Often when I tell people that I spent the summer as a Twilight tour guide in Forks, Washington, they think I’m joking. I half thought I was joking, too, until I pulled into the driveway of Charlene Leppell, owner and sole tour guide of Team Forks, the last surviving Twilight tour company in the town. I met her grandchildren, Finn and Leone, who Charlene told me would be staying with her while their mother dealt with some medical issues. This situation displaced me to the Fleetwood Mallard RV in Charlene’s parking lot, which would remain my home for my time in Forks. After leading a few tours, my unfamiliarity with the Twilight series made me feel condescending and smarmy towards the genuine passion of the town and tourists. So I decided to displace myself to the role of a tourist, going on every tour and taking pictures of what interested me.
I went to Forks to explore its surreal coincidence of multi-billion-dollar international media phenomenon and small-town America. “People do not want to just read Meyer’s books,” wrote novelist Lev Grossman in Time; “they want to climb inside them and live there.” Though this experience is echoed in almost every popular young-adult series, the fact that the imaginative space of Twilight is directly linked to a real one, unlike that of Hogwarts or Panem, means the emotional journey of the book can be translated into the physical realm. The geographical reality of Forks allows for the intrusion of the synthetic glamour of Hollywood into the economic realities of a small Pacific Northwest logging community, so the town itself uncannily reflects many of the contradictions and idiosyncrasies within the American entertainment-industrial complex–of the relationships among idols, idolaters, and people who don’t give a shit. Many of the people in Forks represent a fourth category: people who don’t give a shit except for the fact that the confluence of idols and idolaters brought unprecedented attention to their working-class community.
For the residents of Forks, town pride is not at all contingent on the Twilight series. The intense natural beauty of the Olympic Peninsula– the national parks, lush mountains and coastal forests– although utilized in the books and films, also exists independently of them. The Forks, which is, according to Charlene, the farthest-northwest incorporated town in the contiguous United States, has a population of about 3,500 and sits 56 miles from the nearest major city, Port Angeles (which the locals call “PA”). The people who live there are mainly loggers and correctional officers from the nearby state penitentiaries. Although most citizens make a monthly trip to PA for Safeway or a movie, Forks’ isolation begets a self-reliance that bonds the community. There are no chain stores. Stephenie Meyer Day, the yearly weeklong fête that serves as the climactic event for Twilight tourism in Forks, is organized and executed entirely by unpaid volunteers. All of the Twilight merchandise in Charlene’s flower shop is homemade; Richard, Charlene’s only employee in the flower shop and on the tours, is unpaid. “He’s had to have most of his teeth removed,” Charlene explains, “and I pay for those.”
Without ever having visited the town, Stephenie Meyer chose to set the Twilight series in Forks because, according to Google, it was the coldest, wettest town in America. This overcast setting would allow the teenage vampires the freedom to gad about town in the daytime incognito—direct sunlight outs vampires by making their skin sparkle, as Edward famously reveals to Bella in the first book. Meyer only ever visited Forks after the books were published, retroactively fitting places in the actual town to the fictional geography of the Forks she had invented, so that fans could have a physical space to visit.
The movies, which have attracted to Forks more Twilight tourism than the books, have a similarly tenuous relationship to the town. Charlene stresses that the tours are based on the books, not the movies. Forks was initially scouted as a location for the first movie, she explains, but the producers canceled two days before they were set to begin shooting because of Washington state union regulations. “If anyone was angry,” she said on one of her tours, “it was the school kids. They were going to be extras. How do you explain to them politics? I’m an adult, and I don’t even understand it.”
Team Forks offers three different types of tours. The standard “Forks Twilight Tour” runs around an hour and a half at $30 per seat. Charlene narrates a tour of the Twilight-related places in the town of Forks, ranging from the house on which Stephenie Meyer based her description of Bella’s house (using a picture on a real-estate website) to the “Welcome to Forks” sign (“At one time, the third-most photographed sign in America”). For $15 more, you can extend the tour another hour and a half to LaPush, the Quileute Indian Reservation community whose members, in the series, can turn into werewolves. This second tour brings you to Jacob Black’s house and the werewolf/vampire treaty line at the Three Rivers Resort, on the border between Forks and the reservation. The “Bella Tour,” meanwhile, costs $60 and runs late into the night. It continues the tour past La Push to Rialto Beach, a rocky shore strewn densely with white, petrified logs washed up by storms. While the sun sets, Charlene roasts hot dogs and marshmallows for the group. The tour bus fits a maximum of twelve people, but Charlene sometimes tour as few as two.
I went on the tours with Charlene and took pictures of the town, the tour, and the tourists. I tried to capture this particular and peculiar place which, although it is sometimes funny, is never a joke.