Thursday, August 23, 2012

Vanagon Road Trip: Bradbury Mountain State Park and Midcoast Maine

Campsite playpen/prison
We travel to Maine as often as we can. It’s our go-to destination for short road trips and coastal New England adventures. We recently loaded up the Vanagon and headed north for our longest trip of the summer, and our 8-month old son's very first Vanagon camping adventure.

We started the trip with two nights at Bradbury Mountain State Park, joined by our siblings from New York, Amherst, and Boston. The campsites were reasonably well-spaced and the empty site next door offered additional privacy. The campground had vault toilets (no running water or sinks) but there was running water and hot showers in a separate facility, free of charge for campers.

We enjoyed a feast of steak tips, grilled veggies, and local Maine beers on Friday night. Jacob was an excellent camping companion throughout the day and evening. His time was spent happily entertaining himself in the Pack ‘N Play, exploring the new and fascinating world of tents, and bouncing from one loving auntie and uncle to the next.

Jacob enjoyed his fresh avocado dinner
Our sleeping arrangements were the biggest question of the weekend, and ultimately we decided that Amanda and I would sleep in the upper bunk under the Westfalia pop-top, and Jacob would slumber below. The Pack ‘N Play fit perfectly in the Vanagon between the jumpseat (in upright position) and bench, with room to spare for Parker on either the floor or the bench seat. Miraculously, Jacob had one of his best nights ever, waking only once, briefly at 3am. I was terrified that his normal habit of frequent wakings and accompanying wails would disturb the whole campground, but the little guy proved us wrong. He had a great first night, and we all emerged from the Vanagon confident that camping with baby was going to be much easier than we imagined. Were our initial fears unfounded?

Our cottage at Glenmoor By the Sea
The next day we packed into the van—six adults, one dog, and one baby—and cruised over to Portland for the day. We enjoyed a dog-friendly outdoor lunch of plump lobster rolls on the docks of Portland Lobster Co., and spent the afternoon walking the charming streets of the Old Port before returning to the campsite for dinner and some R&R. Our second campsite meal included heaping portions of farfalle with chicken sausage, zesty tomato sauce, and loads of fresh mozzarella.

Night #2 with Jacob? Not good. We were up and down so many times that I lost track. At home, we let Jacob stir and cry for a few minutes until he settled himself back down to sleep. But at an open campsite, we had no choice but to quickly descend from our bunk to hush him back to sleep—again and again and again.

We found $1 oysters in Rockland and took a dozen back
to the Vanagon on ice. Jacob wanted a taste.
After a hearty but bleary-eyed breakfast of eggs, grilled ham, and NYC bagels, our siblings headed back home while Amanda, Jacob, Parker, and I traveled north for three nights of seaside cottage comfort at Glenmoor By the Sea in Lincolnville, ME. Here, with a bed, roof, and four walls surrounding us, Jacob returned to somewhat better sleeping habits and we rested soundly without the fear of waking an entire campground.

Outdoor jazz concert in Camden.  Parker was not a fan.
We spent this leg of the vacation exploring mid-coast Maine. In Camden we found fresh fish tacos from a harborside shack and explored the village’s many dog-friendly shops and bookstores. On our second day Parker lounged in the air conditioned cottage and we drove to the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland to enjoy the artwork of Andrew Wyeth and the impressionist paintings and etchings of Frank W. Benson.

On our last day in mid-coast Maine, we traveled a few miles inland for a hike in Camden Hills State Park, followed by freshwater relief in lovely Megunticook Lake. Dogs aren't allowed at the swim beach, so we instead opted for the public boat ramp on Route 52. Jacob took a dip too.

Recompense Shore Campground, site #159
The next day we rolled south on Route 1 for a final night on the Maine coast. We camped just outside of Wolfe’s Neck Farm at the beautiful Recompense Shore Campground, a short drive from the bustling shopping hub of Freeport, home to the L.L. Bean flagship store. On our way into the campground, we all cooled off in the saltwater tidal river before setting up the campsite.

With that fitful night of Vanagon camping still fresh in our minds, we decided to try our luck with Jacob in the tent. Parker had to entire Vanagon to himself that night, but I don’t think he was too pleased with the arrangement. He would have much preferred to join the three of us in the two-person tent, but our hands were full with a wild, rolling, crawling, squealing Jacob. He LOVED being in the tent and was immediately energized by that exciting new environment with its crinkly walls, soft mesh, and fluffy down sleeping bags. So much stimuli! When he finally settled down, he slept much better, spoiled by the rare, cozy night snuggled between mom and dad.

Swimming near Wolfe's Neck Farm
Camping with an 8-month old wasn’t without its challenges, but overall, I’d call our first effort a success. I look forward to many future adventures with a slightly older, better-sleeping little boy.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Vanagon Repair: Brake Master Cylinder

My brake master cylinder failed and I decided to tackle this replacement myself. I sourced the replacement master cylinder from for $46 plus shipping. While this isn't a German-made or OEM replacement, it is a well-reviewed, high quality Italian-made part.

I'm grateful for the step-by-step guidance in a very helpful post on  It's clear and thorough and the only weakness I found is that it lacked pictures. I'm more or less re-posting that guide below, adding or omitting details per my experience, with images from my recent removal/installation.

Brake master cylinder and fluid reservoir after removing the instrument panel
  • Phillips #2 and two flat-head screwdrivers (optional)
  • 7 mm wrench to loosen and tighten brake bleeders
  • 13 mm socket/ratchet with 10" extension
  • 11 mm open end wrench for the brake line
  • 22 mm wrench to replace the brake light switches (or one big crescent wrench)
  • 2 pints of DOT 4 brake fluid
  • Rags
  • 2 pints of rubbing alcohol

Step 1. Removing the Instrument Panel

Pull off the cover over the instrument cluster.Remove the 4 Phillips head screws. Reach behind the speedometer cluster and squeeze the plastic retainer holding the cable in and release that. This gives you more play in the instrument panel to unplug the main cable cluster. To be safe you should disconnect the battery when playing with the wiring (admittedly, I didn't).Then pull all switches, plugs, and wiring. With everything removed you'll find the master cylinder exposed with the plastic reservoir occupying most of the space.

Step 2. Draining the Reservoir of Brake Fluid
Put a hose and bottle on the bleeder of the left front caliper and open the bleeder while pumping the brakes. This worked well and drained all the fluid.

Step 3. Removing the Clutch Master Cylinder Filler Tank Hose (for MANUAL Vanagons)  
After removing the filler tank hose
On the upper right side of the tank there is a pipe leading to a fitted 3/8" braided rubber hose going to the clutch master cylinder that needs to be worked off. Put a rag under to collect any fluid here. I was able to simply work it off without any tools or prying. If that's not possible, try using a pair of pliers to gently start twisting the hose. Flat screwdrivers may also help to pry it off. Be careful doing this because if you break the plastic pipe within the hose, you will need a whole new reservoir. After it's free, plug the hose prevent any brake fluid from leaking out while working.

Step 4. Removing the Brake Lines
Have a rag under both of the brake line to catch any drips drip. If you pumped the fluid out (Step 2) there should be minimal amounts easily captured on a rag. Loosen the two metallic brake lines going to the front and rear brake circuits. One brake line is on the center right side  and the other brake line is on the closer end of the master cylinder sticking out at you. The nuts are 11 mm.

Step 6. Removing the Old Brake Master Cylinder
With the two break lines and braided hose removed, all you have left is the two, 13 mm master cylinder anchor nuts. Use your ratchet and 10" extension to get at them, located at the back of the master cylinder, deep into the dash. A magnetic ratchet or wand is helpful to catch the nuts. Finally, disconnect the brake light
New brake master cylinder and old
wiring from the two switches on the bottom of the master cylinder and take it away.

Step 7. Prepping the New Master Cylinder for Installation
Switches: You may want to replace your brake light switches at this time. I should have, but didn't have replacement and didn't want to delay the job any further. I simply installed the old switched on the new master cylinder.
Detail of original VW brake master cylinder
Filler tank: Remove the plastic brake fluid reservoir from the master cylinder by by prying it from the rubber grommets. If yours, like mine, is full of brake line crud, you should clean that out. Rubbing alcohol works really well. Swish the alcohol around in the reservoir until the grime washes away. Wait a bit for the alcohol to evaporate before snapping the reservoir onto the new cylinder. Make sure there is a new seal (which should have come with your new cylinder) between the master cylinder and the brake booster.

New master cylinder positioned for installation
Step 8. Installing the New Brake Master Cylinder
Angle the new master cylinder (and reservoir) over the pushrod coming out of the booster. Ensure that the pushrod inserts into the master cylinder shaft. Loosely apply the 13mm anchor bolts. Connect the brake lines, ensure that the threads are aligned, and tighten them down. Connect the braided rubber hose. Tighten down the anchor nuts. Fill the reservoir with new DOT 4 brake fluid and pump the brakes a few times to
get fluid into the system.

Step 9 Bleeding the Brakes
It is absolutely imperative to get all the air out of the brake circuit. Otherwise, the brakes will be mushy and not operate efficiently. To bleed the brakes, you need an assistant. While you lay under the van at the rear passenger side wheel, have your friend/assistant apply slow, steady pressure to the brake pedal and HOLD it 3/4 of the way to the floor. BEFORE he releases the pedal, close the bleeder valve. Repeat the procedure until the flow of brake fluid is clear and shows no sign of air bubbles. Proceed to next bleeder valve. Repeat the process once you have cycled through each bleeder. Watch the fluid in the reservoir to ensure continuous level of brake fluid.  If it drops below the "min" line, you'll introduce air to the circuit! You MUST follow this bleed order:
  • Right Rear
  • Left Rear
  • Right Front
  • Left Front
Good luck!