With 'Twilight' dawns a new era for timber town

FORKS, Wash. — When the timber economy that had sustained this wet and distant place for its first hundred years came crashing to Earth like an old-growth Douglas fir, people exhausted themselves trying to figure out what the future would hold. What would happen to the little town clinging to the western slope of the temperate rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula, with its single grocery store, one traffic light and 3,100 residents?

Nobody guessed anything like this:

Sydney Conway and two of her teenage friends, on a school holiday, got into a minivan and drove four hours — to stare at the nondescript brick building that is Forks High School. There's a weathered wooden sign announcing it as "the home of the Spartans," but otherwise it looks like most other high schools.

Sydney, Alexis Miller and Rebekah Hamilton got out of their van, stood in front of the school — oblivious to the cool mist that was frizzing their hair and chilling their feet — and screamed, "Twilight!"

The Twilight Saga, as just about any teen girl could tell you, is the name of a mega-selling series of books by Stephenie Meyer that is set in a mythical version of Forks. The books chronicle the complicated love triangle of a human, a vampire and a werewolf. To say they are huge is like calling Harry Potter a mere boy.

Specifically, the young-adult books are about Bella Swan, a teenager who moves to Forks to live with her dad. Attending the local high school, she meets a pretty-boy named Edward Cullen, who, it turns out, is a vampire; he is powerfully attracted to Bella, but to act on his instinct would mean injuring, possibly killing, her.

Over the course of 2,000 pages, Edward avoids, falls in love with and dumps Bella, which leaves room for a werewolf named Jacob to vie for her affections. Jacob and Edward spar, Bella chooses Edward, and 17 million book sales later, the Twilight Saga is a major cultural force, inspiring such adoring fandom that this tiny town is now a tourist destination for giggling, screaming teenagers (and some women) whose love for the Twilight books is so strong that they want to inhabit its world. So far this year, more than 7,000 Twilighters are believed to have visited.

Forks High School often is besieged with Twilighters, who pose for pictures in front of the Spartans sign or scan the parking lot for Edward's car, a silver Volvo sedan. Some have wandered inside to seek out the fictional characters. A determined few have requested to be transferred to the school.

As Sydney and her friends mugged for each other's cameras, a man in a pickup drove by and smiled at them with a pair of white plastic fangs.

"We probably wouldn't do this for another book," said Sydney, 17, who lives in Redmond. "Maybe Harry Potter, but that's a little too far away."

A few blocks over, Anna Vandenhole, 46, was traipsing down the sidewalk of Forks Avenue, on the hunt for an official Bella bracelet — a piece of costume jewelry festooned with charms and Swarovski crystals that Meyer herself helped design. "We're just looking for trinkets and the photo ops. They've already got their T-shirts," Vandenhole said, glancing at her 17-year-old son, Sonny, and his girlfriend, Ashley Parker, 16, who were wearing matching black Twilight T-shirts. Vandenhole already had succeeded with part of the day's mission. Her digital camera was brimming with photos she had taken of the local hospital, a stranger's two-story bungalow, an old red pickup truck — places and items that, to a non-Twilighter's eye, are just a hospital or a house or a truck. To a Twilight fan, they're the truck that Bella drives, the high school where she and Edward begin their romance, the hospital Bella visits after her true love has saved her from being killed by a van.

Many locals have played along with the themes in the Twilight books — and business has boomed.

"How often have you ever taken a vacation to see a grocery store, a high school and a hospital?" asked Janet Hughes, owner of JT's Sweet Stuffs, a brightly lit candy shop that sells Twilight delights: Edward Bites (chocolate-covered peppermint bark) and Bella Creams (mint butter creams). "We've had people from all over the world."

"It's not that hard to put (Twilighters) over the edge," said Julie Hjelmeset, manager at the Dew Drop Inn. She transformed a double-queen bedroom in the otherwise run-of-the-mill hotel into "Bella's Suite" by swapping the white linens and towels for racier black-and-red versions and resting imitation long-stem roses on the beds. The suite fetches double the rate of a regular room — $149 per night versus $74.

The driving force behind the town's resurgence is the Forks Chamber of Commerce.

It was the head of the chamber who reached out to the owners of a house to see if they would be willing to place a "Home of the Swans" sign in their lush yard. According to homeowner Kim McIrvin, thousands of visitors have since stopped by the two-story blue bungalow to snap pictures and to imagine Edward sneaking in through the upstairs window.

Following McIrvin's lead, another chamber member offered to transform her bed-and-breakfast into "the Cullen house." A sign on the front porch is updated with daily messages from the fictional family's matriarch, Esme.

The chamber bought a 1953 Chevy pickup truck like the one Bella drives. Spray-painted red, a fake license plate that reads "Bella" affixed to the front bumper, it is parked in front of the chamber's Twilight-festooned office.

"You can't believe how many people want to stop here and have their picture taken by that truck," said Mike Gurling, the chamber's visitor-center manager. Gurling came up with the Twilight Map, given to visitors to guide them around town. He uses it to lead a monthly three-hour Twilight bus tour. Among the stops: Forks City Hall, which houses the police station; and the Indian reservation in nearby La Push — prime werewolf territory.

The Forks Community Hospital also was game. Recognizing the hospital had a part in the books — Edward's father is a doctor — the administrator created a "Dr. Cullen Reserved Parking Only" sign and put it in the parking lot. It quickly became a tourist attraction.

But not everyone in town understands the books' appeal or why fans are descending on Forks.

"Our kids don't see the novelty," said Mark Brandmire, assistant principal of Forks High School. "What part of 'fiction' don't you get?"

Meyer had never been to Forks when she started writing her books. She chose the town after an Internet search showed it was the rainiest city in the Lower 48. Vampires, after all, don't like sun.

Twilighters first started trickling into town in August 2006, when Meyer came to Forks for the first time to promote her second book, "New Moon." At that time, her books were printed in the tens of thousands and her appearances drew small crowds.

One year later, inspired by the release of Meyer's third book, "Eclipse," Forks threw a party. The date was Sept. 13 — Bella's birthday — and 125 Twilighters showed up.

As Meyer's fame grew, so did the town's Twilighter tourism, especially this past summer, leading up to the release of Meyer's fourth and final book in the series, "Breaking Dawn," and "Twilight" the movie. "Breaking Dawn" was published in August with an initial print run of 3.2 million. The movie, which wasn't filmed in Forks but at various spots in Oregon and elsewhere in Washington state, will be in theaters Friday.

This September, more than 1,000 Twilighters came to Forks for Bella, Edward and Jacob look-alike contests and a werewolf dance, among other festivities. And the fans have kept coming.

"This could be a phenomenon for quite some period of time," said the chamber's Gurling. "If the movie's popular and they film 'New Moon,' 'Eclipse' and 'Breaking Dawn,' this could continue for the next several years."

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