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 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 in the country.
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 pedicured, flip-flopped 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 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 just a 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 even killing her.
Over the course of 2,000 pages, Edward avoids, falls in love with and leaves Bella, which makes 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 live in its make-believe world. So far this year, more than 7,000 Twilighters have visited.
Forks High School is often 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 even wandered inside to seek out the fictional characters. Still others have requested to be transferred to the school.
As Sydney and her friends mugged for the camera, 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 had already succeeded with part of their day's mission. Her digital camera was brimming with photos she'd 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 where Bella is taken after her true love saves her from being killed by a van. Characters who, to many Twilight fans, have been so thoroughly and emotionally rendered in print that they seem real.
"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."
'Welcome race fans and vampires," trumpets the sign for Weston Motors, an auto shop along State Route 101 that is the first Forks business a visitor sees when driving in from Seattle.
"Edward Cullen didn't sleep here!" reads a letter board at the Olympic Suites Inn, just a couple hundred yards farther up the tree-lined road.
That's before visitors have even reached the main drag. Travel toward Forks' one lighted intersection, and tourists can eat Twilight sandwiches at the sub shop or rent Bella's Suite at the Dew Drop Inn.
Many locals have played along with the themes in the Twilight books -- and business has boomed.