CARSON CITY — In the small rural town of Austin in central Nevada, valedictorian Kendra Willis might be the loneliest high school graduate on the loneliest road in America.
Willis graduated with a 3.7 grade-point average, earned several scholarships totaling close to $15,000 and also was the only one in her graduating class of 2014. Most of the students in her age group have come and gone and ultimately left the area.
Her high school in Austin is a K-12 school, and most of the students who attend are at the elementary level. The school has a small staff of instructors that include two high school teachers who also teach middle school students and one elementary teacher.
So, for Willis’ senior year it was a bit lonely. However, the recent graduate said that her final year went by quickly.
Instead of a traditional graduation ceremony, she had a celebratory dinner at the Toiyabe Cafe, which also happens to be where she is employed. Though she didn’t walk across a stage or give a commencement speech, she sported a cap and gown.
“At first it was a little awkward, but it wasn’t that bad afterwards because it was just family and friends. It wasn’t like a huge awkward ceremony, which was something I didn’t want, so it was really nice,” Willis said.
She has grown up in small rural towns like Austin for as long as she can remember. Before moving to Austin — lying along U.S. Highway 50, which Nevada tourism officials dubbed the “loneliest road in America” — she briefly lived in Silver Springs, which is a lot larger than Austin and closer to even bigger cities such as Carson City and Reno.
While attending high school and maintaining her job at the Toiyabe Cafe, Willis actually lived in a town that is even more rural than Austin — the tiny town of Kingston, less than 30 miles away at the foothills of the Toiyabe range.
For Willis to attend classes, her school bus had to make a nearly 60-mile round trip.
Willis plans to leave the Austin area and the small-town lifestyle behind and move to Reno with her boyfriend, who graduated from the same high school a year before her. She has enrolled at Truckee Meadows Community College and plans to pursue a degree in nursing.
“I’m pretty excited to get out of rural Nevada for a little bit. I feel like I have been in rural Nevada too long,” Willis said. “I have never really lived anywhere too big, so Reno would be the biggest city that I lived in.”
Life is pretty laid-back in Austin compared with the star-studded bright lights of Las Vegas. As you approach the town after a 100-mile stretch of desolate road, you can see the historic Stokes Castle standing on top of a hill. The building dates to the turn of the 20th century. The three-story tower was built with native granite.
The main street in the town takes about three minutes to drive through and is filled with old-style motels and tiny cafes.
The community is composed of a few churches and little houses that are scattered across the western slopes of the Toiyabe range.
According to a 2010 Census Bureau report, the town’s total population was 192.
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