Retracing Elizabeth Thomas, Tad Cummins' steps in the California wilderness after they disappeared: Reporter's Notebook

Tennessee teen Elizabeth Thomas disappeared with teacher Tad Cummins.

ByABC News
May 5, 2017, 5:57 PM

— -- As soon as we learned that Tad Cummins and Elizabeth Thomas were found, we immediately began planning to go see the place for ourselves.

ABC News' "20/20" producer Lauren Putrino and I set out on the journey to northern California. Our first challenge: figuring out which airport was closest. None was – and by close I mean under a half day's drive.

We decided to fly into Medford, Oregon. The trip started for us bright and early. We made our last bathroom and snack stop an hour into the trip in Yreka and hit the road for Cecilville, California, to the tiny isolated cabin where authorities found the pair. The GPS told us it would be just under two hours. Lies! The winding mountain added quite a bit of time to our trip.

Watch the full story on ABC News' "20/20" TONIGHT at 10 p.m. ET.

Remote doesn’t fully describe this location. There was no GPS signal, no cell signal and no modern bathroom. We were given a tour of the cabin. At points we had to maneuver over rocks and I, the clumsy person that I am, inevitably fell down. Laying on the ground I looked over and saw I was on the edge of a cliff that dropped into a river below. After taking a minute to get it together, we moved along.

Stop 2 in California, the commune. Our map told us that we were about two hours away. We took off with that in mind, planning to be out of the mountain before the sun went down. The roads were like crazy straws winding in every which direction. Most were not paved and we soon discovered that the ones we needed weren’t on a regular road map. These roads are old logging roads or forestry routes and they were not marked. No street signs at intersections to help you figure out where to go. No markers at all to help you figure out where you were.

We had Griffin Barry, the guy who gave Cummins and Elizabeth directions to the commune, in the car with us so we thought we’d be OK. Not so much. Day 1 ended with us running into a massive snow drift and being forced to turn around. Looking back I think Griffin was nervous about us. He was skeptical and I don’t blame him for wanting to protect his friends at the commune. Later that night, after a long day together and lots of laughs later, we all sat down for dinner together in Yreka. At dinner, Griffin told us that we were actually OK and I think that’s when he decided he trusted us enough to help us find the commune … and he did.

The original plan was to visit both the cabin where they were found and the commune in the same day, but that did not happen. We set out the second day with high hopes and lots of pictures of maps. We’d learned from the prior day how isolated we would be.

Now working on our second route, we felt very hopeful. Quickly our hopes were dashed by snow blocking the road. We talked. We strategized. And we made a plan to try to get through the snow. Two tries later, it worked! We were back on our way. It didn’t take long before we hit the next roadblock. This time it wasn’t snow, it was a rock slide. Pointy rocks covered the road and kept us from being able to go through. We got out of our cars and physically moved the rocks ourselves. Eventually we were able to drive through. Unfortunately all the work was for nothing because very quickly we once again encountered snow, lots of it.

Defeated and pretty bummed we started heading back, talking about how to tackle our third attempt. And that’s when we got lucky. We found two nice men cutting up some wood. We asked them for directions and they offered to actually take us to the commune. Two hours later we pulled up to the crossroads to the ranch. Our map made it look like we needed to go right but there was a poster board sign that pointed left. Lot of thinking and talking later, we decided to go right. Then we came to another fork in the road and another sign. This time it was a wood sign and it pointed left again. We just didn’t trust the signs anymore so we decided we would go right and take our chances. The gamble paid off. After driving down the skinniest road I’ve ever seen, we finally made it.

The residents weren’t too sure about us when we got there. They were skeptical of the media at that point and overwhelmed by all the attention they were getting. After a lot of talking and a compromise, they agreed to do an interview. The video was shot on one of their iPhones. They would keep the video and the group would vote on it. If the group was OK with releasing it, we would get the video in an email. It was our only way to build trust with these people so despite the fact that we had really amazing camera gear with us and they had an iPhone 4, we agreed.

They were kind to us, even gave us a tour of the property. My favorite memories are the stories they shared with us, not about this news event but about how they got there and the fun they have. This commune, while isolated, is very much a huge community, with about 400 members. A family. For these people, it is a special place where so many have found love, a place to be accepted, and for many, even themselves.

It’s one of those experiences that you’ll never forget.