Jul 29 • 1HR 5M

Volts podcast: a music festival that treads lightly on the earth

A chat with Zale Schoenborn, the founder of Pickathon.

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Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)
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Listeners, today at Volts we've got something a little different, a little off our beaten path. It’s an episode about one of my favorite music festivals. It might not seem obvious to you why you should care about a small music festival in the far northwest of the country, but I think if you are patient and listen for a little bit, you'll get a sense of why I’m spending time on it (beyond self-indulgence).

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By the time 2011 rolled around, I was more or less done with music festivals. I love live music and have been to many great concerts, but most festival experiences were so hectic, stressful, crowded, dirty, and exploitative that it just no longer seemed worth the effort. (That has only gotten more true in intervening years.) So I was a little skeptical when a friend told me about the Pickathon festival, held every year about 20 miles outside of Portland, Oregon.

For one thing … “Pickathon”? Sounds like one of those twangy festivals with crunchy hippies playing mandolins and banjos. That is not my bag. But he assured me that the lineup is diverse, from all genres, focused on acts that are about to break bigger.

He talked me into going. And listener, it blew my mind.

For one thing, the land itself is gorgeous — it is held at Pendarvis Farm, a sprawling area of pastureland and wooded hills that is used only once a year for gatherings, only for Pickathon.

Every attendee camps (the festival lasts three days), but not in some crowded parking lot. Rather, there is a whole network of trails running through the woods, with established camping spots that have been used and reused since 1999 when the festival started.

Then there’s the crowd. It wasn't jam-packed. You could always get food or drink with very little line. You could always see the band, no matter which band you wanted to see. There were tons and tons of families and children and almost no backward-baseball-cap bros. It felt oddly wholesome.

But perhaps the strongest impression I took away that first weekend was how weirdly, anomalously clean the festival was. One staple of festival life is giant, overflowing trash cans, with food wrappings and disposable cups strewn everywhere. At Pickathon there was none of that. There was virtually no visible trash. Water was free, available at spigots across the grounds.

It all struck me as so intensely human, so humane, that I fell in love and attended almost every year thereafter. (Here’s a 2013 story I did for Grist and a 2017 story I did for Vox, in which I interviewed 20 artists in three days.)

Zale Schoenborn (Photo: Tim LaBarge)
Zale Schoenborn (Photo: Tim LaBarge)

Pickathon is back this year after a two-year hiatus, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk with festival founder Zale Schoenborn about how the festival has evolved since 1999, what's next on the sustainability front, and what's new at the festival this year. Even if you don't happen to live in the Pacific Northwest and can't attend, I think you'll enjoy hearing from someone who has put so much thought into into bringing humans together to commune and celebrate in a socially and environmentally sustainable way.