A promising athlete has outgrown his school and, with a devoted family behind him, takes aim at the bigger campus down the road.
(See the slideshow, above, for more of the Martin family, their store, and Riley, OR)
Austin Martin says he never feels lonely.
Some 13-year-old kids might feel isolated in Riley, Oregon, where Austin attends a sunny three-room school with two basketball standards and two trees. Suntex Elementary is a K-8 school. Its enrollment? 10.
I taught Austin this spring in my itinerant job as a writing teacher. He studies with three other kids from fifth though eight grade. Don’t look for a principal at Suntex. Two teachers are in charge, though a board oversees decisions. Most rural schools in Harney County operate like that.
After school, Austin doesn’t return home to an alfalfa farm or cattle ranch like other Suntex kids. He lives in the back of the Riley Store with his great-grandparents, Dale and Pat Martin, who will celebrate their 50th anniversary this year. Their store, as solid as their marriage, draws archery buffs and anyone who needs to fill up on gas, buy some beer or a burrito, rent one of the two rooms upstairs, or pick up some local fishing, birding or hunting info.
The Martins have never closed the place a day in the 11 years they’ve owned it.
But this spring, the Riley Store went up for sale. Austin wants to move into Burns, 27 miles east, to go to school. Burns has a 3A high school with 306 students. For the last eight years, the Hilanders have won the boys’ state wrestling championship. Burns is Harney County’s largest town by far with about 2,600 people.
Riley, on the other hand, is mostly the Riley Store. Travel guides call the store “the one point of interest” in the community. Riley is unincorporated with a post office and anywhere from 60 to 95 households, mostly ranchers and hay farmers, though exact population figures are tough to nail down.
Harney County is a sagebrush sea in the state’s southeastern high
desert on the Pacific Flyway, so birds are singing and honking and
hooting all spring. Oregon’s largest county (10,180 square miles,
about a ninth of Oregon), Harney County has the fewest people of all
Oregon counties: 7,600 at 2000 Census, about 92 percent white. The
population drops as unemployment rises to 25 percent. About 70 percent
of the voting population went for John McCain in 2008.
Burns High is Austin’s destination because he wants to play sports. (The other Harney County high school, Crane Union, is a public boarding school for about 80 ranch kids who come from all over the vast county.) Almost 6 feet tall with size 12 feet, Austin is a shoo-in to start on high school basketball and baseball teams. He has pitched shutouts on the county All-Star baseball team. Dale Martin likes to talk about his great-grandson’s basketball prowess. At a middle school game, Austin scored 30 points in the first half.
Modest and mannerly, Austin admits that he has “pretty good” hand-eye coordination. His great-grandfather discovered that before Austin could read.
Dale saw the boy’s gift when he showed Austin how to use a bow and arrow on sage rats, the derogatory local term for the Midwestern prairie dog. By the age of 6, he could shoot an arrow through a Lifesaver from 30 feet.
With that kind of bullseye touch, Austin will be pitching strikes and scoring points out of the paint when he gets to Burns. His thoughts? “Hope so.”
Angela Allen, an author, journalist and photographer from Portland, has worked as the Eastern Oregon Writer in Residence since March, teaching creative writing at rural schools. Find some of her Harney County students’ work on her website at under the Teaching tab.