Lately, Pickathon has been tagging its Instagram photos with the hashtag #notadream. Mountains in front of impossibly blue skies, macro shots of sunlight streaming through fallen leaves and maze-like images of elaborate stage set-ups partially built fill the square frames in an endless stream of implausibility.
At this time each year—just a couple weeks before the independent music festival returns to Pendarvis Farm in Happy Valley, Ore.—Pickathon does feel like a dream. You start to wonder if the #nofilter is just a marketing ploy for more likes and if such an idyllic setting could really serve as home to a boisterous music festival. You start to wonder if you really saw your favorite artists playing music in the middle of the woods and if the kind souls you met in the barn by the horses really exist.
Because at this point, the day-job blues have fully reclaimed your mind. The day-to-day grunt work of sitting at a desk, paying bills, eating take-out (and then regretting it) and slapping on a superficial smile while doing so have regained their robotic powers. With the yearly transformation of time nearly complete, the utter inconceivableness of a utopian music festival committed to small size, sustainability and locally sourced food and drink from 50 weeks ago seems so far away that yes, okay. Maybe—no, definitely—that must have been a dream.
Zale Schoenborn speaks quickly on his iPhone. His Kentucky accent has been mollified after nearly two decades of living in Portland working as a senior technologist at Intel. He’s racing around the campus of Portland State University, working with Professor Travis Bell and his class of whip-smart sustainable design graduate students in the School of Architecture to build a new stage for Pickathon. With his full-time gigs at Intel and as the patriarch of his own four-person family, he’s excitedly (if a bit frantically) trying to finalize details for a new stage being built for this three-day party in the woods. “We spend all year in a parallel world next to the festival figuring this out,” he says. When you get there, though, “It’s like landing on the moon.”
Schoenborn, the original Pickathon mastermind, admits that there is no balance in these roles. What started as a tiny gathering for friends and family blossomed into an annual event at Horning’s Hideout in Portland beginning in 1999. Seven years later Pickathon outgrew that location and migrated to Pendarvis Farm, about 30 minutes outside of the city.
Pickathon is a fringe festival in every sense. It’s just outside of Portland, not quite in it. The fest attracts some pretty well-recognized bands—this year indie rock and folk acts including Nickel Creek, The War on Drugs, Foxygen and Angel Olsen are all playing—but it’s certainly not on OutKast’s big reunion circuit. Some hefty non-music brands and media outlets like Zipcar and TIME magazine have even thrown the fest some press this year, but fewer than 4,000 people follow @Pickathon on Twitter.
This mentality permeates to the core of the organization. Pickathon, which only recently established its LLC status, still operates in a grassroots fashion. “We love to find dreamers and collect them,” says Schoenborn. And so friends and family members still help organize Pickathon. “My mom still runs the front gate,” he admits. “My wife Wendy runs the merch.”
The central four-man team consists of Zale and his younger brother Eric Schoenborn, as well as Ned Failing and Terry Groves. Each partner describes the others with a realness tempered by jest and lightheartedness. Eric—who Monday through Friday serves as the Creative Director at the Knight Foundation in Miami, Fla.—maintains his Kentucky inflection (unlike his brother Zale). “Our whole family now revolves around a circus!” he exclaims with a hint of seriousness lingering in his drawl.
Eric, who handles the entire digital infrastructure of Pickathon, describes his 44-year-old brother as, “a real salesman.”
Zale explains that “Ned does a lot of the financials. He’s our straight guy—the guy who can actually keep the lights on, but he also does so much more.”
Failing, an independent contractor, project manager and Portland-based drummer, says determinedly, “I think I am the most aggressively, maybe along with Terry, trying to turn Pickathon into my full-time job.”
And Groves, the Michigan-based booking agent and contract negotiator whose day job is with the Welk Music Group, earned nicknames like “Mr. Easygoing” and “Mr. Trustworthy” from Eric.
“I think what made [Pickathon] a thing was that we never quit our day jobs,” Eric considers. Each partner treats the fest as his own passion project, bringing the same hustle and dedication that such an endeavor truly needs to succeed.
The entrance to Pendarvis Farm is marked by a demure “ENTER” sign tacked to a tree. The farm, purchased by Scott Pendarvis’ family in the 1950, spans around 80 acres. The main farmhouse, at least 100 years old, still remains in the Pendarvis family, as Scott and his wife Sherry live there while working in town as a set/stage painter and float builder, respectively.
Before Pickathon made Pendarvis Farm its home, Scott and Sherry held their own get-togethers on the farm. Sherry, a lifelong Oregonian, would leave messages announcing the date of the next farm jam and a host of local friends and touring musicians would all come together for a night of friendly music-making. Scott, who plays hand drums, flute and ukulele and Sherry, who grew up playing piano and violin and now also plays the musical saw, oud, bass, mandolin and dulcimer, of course join in.
“Sherry Pendarvis is such a dreamer,” gushes Schoenborn. That spirit and the family’s support in holding Pickathon on the farm helps define the fest’s identity.
“People have always described [the farm] as having a cyclone of creative energy swirling around it,” Sherry says. “It sounds very hippie and woo-woo, but that’s what people have said so many times. But I know that when I first moved here that I was feeling this sense of history.” She continues, “I try to think of the farm as a canvas for possibility.”
Likewise, Pickathon organizers, contractors and volunteers take special care in the details of building upon and decorating the canvas of this location. From the nearly four miles of colored LED lights that serve as guided trails through the woods to various camping locations, to the signposting mythical animal statues hidden throughout the grounds, to the 250,000 square feet of microfiber fabric used to create the epic structure covering the fest, the entire aesthetic seems like functional art.
Mar Ricketts, founder of the Portland-based architectural company GuildWorks, has provided the iconic fabric structures for the fest since before they moved to Pendarvis Farm. Crafted of hand-dyed, lightweight fabric (a combination of modified nylon and polyester) connected with around eight miles of rope, cable and lines, the geometric shapes provide shade from the summer Oregon sun while creating the iconic look set against the mountainous backdrop.
“In the case of Pickathon, one of the things I like to say that venue—that main field, the showcase at the main stage—is like a giant outdoor ballroom,” begins Ricketts. “Architecture puts you in a sense of place…By creating this giant outdoor ballroom, we give Pickathon a sense of place.”
It takes more than 30 people from GuildWorks to build this multi-purpose contraption throughout the duration of the festival. They start running the lines above the main stages about two and a half weeks prior to opening day, and it takes another week and a half to break it down.
“One of the things people love about Pickathon is that way that way the roof of the ballroom breathes,” Ricketts says. “It works with the wind and it lets wind in and out. It has this wave effect that rolls across it. That’s some of its extreme magic—of the elements that bring it alive more than pictures can ever say. It’s responding to all the elements. It’s responding to the sun. Every little bit of light and cloud changes the color and gradiations in the fabric and the way they shimmer.”
But Pickathon’s ethics work in conjunction with these stunning aesthetics. The Pendarvis family and organizers’ unparalleled commitment to sustainability distinguishes them from every other music festival in the world. Pickathon was the first fest to eliminate plastic cups and single-use utensils and dishware; instead, everyone in attendance sips from their own Kleen Kanteen steel pints and munches off the reusable Bambooware plates and forks. Pickathon even enlisted its own volunteer Recycling Coordinator, local civil engineer Jake Hofeld, to manage the composting, recycling and garbage during the fest, as well as the teams of volunteers who help keep those three entities in separate donated dumpsters.
This year, too, Pickathon is launching an organized bike ride from Portland to help reduce carbon emissions. Sponsored by e-marketing service provider MailChimp, attendees ride the approximately 15 miles from VeloCult bike shop in Portland to Pendarvis Farm while a MailChimp-sponsored truck shuttles their camping gear to and from the festival site.
When asked how to describe Pickathon, everyone tells stories. Some start with the basics: each of the approximately 50 bands plays two sets across the six wholly inimitable stages over the three-day festival. Ticket sales are capped at around 3,500. The fest only serves craft beers and spirits, and local vendors set up food carts on site.
Many then delve into the unexpected do-good mentality that pervades the farm, like the lost-and-found pile of unclaimed stuff accumulated from year to year. The niceness factor seems incomprehensible to city people, but Eric nonchalantly states, “the story is that there’s never been anything stolen from there before.”
Another story often repeated revolves around the fest’s lack of advertising and promoters. Eric, the creative strategist, refers to it in terms of design thinking and catering to the ultimate user experience. But Brian Snyder, co-founder of the fan-favorite food cart Pine State Biscuits, attributes it to a shared belief in the value of experiences. “There’s no one there at the festival that’s all about the almighty dollar,” he states. “It’s about the enrichment of the experience, not the enrichments of our pockets.”
Even though everyone’s experiences differ at Pickathon—from the artists to the organizers to the volunteers to the attendees—stories from disparate sources often overlap. Eric doubles over in laughter remembering John Doe square dancing with Thao from Thao and the Get Down Stay Down. And yet, Ned wonders if that impacted X’s decision to play at the farm this year. He muses, “I’m intrigued by the fact that The Sadies and John Doe will be there at the same time because the last time The Sadies came through, they came through backing John Doe. I’ll be interested to see if anything happens there, like if John Doe can hop up and play some stuff with them because that was a super awesome collaboration to have. I think a huge reason why X is even coming to Pickathon is because John Doe had such a great time when he came.”
In fact, the artists themselves have the most surprised reactions to Pickathon and loyal allegiances to share. “It really feels like everyone attending the festival, working the festival, and playing the festival are all in the same big friendly boat, committed to making the atmosphere as welcoming and fun as possible,” describes Mike Olsen of jazz pop act Lake Street Dive, who performed in 2012 and 2013. “It really speaks to the kind of festival-goer that Pickathon attracts,” he continues. “They’re music lovers, and folks that show up to hear great bands, discover new acts and then seek them out after the festival is over.”
Likewise, members of indie folk sextet Blind Pilot were spotted attending the fest last August and their experiences as fest-goers influenced their decision to return as performers. Singer/songwriter Israel Nebeker recalls, “I was watching Feist at the Woods Stage, and she just got everyone to sit cross-legged, and there wasn’t enough room for everybody to really do that without just sitting right on top of each other. And so I was just in a big bundle of good-natured people that were willing to do that.” He chuckles, lightly remembering, “It was kind of sweaty and uncomfortable, but also really kind of fun for the novelty of it. Like, where is that ever going to happen?”
In the midst of his trek around the Portland State campus, Schoenborn tries to convince me that the six-piece Nashville-based rock and roll band Diarrhea Planet will fit in the Galaxy Barn. “That’s a bigger stage than you think! But it’s a small, small room.” His excitement causes his voice to raise slightly as he continues, “It’s the perfect proportions for a nuclear explosion. It’s just way too small for these giant bands…but that’s conceptually what they love about it. It’s all those people on top of you so sweaty!”
The preparations continue in force after Schoenborn leaves campus. In the remaining weeks and days before the 17th edition of Pickathon, Sherry and Scott must clear Pendarvis Farm for the festival’s needs and prepare the horses for the onslaught of visitors. Ricketts and his crew must hang their masterpiece above the two main stages, and Jake has to coordinate all of the grounds maintenance materials. Groves is pulling 16-hour days on the computer answering emails about family camping and bike routes. Schoenborn coordinates with the numerous sound designers, lighting specialists and 200-person team of broadcast filmmakers so that each band looks and sounds perfect and their performances can be preserved and remembered.
As the team works its magic, the small teasing photos of documented proof populating social media seem to wipe the bleariness from our memories, the crusty sleep from our eyes. Pickathon is not a dream.
“Do not have a single thing scheduled on Monday,” warns Schoenborn. “It’s all about coming back to reality slowly.”