Walking Across America for Brittany

By Maggie Ethridge 08/16/16

After his sister's heroin overdose, the profound realization of death opened Bramble up to a new desire: to spare another family the pain that his was going through.

Walking Across America for Overdose Awareness
via Hawkeye POV on Vimeo

“It consumes all of you,” Brett Bramble told The Fix as he stood on the second highest peak he’d have to cross on his trek across America. He looked over the mountain ranges and sighed. He wasn’t talking about drug addiction, or the loss of his beautiful sister, Brittany, or even the grief Brett and his family experienced after Brittany died. He’s talking about walking from Cape Henlopen State Park, the eastern part of the American Discovery Trail, to San Francisco, where he will cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Although he was not referring to the loss of his sister, the words hung between us for a few beats, meaning more than intended, perhaps. His young daughter will be waiting for him, and together they will go and watch Inside Out, one of her favorite movies, and remember her Aunt Brittany, who overdosed just a few short weeks after turning 28.

Brett Bramble Walks from Hawkeye POV on Vimeo

On March 13, 2016, Brett set out on a cold, rainy day in Delaware. Family and friends joined him for moral support, as well as families that also lost a loved one to overdose. It was an encouraging start: a decent crowd to show support, and Domino, Bramble’s little black lab mix, wagging his tail and ready to be on the way. Bramble cried and said his goodbyes, taking off pushing Domino in a jogging stroller which Bramble nicknamed Lieutenant Dan. He’s walked through Delaware, DC, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and now, Colorado. 

“We had a good childhood,” Bramble said easily. “Lots of love in a big family.” Bramble and his sister often assisted their mother and stepdad in ministering to the local homeless population. Childhood was simple. The teen years were not.

“We were in the suburbs of Atlanta, one of those suburbs that drugs were going through and nobody wanted to talk about it. The school didn’t talk about it…no parents knew how bad the drug problem was, but all the teenagers knew where to get it,” Bramble recalls. He began rebelling, then using, and spent the next four years upping the ante. No matter how many times he got in drug-related trouble, it faded from his records. 

“I got into trouble so many times in school, and they wouldn’t write it up. We were State Champions five years in a row…they didn’t want it.” The silence from the adults around was deafening, and encouraged continuing to drink and use. No churches or schools or parent organization was speaking up about teen drug use, and it was clear that the overriding principle was to keep your head down and stay out of real trouble. Until, of course­, addiction takes over and real trouble becomes unavoidable.

Bramble broke the law and a judge was clear and hard with him, “He told me if he saw me back in court for this again, I’d be going to jail for a long time. I believed him. I made a choice to better my life, and I was able to.” After probation ended, he remained clean. “When I was ready to stop, I just did. I didn’t use AA or anything.”

When Brittany’s addiction brought her to the brink of death years later, Bramble couldn’t understand why she didn’t do the same. “It was hard,” he says slowly, “for me to be sympathetic when my sister first came to me.” 

Brittany had married at 20 years old, to a man who was big in their local world of drug dealing. She had spent her high school years like her brother, using pot and alcohol, maybe more—Bramble can’t say for sure. Once Brittany married, she began having children—one, two, three—all boys. From the outside, her life looked good. Bramble knew that Brittany used, but had no idea what she was using, or how much. Until she called him and asked for help.

Brittany had started using pills and meth, and was addicted. “They were constantly using,” Bramble says. “When she came to me, we all tried to help. But we didn’t know how bad it was. I started to see addiction take over her brain though. I could see it was different with Brittany. She’d say one thing and her brain led her to another.” Brittany wanted to divorce her husband and make a clean start. Instead, she used heroin. After only a few times, she overdosed. 

“The very next day we all said, ‘Now it’s serious. This is serious.’ We did everything we could to educate ourselves. Our family has never addressed addiction. We’ve seen it, but never dealt with rehabs, treatments, or anything like that. Nobody had even seen heroin, so that was a total shock. My sister was trying really hard, and before we could figure out anything else, she overdosed again and that was the last time her heart beat. She had just turned 28. Her death day is two weeks after her birthday.”

After Brittany’s death, the family was in shock. As Bramble moved inside grief, he found it was not only devastating, but eye-opening. “I can die,” he said. “Death happens.” The profound realization of death opened Bramble up to a new desire: to spare another family the pain that his was going through. He began meeting people in the Atlanta recovery community, making connections and talking about his sister. He raised a few thousand dollars for Shatterproof, a nonprofit organization, by rappelling off the side of a downtown Atlanta building. He began educating himself on the opioid epidemic, shaking hands, “making sure I was known,” as he puts it. But something was missing. He couldn’t get rid of the nagging feeling that there was something more he was supposed to be doing, something else.

“At two in the morning, I couldn’t sleep, my mind was wandering," Bramble remembers. "And the next thing I knew, I had the idea to walk across America. I didn’t think it would really happen, but it was a fun idea to bounce around my head. But the idea wouldn’t go away. I was sitting on my couch and it just hit me, Walk Across America for Brittany, and right then and there I knew I was going to do it. I just knew it needed to be done.” 

Bramble began researching, watching YouTube videos of survival tips and stories of others who have walked across America for a vast array of reasons—from the mundane to the deeply personal. When he thought of Brittany, Bramble “knew she’d be happy trying to save people with her story. I made peace with her.” 

The idea was simple. Walk across America, and in each town, speak to the local churches, pastors, school administrators and police chiefs, and ask them to talk to their community about drug addiction and recovery. He started a website: Brett Bramble Walks.

When he told them his plan, Bramble’s family was supportive. “My family wanted people to know Brittany wasn’t just an addict that died. She was a very loved, beautiful sister, mother, daughter,” Bramble says. He spent 10 months preparing, organizing his living space, storing his belongings, and most importantly, making things good with his young daughter. “I feel terrible,” he says, “but this has to be done. It’s a one year sacrifice, and she’s going to gain a lot out of this too.”

Bramble has walked through rainstorms, heat waves, snow, and downpours where you “stand under your umbrella and hope for the best,” he laughs. Traffic and dogs have been the most treacherous to navigate—Bramble has been nearly sideswiped by semi trucks going 70 miles an hour, and attacked by dogs. In the backroads of West Virginia, a Rottweiler charged Bramble, and only the intervention of his small but brave dog, Domino, saved Bramble from injury. Eventually, Domino had to be shipped home, due to the extreme heat.

“People have been incredible,” Bramble shares. “I’m talking to everyone along the way about addressing addiction and recovery and the importance of naloxone access in their town. I plant the seed. Some towns receive it a lot better than others. Some towns roll out the red carpet and have the whole city come out and see me off. 

In the process, I’m able to deal with my grief, talk to myself, address all the questions that one needs to deal with. I’ve gained a lot out of this that I didn’t expect.”

Bramble has a keychain with a photo of his sister, and at the peak of a mountain, he’ll take the keychain out and look at it. “Sometimes I’m walking, and out of nowhere, it just hits me what I’m doing, I’m walking across America,” Bramble says.

In Nebraska (or maybe Indiana, Bramble isn’t sure) he walked into an odd little bar to eat. He sat down, and some truckers came in. Then, a couple came in with dreadlocks and started up a conversation with Bramble. He told them what he was doing in Brittany’s memory, and the woman broke down in tears. She’d lost her only son just a few months ago to drug overdose.

“It’s a small town and there’s really no support. Just meeting someone who has gone through this, was really good for her. I could run 20 stories down of similar stories and encounters.” 

Bramble doesn’t know what he believes about the afterlife, but he feels confident that if Brittany could see what he’s doing, she’d be happy. “I feel like I’m taking advantage of a very unfortunate situation and trying to do something with it that may save someone else. People have messaged me that they started their own recovery because of my story. I have people in recovery that say every time they read my blog and see me going every morning, it inspires them to keep going.“

Bramble says clearly and heavily, "She loved dancing and helping people. She loved God. She was beautiful. She is missed dearly. I don’t know what came over me, but I wanted to make the best of my life in her honor. Her life got cut short, and I wanted to make sure mine was good."

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Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.