On a road trip with a friend in 1988, Kevin Tomlinson stumbled onto what would be the seed of a great story. At the time, he just knew he had to collect it and save it.

“We were out to see the American West,” says the filmmaker, who graduated from the Murrow School in 1975. “It was a Jack Kerouac, Neil Cassady kind of thing.”

Kevin Tomlinson
Kevin Tomlinson (Photo Davis Freeman)

Keeping off the main roads and camping from their car, the pair landed in Tonasket where they came across the local food co-op. When Tomlinson perused the bulletin board to get a flavor of the community, he spied a flier advertising a healing gathering in a couple of weeks time and knew he had come across something interesting. “I thought, ‘What is this? A love in?’” says Tomlinson. “This was 1988, not ’68.”

He was intrigued. He went home to Seattle and told his wife Judy about the event. She not only urged him to return for it, she agreed to go along to see what it was about.

When they arrived at the site in the hills of the Okanogan, they weren’t disappointed. “There were 400 people. They showed up in magic buses, put up tepees, and were walking around with children and beads.” Tomlinson knew he had to film it. “I brought my gear with me just in case,” he says. “I was amazed that 20 years after Woodstock, I had found these back-to-the-land hippies.”

It was dicey at first. Many of the people were wary of Tomlinson and his Betacam. “But they got used to me,” he says. Judy asked the questions, and he filmed them visiting, dancing, eating, and playing. “We’re trying to live peace and love,” one man named Skeeter told them. A woman named OnePine offered, “It’s saying a simple life can be satisfying.”

“It sounds cliché,” says Tomlinson, “but there really was this beautiful vibe there.”

When he got home to a Seattle of the late 1980s steeped in the Reagan era and listening to Huey Lewis and Whitney Houston, he knew he couldn’t release the footage. “I realized people are not going to take this seriously,” he says. So he stashed it away in his garage and his basement, it survived four different moves, and mostly “It was just decomposing,” he says.

Tomlinson continued his career as a cameraman, producer, and director. He worked for King TV and later Bill Nye the Science Guy. He went on to shoot programs for the likes of CBS News, Dateline NBC, Discovery and History channels, and Rick Steves’s travel program. He also freelanced for corporate clients including Microsoft and GTE. “I am now working as a professional cameraman, basically doing everybody else’s projects,” he says. All the while, he felt guilty about leaving the footage from the healing circle untouched.

It wasn’t until a Dutch producer said she’d like to see the film that Tomlinson dug it out. He went through it again, selecting sound bites and editing a segment to show her. “I realized, ‘Oh my God, this is just perfect for today,’” says Tomlinson. “All the people we interviewed back then were living simply, sustainably. Isn’t that what we’re trying to do now?”

He contacted the food co-op in Tonasket and asked for help reaching the subjects. “One by one, I contacted them,” says Tomlinson. That October he took 58 minutes of film from the 1988 footage to the Okanogan barter fair where he knew he would find more of his subjects. “Many of them had forgotten I had filmed them. They were amazed and pleased to see it.” And a few agreed to let him follow them for the next two years.

While some had moved away (one now lives in Bellevue and works for Microsoft), most were still living the lives they had been so enthusiastic about when he met them nearly two decades earlier. Maeyowa, who had come west to find a long-bearded guy and live in the mountains, today makes her home in the Methow Valley where she farms and lives in a solar-powered home. Tomlinson found Jeffrey Stonehill living on a school bus on Lopez Island where he gardened and taught music and language. And Skeeter is farming produce and living communally and still organizing events like the healing gathering and the barter fair.

By knitting the then and now together in Back to the Garden, Tomlinson had captured a slice of our state’s history and culture, showing that something that started in the 1960s was still going strong in the 1980s and had lasted and even grown to today.

The movie has played at 15 film festivals internationally, from Seattle’s film festival to Berlin, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, and Barcelona.

“I could have made this movie in 1988,” says Tomlinson. But it wouldn’t have resonated the way it does now. “We’ve hit a Zeitgeist. People today are really receptive to these ideas.”

When they’re not traveling or making films in Seattle, Tomlinson and his wife have made time to go “Back to the Garden” themselves. They’ve recently acquired a small, solar-powered cabin east of the Cascades.

On the web

Back to the Garden website