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(Maria Avila/San Jose Mercury News/MCT)


FORKS, Wash.—“We think Bella’s bedroom is up there,” Mike Gurling says, pointing to a second-story window. “When you read the book, this is the perfect image of how you picture Bella’s house to be.”


Gurling is in the driver’s seat of a big blue van hulked outside a simple two-story house in residential Forks. A former Olympic National Park ranger, he notes for his 12 passengers the custom-made placard in the roadside bushes. It reads, “Home of the Swans.”


That would be Bella and her father, Charlie Swan. Fictional characters—or are they? At the Forks Visitors Center, where Gurling is tour guide and office manager, it’s hard to tell these days what’s fantasy and what’s not.


The book is Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight,” the first of a widely popular vampire series primed to fill Harry Potter’s shoes in the hearts of young readers, mainly girls. Set in a far corner of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the teen-romance-meets-Gothic-horror series continues this Saturday with the release of the fourth book, “Breaking Dawn.”


Throughout the past year, growing numbers of fans eager to see where reality meets their imaginations have been visiting Forks from across the country and around the world—Germany, Ireland and Spain. A few months ago, Gurling came up with the idea of “Twilight Tours” and posted details on the Chamber of Commerce Web site. Within hours, an Ohio man and his daughter signed up.


In a place ruled by Douglas fir and Sitka spruce, whose logging-era residents have reputedly preferred to be left alone, some are taking to the attention like vampires exposed to sunlight.


“A few people who live there seemed like they were a little bit annoyed. Maybe they like their peaceful town,” says Mikel Birindelli, a 19-year-old Twilighter from Olympia who visited Forks last summer.


“Some people feel like, ‘Why should we be known for vampires?’” says 20-year resident Linda Wells. “‘We’ve got a lot of other good things here.’ But it’s good to have a different audience. Middle-school teenage girls are not usually a group that comes out.”


Critics can’t deny the economic potential. “I shouldn’t get down on it,” says one local motel cashier, “because we are a tourist town and it’s brought us a lot of business, but you would not believe how many people come in here expecting to see a vampire. Or a werewolf. I am not kidding.”


Recent decades have not been kind to Forks, once dubbed “The Logging Capital of the World.” The decline of the timber business spelled job loss and population stagnation throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and the city has been slow to pick itself back up.


Fifteen miles from the rain-soaked Pacific Coast, Forks has two major traffic lights on one main street sprinkled with loud American cars. The recipient of 10 to 12 feet of rain per year, it’s a rugged, dreary place steeped in hardworking, old-school ways: One day this summer, for example, an old man in a diner arm-slapped a young apprentice too focused on his veggies and grumbled: “Eat your steak.”


Mayor Nedra Reed has long expressed her hope that tourism might help fill the economic void left by the troubled timber industry. The visitor center, dutifully sited between the timber museum and loggers memorial, offers popular summer logging tours. But those visitors focus on nearby attractions such as the Hoh Rain Forest, and provide only seasonal respite.


Then, about five years ago, a thousand miles away in Phoenix, a stay-at-home mom looking for a dark place to set a teenage vampire novel did an Internet search for the rainiest locale in the United States. The result: the Olympic Peninsula, and a little place called Forks.


The strangers began drifting in last summer. Mostly teen girls, flanked by their mothers or fathers or friends, they roam the streets with cameras drawn. Occasionally, they wear T-shirts reading “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob,” showing whom they’re rooting for in the contest for Bella’s affections.


Anything that says “Forks” is fair game. The Forks Coffee Shop. Forks Outfitters, the local department store. The sign that reads, “Welcome to Forks.” And especially Forks High School, where Bella is saved from a fatal accident by Edward Cullen, the impossibly good-looking vampire who becomes her beau.


By spring, Forks Chamber of Commerce Director Marcia Bingham estimated the daily average of Twilighters at 30 to 50 people; by last week, she guessed it was more like 90. The visitor center occasionally fields mail for Bella, and a sign above the reception desk reads, “Vampires Thrive in Forks.”


The guest book bubbles with zeal from places such as Tucson; Des Moines, Iowa, and Sugar Land, Texas. “A little obsessed!” wrote a visitor from Pocatello, Idaho. From Kirksville, Mo.: “Twilight Fan #1.” From Brookings, Ore.: “It’s nice to know we’re not the only nerds!”


In response, local businesses have creaked from their offseason coffins, aiming for a stake in the craze. Sully’s Burgers sold 800 “Bella Burgers” in three months, and the Forks Subway added a “Twilight Special” sandwich. Twilight-themed T-shirts read “I Was Bitten in Forks, WA” at main-street businesses that, like bookstores across the country, are planning midnight release parties for “Breaking Dawn.”


Last year, Mayor Reed declared Sept. 13—Bella’s fictional birthday_Stephenie Meyer Day, and the city celebrated with cake and a Bella look-alike contest. Gurling hopes to add a bonfire and Native American wolf dance to the event this year; a blood drive is also possible.


This year should be even better, as 100-plus members of TwilightMoms.com, a Web site dedicated to older fans, have already booked nearly all of Forks’ Dew Drop Inn for that weekend.


“I think we’re going to be deluged,” Bingham says.


THE TWILIGHTER TOUR


The tours are conducted nearly every Saturday, in the same 13-passenger van—always full—that Gurling uses for logging tours.


For Twilighters, there’s plenty to see: La Push’s First Beach, on the Quileute Indian Reservation, where underdog Jacob suggests Edward’s true identity. The hospital where Edward’s father is a doctor. The vast meadow where the vampires play baseball. And, oddly, the misty, constant rain of which Bella often complains.


“They have this vision,” Gurling says. “They want to see all the greenery and the moss and the lichens hanging off the trees.”


One tour on a sunny June day includes John and Renee Spies, here from Murfreesboro, Tenn., with daughter Peyton, 13. “It was a little extra birthday gift for her,” explains John, a retired manager for Nissan.


Echo Martin, 18, arrives from Roseau, Minn., population 2,800, where Martin says most girls have read one of the town’s five copies of “Twilight.” “I want to make all my friends jealous,” she says.


The farthest-flung are Grant and Deborah Emery of Brisbane, Australia, here with son Michael, 19, and daughter Katherine, 13. “We thought we’d have a family holiday,” says Deborah. “And Katherine said, ‘Let’s go to Forks.’”


Some tour sites are obvious, such as fictional Police Chief Charlie Swan’s station, or the hospital, where a parking space has a sign reading, “Dr. Cullen: Reserved Parking Only.” Others are not as exact. “It’s just, like, where we think it might have happened,” Bingham says.


For instance, the Miller Tree Inn, where the front-porch message board on one day notes the Cullens are out playing baseball; and Bella’s house, actually home to educators David and Kim McIrvin. When Bingham asked the couple whether they’d mind having their 1916 Craftsman_the only two-story house on their block—designated as Bella’s house, “we didn’t really realize what we were getting ourselves into,” Kim McIrvin says.


Forks townsfolk know the onslaught is only beginning, watching as fans collect souvenir beach rocks and driftwood. For a while, Gurling and Bingham tried to post photos of every Twilighter who visited the center on their Web site, but ultimately quit.


“We stopped at 900,” Bingham says. “Our server won’t hold any more photos.”


___


THE “TWILIGHT” PHENOMENON


Part young romance, part folklore—“Jane Austen meets Bram Stoker,” as one reviewer put it—the series revolves around high schooler Bella Swan, who falls for vampire Edward Cullen after moving to Forks. Throughout “Twilight” and sequels “New Moon"and “Eclipse,” Bella contends with stalking vampires along with typical concerns such as the prom, as well as a larger issue—whether to join Edward in immortality.


The fourth book, “Breaking Dawn,” is due out Saturday, and the film version of “Twilight” is set to open in December.


Earlier this year, Time magazine named Meyer one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Her Aug. 12 appearance at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall is sold out.


___


MAIN CHARACTERS


Isabella “Bella” Swan: The headstrong, accident-prone high-schooler who leaves her mother’s home in Phoenix to live with her police-chief father in Forks.


Edward Cullen: The “love of Bella’s existence,” who has been 17 years old since becoming a vampire in a previous century.


The Cullen family: Edward’s fellow vampires. Carlisle Cullen is the doctor who banded the “family” together. Esme Cullen acts as mother, while Alice, Jasper, Emmett and Rosalie are Edward’s “siblings.”


Jacob Black: Bella’s friend and member of the Quileute Tribe in La Push. Jacob’s father and Bella’s father are close friends.


Charlie Swan: Bella’s father and Forks chief of police. Fond of weekend fishing trips and his daughter’s cooking.


Mike Newton: Bella’s classmate and eager suitor.


Source: “Twilight” series


___


ON THE WEB


Web sites for fans of Stephenie Meyer’s vampire series:


www.stepheniemeyer.com: The author’s Web site, with information about the books, film production and tour dates.


www.twilightmoms.com: Web site dedicated to older fans of the Twilight series.


www.forkswa.com: Forks Chamber of Commerce Web site, with links to local Twilight-related attractions and a photo gallery featuring visiting Twilight fans.


www.bellaandedward.com and www.hisgoldeneyes.com, Twilight fan sites.

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