VICTORIA, B.C.—“Over the five years I’ve been at the museum, I’ve got to see and hold a lot of important artifacts—things the public doesn’t have access to. This is easily the highlight of my career.”

Steve Lewis, exhibition designer at the Royal BC Museum, describes crawling into what is, essentially, the automotive version of a holy relic.

“It was the first artifact to come in the door,” he says, “And under the supervision of our conservation staff, I was allowed to go inside. It was a pretty surreal moment. The inside was even more cramped than I thought: for three guys to live there on the road, with no support. It’s incredible.”

Almost every Canadian has heard the story. We’ve grown up with it, have folded the narrative into our national myth. While a single meaning for Canada is hard to pin down, it’s easy to point to the image of Terry Fox running with that half-hitch of his and say, yes, here is one of our heroes.

But if you go and look at a dumpy little brown Ford Econoline van, resting beneath the totem poles in the lobby of the Royal BC Museum, you’ll find that myth unravelling.

Terry Fox wasn’t just some tragic hero. He wasn’t an Achilles striding forth to do battle with cancer, only to be undone at the last. There is, about four kilometres west of where he ended his run, a huge statue and monument erected as a memorial. Terry’s story looms large, maybe too large to get your head around. But the van brings home the humanity of his effort.

It’s a 1980 Ford E250, and is a terrifically 1980s-looking thing, well-restored but not unlike the crusty-looking RVs you sometimes come across parked and abandoned. Boxy and custard-coloured, with brown faux panelling and a white camper top, it’s got a no-nonsense demeanour. Yes, it’s a camper, but this is a machine built largely for working.

The inside is, as Lewis points out, a cramped affair for three people to sleep. It’s also a hilarious time-warp, with orange shag carpeting and loads of brown vinyl. It looks the way old pictures of your parents do, although it’s perfectly preserved.

And it is the dated feel that you latch on to. Terry didn’t have a social media presence. He didn’t have sports drinks and gel-packs and running tape. He didn’t have a nutritionist or a carbon-composite prosthetic or moisture-wicking clothing or even shoes designed for long-distance running. What he had was will. He didn’t really need anything else.

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The Marathon of Hope starts when Terry dips his artificial leg in the Atlantic Ocean on April 12, 1980. He is just 21, a kid from the suburbs. On that day, he runs 26 miles (42km). It is his first marathon. He will run the equivalent of a hundred and twenty eight of them.

“After doing my first marathon,” Lewis says, “It was like the penny dropped. It was hard enough to train for one, but doing them over and over again, against the wind, and with no support. It really sunk home.”

Darrell Fox, Terry’s younger brother, remembers meeting his brother on the road for the first time. “Even more determined than I remembered,” he says. Over the course of the next several months, the van would become home to Darrell and Terry and their friend Doug Alward.

The stink was almost unimaginable. With three runners crammed into a small space, eating hamburgers and fries and whatever calorie-rich road food they could find, the van became part locker room and part outhouse. It was so disgusting that Terry would use it as a refuge when the reporters’ questions became fatiguing.

But in those early days, a lack of reporters was often the problem. In the Maritimes, Terry’s message had got out, but on the long trip through Quebec, few people knew what was happening. There were no cheers, but Terry continued to soldier along. He’d arise early and run, taking breaks every two miles or so. He’d put in his mileage, eat, and then sleep. Darrell or Doug would updated the day’s mileage on the road.

When they hit Ontario, things changed. The word had got out, and people now cheered when the van pulled into town. The money started coming in too, funds to be channelled towards cancer research. At one point, a similar van headed east pulled up, a bunch of scruffy dudes handed over a wad of crumpled bills, and then headed off with barely a word. Later, everyone found out it was Tom Cochrane and his band.

But Terry’s run ended far from where he planned. While his dogged determination was incredible to behold, his disease was equally inexorable. His cancer came back, and this time it had spread to his lungs. They had to fly him home. The van turned around, driven by a volunteer from the Canadian Cancer Agency.

HeapMedia352462 Think of driving into a small town in rural Ontario, perhaps just a few weeks after it had passed going the other way. See the looks on the faces of the people as they see the van: surprise, wonderment, a creeping realization, shock, dismay. Many people simply burst into tears. Terry was still alive, but his run was over.

But not the hope, and that’s the important part. Terry’s true legacy is not only in what he was able to achieve, but in the way he inspired so many, and set off a chain reaction that still echoes across the country today.

The day after he is forced to stop his run, the CEO of Four Seasons sends a telegram to the Fox family committing to organizing a fundraising run every year in Terry’s name.

One week later, CTV holds a telethon for cancer research. It raises $10 million. Five months later, the Terry Fox Marathon of Hope reaches a total of $24.17 million. That’s $1 for every single Canadian person, young or old.

The van slunk east, bound for a London, Ontario, car lot. It sold, and the Fox family moved on with their changing lives. By the time Terry dies in June of 1981, it’s long gone.

But in 2005, author and artist Douglas Coupland is at a party, having just released his book Terry, honouring the 25th anniversary of the Marathon of Hope. Somebody comes up to him, and asks why he didn’t mention the van. It’s parked over by the PNE.

The next morning, Coupland and Darrell Fox head for East Vancouver and sure enough, there’s the old van. It’s in rough shape, but intact and mostly original. The raised letters from the Marathon of Hope are still visible through the paint.

And what a strange second life the van has had. It was used as a camper van in Ontario for the first few years, and then driven out west. From 1984 until 2000 it mostly sat, and had just 30,000 kms on the clock. Then Bill Johnston got hold of it.

The guitarist for the instrumental art-rock band Removal, Johnston dragooned Terry’s van into use as a tour vehicle. In six years they managed to run the odometer up to 300,000 kms, running from gig to gig between Winnipeg, Texas, Los Angeles, New York, and back to Vancouver. Lots of small repairs were needed – the muffler was reattached with guitar string – but the van seemed essentially indestructible.

Johnston sold the van to the Fox foundation for a nominal amount, and Ford stepped in to fund a restoration. Because everything was relatively original, much of said restoration involved cleaning and repairing rather than replacing. The shag carpeting inside the van today is the same that absorbed all those horrible odours more than three decades ago.

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The van being loaded into the Royal BC Museum lobby

Fittingly, the Royal BC Museum sits just a few blocks from Mile Zero on the Trans-Canada Highway. It’s where it was supposed to end up at the end of the Marathon of Hope, right where Terry was to dip his artificial leg in the Pacific, and end his run.

The museum’s exhibit on Terry Fox opened this April 12, and will run through until the beginning of October. Laid out by Lewis, it features artifacts like Terry’s shoes, journal, and even his artificial leg. The van sits in the museum’s lobby, and is the first thing anyone visiting the museum will see.

“We have a museum team together for the Terry Fox run in September,” Lewis says. On his right calf, he has a tattoo of Terry’s leg.

Terry Fox stopped running on September 1, 1980. His Marathon of Hope has never ended.

(All photos courtesy of the Royal BC Museum)