If you pay attention to the local music scene at all, you probably know bluegrass band Jerks of Grass have been playing every Thursday night — first at the now-defunct Bramhall Pub, then at Gritty's, and now at Bayside Bowl — since sometime in 1998. Jason Phelps has been the guitar player for something like 99 percent of those gigs (hey, everyone deserves a vacation). Mandolin player, too, for a lot of them.
But, starting this April, that's all going on hiatus for about six months. Phelps is going to drive to California, stand on the border with Mexico, and then start walking 2663.5 miles north to the Canadian border along the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. That sort of thing takes a while. But don't worry. He's bringing a guitar with him.
See, what most people don't know is that on just about all of the Fridays following those Thursdays, when Phelps would be lucky to hit the sack by 2 am, he would then get up around 4 am and head for Mount Washington to go ice climbing. Or hiking. Or rock climbing.
Of course, he usually had a gig Friday night, too. "I'd show up at the gig with my hair all crazy," he laughs, "looking like I'd just been chased by wild dogs. Sometimes I literally ran across the Alpine Garden and got back just in time to do the gig. And if I got something to eat, that was a bonus. But then I took all that energy directly to the guitar."
No one who has ever seen Jason Phelps play guitar live has questioned his ability. After years of trying out the rock and roll touring-band thing, he turned to bluegrass guitar in the late '90s and made himself into one of the best flat-pick guitar players in the country. Really. He is fast, precise, inventive, and sometimes just plain spectacular. Other guitarists stare at him.
At right around the same time, though, he also decided to start hiking. By 2004, he'd reached the top of 48 of the 67 New England peaks over 4000 feet tall. (Just one remains for him now: Vermont's Mount Mansfield.) Then he did a bunch of ice climbing and rock climbing until he realized that's a good way to kill yourself.
Finally, around the turn of the millennium, he got into super-lightweight hiking, "and that's when I could start to do consecutive 20-mile days," he says, sitting over coffee upstairs in the Portland Public Market. He and a buddy, Pete Kotsimpulos, started banging out sections of the Appalachian Trail when Phelps could find a week off here and there from his work at Yarmouth's 317 Main Street Music Center, what's turned into something of a bluegrass academy. They perfected their gear, their technique, and got serious about this extended hiking thing.
Then Phelps told the band, the folks at 317, everyone, that in the summer of 2012 he was going to go on a very long hike. By himself.