A visit to Forks, Washington, where vampire fans and skeptics alike can buy a Bella Burger or a bundle of Twilight firewood
Indian Beach is a white-sand stretch of shore in Ecola State Park, a cove tucked under basalt cliffs. It's where I went the first time I skipped school, on one of Oregon's cold, fog-drenched spring days. The Multnomah Falls' parking lot is where I left my car on summer afternoons, on my way to a swimming hole a few canyons over. Vernonia, the town just off Highway 26? Vernonia I know best for its popularity with traffic cops, the ones who liked to lurk in wait for drivers eager to get to the beach. The list of Twilight's set locations is a litany of my childhood landmarks, but they mean something entirely different to vampire and werewolf fans.
Oxbow Park, Corbett, Kalama—I've been there. But in the past few years, thousands of Twilight devotees have been there too. Since the series' first book came out in 2005, these Twilight fanatics have propagated a cottage industry from the blockbusters' mondo success—creating a strange pilgrimage to the small, often-wet, Northwestern towns where the Twilight books were set and the movies filmed. Tweens, teens, and a good chunk of society expected to be too old for such behavior are desperate to see the room where Bella, the saga's erstwhile heroine, discovered Edward was a vampire, or the parking lot where Edward risked outing his whole supernatural family in order to save Bella from being crushed by a van. A surprising number of people are willing to pay for this privilege.
It's easy to find Twilight tourist information, and overwhelming to sift through the relevant webpages. They all seem to be black, with curling font and an occasional splash of glitter; it's girly-meets-gothic. Different companies promote varied daily and overnight excursions and tours, led by real-life Twilight experts. Clipper Vacations offers a self-guided, two-night package for $166 a person; shorter daily tours (which can take as long as six hours) run as low as $39. Summit Entertainment shifted filming locations in each of the four movies, so the number of official Twilight settings have proliferated, and as a result, old logging towns and industrial ports scattered through Oregon, Washington, and Vancouver B.C are now under Twi-hard siege.
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Forks, where the books and movies are supposedly set, is a sleepy town sandwiched between segments of Olympic National Park, most of the way up the northern tip of Washington (Not a single scene of the movies have actually been filmed in Forks, in part because Oregon, and then B.C., had more appealing tax concessions, and in part because producers feared Forks was too small to accommodate the film's housing and culinary needs). Before Twilight (hereafter designated as BT), Forks was one of those post-timber towns that most people didn't know existed, the kind of town where if you knew where it was, chances were you lived there and wanted to leave. Twilight's Bella herself disdained the place, saying, "Forks was literally my personal hell on Earth."
It's a rainforest settlement, a conglomeration of clapboard houses lining wide, mostly deserted streets, the air always feeling like it's about to rain, that is, if it's not already raining. Forks' economy, as the last place you can find a supermarket before entering the Olympics, used to revolve around selling socks and matches to intrepid hikers who'd forgotten theirs. That is, BT. Since Stephanie Meyers set her best-selling novels there, Forks has transformed.
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The guidebook Twilight Tours—The Illustrated Guide to the Real Forks documents the noteworthy destinations in Forks: the Community Hospital (where you can see the parking spot with a plaque proclaiming it is "reserved" for Dr. Cullen), the Police Station where Bella's fictitious father works, or the house that someone decided most closely resembles the Cullens' (previously the Miller Tree Inn Bed and Breakfast—and yes, you can still spend the night there). The Forks Chamber of Commerce has proved remarkably enterprising—it used to run Twilight tours itself, before the flood of mini-vans from Arkansas became overwhelming and it privatized the whole thing. In town, Sully's Burgers has a "Bella Burger," the local Subway franchise has a "Twilight Special," Pacific Pizza offers "Bellasagna served with Edbread and Swansalad" (if this sounds like gibberish, just accept that millions of girls across the country know exactly what this food-as-characters string is referring to). The Chamber of Commerce website lists the following businesses as sellers of Twilight-related merchandise: Forks Outfitters, Chinook Pharmacy, Shadynook Cottage, Shanny's, Leppell's Flowers & Gifts, J&D Design, and the Fern Gallery. That's pretty much all of the shops on Highway 101, the one main road that cuts through Forks, and many of the remaining stores smattered just off it.
The damp early-summer day I drove up 101, I saw signs for "Twilight Firewood, $4 a bundle." A fire-danger sign outside a local gas station had been re-engineered to read "Vampire Danger." A local man pumping at the next station told me the owner shifted the needle from green to red depending on the cloud ceiling; sunny days were deemed the least dangerous. After Twilight, tourism to Forks has doubled, bringing much-needed resources to the area, and people here are eager to cash in on the trend.
But not everyone's happy with the new Forks. Quileute Nation, the Native American community just outside town, has had a varied response to how their culture has been appropriated by the tween-dream money machine. After MSN.com got in trouble for trespassing on their sacred burial grounds while preparing a teaser for one of the films, the Quileute Nation has published a website Truth versus Twilight, just in time for the release of the fourth movie this Friday. In their effort to explain the difference between the fictional works and their reality, the site says, "We wish to expose how the Twilight saga has presented a skewed version of modern Native American life and to offer visitors to this site an alternative perspective with links to resources for a more meaningful understanding of Indians in the modern era." Amongst the things they want you to know? Werewolves don't exist. Really. Quileute people can't transform into wolves. Ditto vampires. They date just like other people in Western culture (no imprinting here), and they take issue with the "over-sexualized, exoticized, and macho" portrayal of their culture in the films. "While many of these traits—being poor, uneducated, and having ubiquitous and dysfunctional relationships—are common among all groups of people, The Twilight Saga reinforces these shortcomings as synonymous with the Quileute."
The site also clarifies some of the Twilight references. The Quiluete creation story does tell how their people were transformed from wolves into men by their creator, and to this day the Quileute still hold wolves as a sacred ancestor. Since any wild wolves in the area have long since been exterminated, the tribal school recently invited wolf visitors (ironically, wolves related to the ones who acted in the Twilight movies) from Mission: Wolf, a non-profit educational foundation. The school met the wolves with regalia and song, and traditional and sacred wolf dances were re-enacted on the gymnasium floor. In one picture of the event, a shirtless, denim-clad teenager (immediately conjuring visions of Taylor Lautner) shakes a rattle, while two black draped, enmasked kids on their hands and knees stare down a bewildered wolf on a leash. In another photo, a wolf is stretched supine along the laps of children sitting in a line, enjoying multiple petting hands. It's a heavier scene than any of the growling, enraged fight clips in Twilight, but it bears the weight of being true.
I didn't know any of this the first time I visited Forks. Despite growing up several hours south of there, I'd never seen the movies, never picked up the books. Driving up 101 last summer, I wasn't thinking it was anyone's "hell on Earth." As the late snow gleamed off Mount Olympus, and forsythia and witch hazel bloomed in the clear cuts between stands of old growth forest, I was trying to figure out how to move there. My introduction to all things Twilight was entirely accidental; my backpacking partner and I stopped at Forks Outfitters after our visit to the ranger station because he'd forgotten some necessities for our two-week trip. The entrance-way was lined with paper cut-outs of gloomy, sulking teenagers, and the ubiquitous black-and-red hued insignia. Sweatpants racks were divided between "Team Edward" and "Team Jacob." At the check-out line, our cashier was swarthily handsome, his hair dyed black with a streak of silver, a swooping curl hiding one eye. He would have fit right in with the movie cast. I asked if he was tired of Twilight, but he said while he'd never been on a tour, it did bring some interesting people through town. We bought the first book, Twilight, along with, yes, socks and an extra lighter—the cheap, 99-cent kind, not the $2.99 version with Edward Cullen's face on it—and read it aloud at night, camping along the tidal flats on our way north.