he’d made peace with his past, reclaimed the values his mother had passed on to him — to love and respect others, to be honest and have self-control. But the trauma he suffered from years of molestation still had a hold of him. He wrestled with his sexuality and maintaining relationships.
“That’s the stuff that was still deep down and I wanted to deal with it,” he said. “At the same time, this was still about Brittany. I felt like I was living for two now.”
5. ‘Someone may be saved’
Days later, Brett passed through Virginia, crossed the Appalachian Trail and entered West Virginia. The snow and wind whipping into his face began to take a toll. He struggled to remain positive. He kicked and screamed in frustration as he navigated the ice-covered mountains.
Brett was walking along Highway 32 in Ohio when he got a call from a drug treatment facility in Cincinnati. They’d heard about his journey and invited him to share his story.
He arrived there two weeks later, a bundle of nerves. He’d spent the previous evening crafting his talk on a hotel notepad, then talking to himself in the mirror. He even videoed himself on his iPhone. This was his first official speaking engagement on the trip, and he was scared.
Nearly 80 people, some in recovery, some from the local sheriff’s department, had turned out for the event.
After a brief introduction, he rose to tell them about Brittany and his walk across America. When he was done, he got a standing ovation.
“It felt good to be acknowledged and applauded for my achievement so far from the community that I wanted to do this for,” he said.
But by mid-June, Brett was starting to question his mission and whether he would make it to the finish. The days seemed to stretch on forever, and the heat was getting to him and Domino.
When he arrived in Kansas City, Kansas, a television news crew followed him, broadcasting live spots throughout the morning. He put on a good face, but he was in a bad place. He needed a break. He checked into a downtown hotel to recharge.
A woman who had seen him on the local television news reached out to him on Facebook. She wanted to meet him. Her visit later that day at Brett’s hotel reignited the flame inside him. She also had a sister named Brittany who’d recently overdosed. As her husband and daughter looked on, she and Brett shared their painful stories.
“I always hate to meet another person that knows my same pain, but it helps so much to be able to relate to someone,” Brett said. “It’s one of those bittersweet kind of things, but she reminded me of why I was doing this and I found the motivation that I needed.
“When she left I cried a little, but I felt like I was ready to run across Kansas in the blazing heat. I didn’t care what it took. She gave me exactly what I needed.”
In his hotel room later that night, Brett made another entry in his blog.
“This walk isn’t exactly easy but I know that I will make it,” he wrote after thanking his many supporters. “Many people will know just a little bit more about the drug epidemic because of it. Someone may even be saved because of it. That’s why I will finish.”
6. Heat takes a toll
But Brett wasn’t finished with the debilitating heat. Osage City, Kansas, nearly killed him and Domino. It was 100 degrees, but it felt even hotter.
“I was doing OK, but Domino hated every second,” he said. “She was running from shady spot to shady spot and freaking out.”
He struggled to push Lt. Dan, and cursed the trail and its rocks, overgrown patches of weeds and hungry ticks. He found a shady spot to rest and noticed the cart had a flat tire.
No wonder it had been so hard to push all day.
He patched the tire and called the Osage City Police, hoping they had a place for him to stay the night. The next five miles were almost unbearable. The heat was stifling.
They finally made it into town and set up camp on the grounds of the police station, where Brett worked the phone, planning his next move.
He and Domino were relaxing when a Facebook message from a PCP addict who’d heard about Brett’s effort popped up on his cellphone screen.
The man said Brett had inspired him to quit using.
“If you can do this for your sister then I can do this for myself, the message said.
“This guy was telling me I saved his life and that was what I set out to do,” Brett said. “I knew Brittany’s death wasn’t in vain, and she would’ve loved this accomplishment.”
Brett teared up as he responded.
I wish you the best but my sister did all of this. Not me.
Brett shared his story about the exchange on his blog.
All the frustration he’d felt earlier melted away. He fell into an easy sleep one last time with Domino at his side. While he relished the company, this was his fight. The heat demanded he send Domino home.
7. Touching lives
Brett continued to battle the heat until he reached the higher elevations in Colorado. From there he headed into southern Utah as summer turned to autumn.
Along the way he stopped to talk with mayors, school superintendents, students — whoever would listen.
He discovered that U.S. 50 in Nevada, called the loneliest highway in America, was indeed lonely. Every mountain he climbed — and there were 16 of them — led to a valley below. And at night he could see every star in the universe. The only sound was that of coyotes.
It was a good thing he felt strong again.
“I was mentally prepared to be alone and to be able to enjoy the highway,” he said. “I grew a deep connection with the universe and that led me to finding a peace with the loss of my sister. I knew what it felt like to be loved by her, and it was so strong it transcended her life on earth. I owe the Nevada desert for that.”
Since that first speaking engagement in Cincinnati, Brett addressed more than a dozen audiences along his journey. Crowds that once intimidated him began to feel like friends. His confidence grew.
“I could talk about my mission and purpose without breaking a sweat,” he said.
In Dayton, Nevada, he was invited to speak to 140 fifth and sixth graders about Brittany. The session went so well, the school invited him to speak to the third and fourth graders. Brett hesitated, thinking they might be too young. He was surprised to learn many of them knew family members who’d succumbed to drugs like Brittany.
He was back on the road, in Carson City, Nevada, looking for a place to stay the night when a car pulled up and he spotted a girl from one of the classes.
“I recognized her right away because she had approached me after I gave the speech at her school,” he said. “I waved to her and said hello.”
The girl had shared Brett’s story with her mother, who’d recently gotten out of prison on drug-related charges. Touched, the girl’s mother had driven her through town looking for Brett.
They wanted his autograph.
“That was my favorite part of the walk,” he said.
8. The finish line
All of October was an uphill climb, but Brett eventually made it over the California mountains.
He walked through Sausalito and on Nov. 12, eight months after he’d begun, Brett Bramble laid eyes on the Golden Gate Bridge. He threw both arms in the air in jubilation.
Brett gave himself a few minutes to enjoy the accomplishment. He spotted tourists taking pictures, admiring the steel structure. As he drew closer, they turned toward him, noting Lt. Dan.
Did you just finish walking across America or did you just begin, one of them asked.
I just finished, he said. They gathered around him and he told them the story of Brittany.
As the crowd started to thin, a man pulled him to the side and began reciting “The Mighty Task is Done,” a poem written about the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge by Joseph P. Strauss, chief engineer for the project.
Brett cried as the man repeated the final stanza.
High overhead its lights shall gleam,
Far, far below life’s restless stream,
Unceasingly shall flow;
For this was spun its lithe fine form,
To fear not war, nor time, nor storm,
For Fate had meant it so.
Brett’s steps onto the bridge were his final ones. At last his mighty task was done.
A few days later, surrounded by supporters, Brett returned to the bridge for a final six-mile trek across it into San Francisco and down to Ocean Beach. There Brett dove into the water and emerged, he said, a changed man.
He’d made it across America, but he’s not done. He’s still telling Brittany’s story to anyone who will listen.
Heroin epidemic by the numbers
Rise in the number of heroin-related deaths in the U.S. from 2012 to 2013
The number of people who died of heroin overdose in the U.S. in 2015
Of first-time heroin users in the U.S. are white
Of heroin addicts in the U.S. who used prescription opioids before turning to heroin
Heroin-related deaths in Georgia in 2015
Heroin related-deaths in Fulton County
In Gwinnett County
In DeKalb County
In Cobb County
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, county medical examiners
ABOUT THE STORY
Three months after he completed his amazing feat, Brett Bramble is still telling his sister Brittany’s story. He continues to speak at county jails, treatment centers and to state legislators. A member of the Greater Gwinnett Re-entry Alliance, which works to reduce prison recidivism, he recently started a local chapter of the support group Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing (GRASP). For information email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 404-985-9334. Along the way, both he and his mother, Pam McDaniel, have learned a lot about the heroin epidemic gripping out country today. Their message to the rest of us is to take it seriously and don’t think it won’t happen to us or someone we love.
Gracie Bonds Staples
ABOUT THE REPORTER AND PHOTOGRAPHER
Gracie Bonds Staples has been writing for daily newspapers since 1979, when she graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She joined the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2000 after stints at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Sacramento Bee, Raleigh Times and two Mississippi dailies. Staples lives in Johns Creek with her husband of 31 years, Jimmy. They have two daughters, Jamila, a third-year medical student, and Asha, a broadcast reporter at Fox10 news in Mobile, Ala.
Bita Honarvar is an Atlanta-based photographer whose work has appeared in numerous national publications including The New York Times, The Guardian US, The Chicago Tribune and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she was a staff photojournalist and photo editor for 16 years. Her work has taken her around the United States and abroad, including stints in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.
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