Photography by Nina Corcoran.
I’ve never been one to believe in magic, but walking around Pendarvis Farm a few hours before Pickathon’s first act hit the stage, it was hard to believe I was still on Earth. Held a short drive outside of Portland in the aptly named Happy Valley, Pickathon is Oregon’s decision to prove Burning Man isn’t the only festival in America that can take you to an alternate reality – and that you can get there without a hefty price tag or footprint.
For starters, the festival caps ticket sales at a mere 3,500 and its overall capacity at 7,000. Corporate marketing is ditched in favor of partnering with local companies, a dozen food trucks cook up fresh food into the wee hours, and beer gardens are set up alongside horse stables and pine trees. It’s a little unreal. Throughout this, toddlers giggle in the onsite daycare tree fort, adults blend their own smoothie by biking at one juice booth, and campers stretch at morning yoga underneath the purple and white diamond lycra shading the field. All it took was one walk around the premise to leave me grinning from excitement about the next three days.
Perhaps what makes Pickathon so remarkable is what it’s not. There are no individual maps for patrons to slide in their pockets. There’s no photo pit divider. There’s no price to pay for showering and no double-digit dollar sign for beer and no limit on how many free earplugs you can take. Even when a modest crowd stops in the middle of a trail to watch the most amazing 12-year-old buskers I’ve heard in my life play “Rocky Raccoon”, no one takes out their iPhone to film it. The small, well-kept festival started in 1999 — the same year as Coachella — but refuses to trade its ethos for fame.
Part of this comes naturally from the festival taking its eco-friendly stamp so seriously. Patrons receive a small metal cup for drinks, which is yours to keep and use for any beverage you buy: beer, juice, wine, smoothies. If you chose not to bring your own dishware, 10 dollars gets you a token that, when traded in, gets you a blue reusable plate. Order at a food truck, dump unfinished food in a compost bins, return the plate, get the token back, repeat.
What started as a roots festival 16 years ago has now expanded considerably. This year’s roster boasted reunited folk icons like Nickel Creek to garage rock from Mikal Cronin and veteran hip-hop verses from People Under the Stairs. Even the worst part of festivals — the dreaded overlap — is solved at Pickathon; almost every act plays two sets over the course of the weekend at different stages, making it easy to see the band you love in the setting you dream of.
Though the festival is predominantly geared towards families, there is no boundary between guests. Even the most silent patron leaves with five new friends. Maybe it’s because dirt clouds mat your skin differently than Bonnaroo or Gathering of the Vibes. Maybe it’s because the sound guy is allowed to eat corn on the cob in the middle of working The War on Drugs’ set. Maybe it’s because there’s a campfire several feet in front of you when you exit the Galaxy Barn and the band you saw three hours ago is sharing marshmallows with whoever wants in on that 2 AM s’mores action. Pickathon doesn’t have to tear down any walls between musicians and fans because Pickathon knows they’re often one in the same. As one sign inside the Lucky Barn says: “Play and Listen. Listen and Play. It’s a conversation.”