There are very few things about life as a planner of small towns that I don't love, but in that short list is driving. By definition, rural areas are rural. They are spread out with wide open spaces in between. While this frequently makes for beautiful and compelling landscapes, it can also create miles and miles of mind-numbing sprawl.

(I've also had an opportunity meet more than my share of bored, small-town cops who are ecstatic to have a car driving through their jurisdiction after midnight, but that is another post.)

But whether beautiful or bland, drive the same routes long enough and that monotony can get to you. I dislike driving so much I have actually pondered getting a driver so I could accomplish something productive in all those wasted hours.

But they are not really wasted, of course. The peace of mind that many people get from the mental-sorting that takes place during exercise, prayer or long walks - that time alone to think - is something that my qwest has given me in abundance. I find myself often driving for long stretches with no music, no radio, just silence. For anyone that knows me well, that would probably come as a surprise.

There are times though when the brain needs a rest from recovering, if that makes sense, because the thoughts have all turned over and there is no room in the queue for more until some can be dispatched through action or time. While I often turn to music or all manner of talk radio, I have recently found myself heavily into podcasting. I would like to share some of those with you because I have found the podcasts to which I listen to be great sources of information.

The Thomas Jefferson Hour

I have always had a fascination with the history of the founding of the country. The only AP History exam in high school I ever scored higher on than my then-girlfriend, now-wife (always brainy) was on the revolution. Thomas Jefferson has been a particular fascination of mine, due largely to his idealistic view of mankind and his fellow citizens.

The Thomas Jefferson hour is a weekly podcast where humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson speaks in character as the third president, answering questions and explaining the world through the eyes of Jefferson. While my first listening I initially thought the idea silly, it took less than a minute to make me see the brilliance of the approach.

Jenkinson, through his portrayal as Jefferson, helps us see the world - both historical and modern - through the eyes of the brilliant idealist that was Jefferson. "Jefferson's" candid assessment of our modern world, along with his detailed accounting of life in colonial times, provides a fresh perspective on facts, figures and discovery. A vivid story-teller, Jenkinson is also a brilliant, if seemingly-approachable, scholar.

You can check out The Thomas Jefferson Hour online at www.jeffersonhour.org. A new podcast is released each Sunday. 

Common Sense

A while back, my fellow blogger Ben Oleson was telling me about this podcast he was catching and how he thought I would like it. He told me about the host, a guy named Dan Carlin, who was a Generation X'er (one of our people) that had a fresh perspective on the news. I smiled and nodded politely and took the information in, but for whatever reason, failed to act on it. 

Shame on me, because when I told Ben about this new blog I came across, he politely reminded me that he had been the one to first mention it. I need to listen to Ben more, just like Carlin needs to listen to "Ben" more ("Ben" is the name of Carlin's fictional, or not, producer).

Carlin said in a recent edition that the ultimate compliment his listeners can give him is to say, "Dan, I don't always agree with you, but...."

So I say, I don't always agree with Carlin. but he stimulates the mind, is well-thought-out and provocative in a non-gratuitous way. The show is largely current events, so it fills a great niche for me between public radio and AM talk. You can find Common Sense online at www.dancarlin.com.

Hardcore History

This is another offering by Dan Carlin , but I believe I was able to point Ben in this direction first. Carlin - a self-professed fan of history - puts together these amazing shows on a segment of history, putting his unique spin and insight on the facts and figures of the time.

Sometimes stunning, like when he describes Hanibal's trek over the Alps to invade Italy. Sometimes amazing, like when he details the conquests of Alexander the Great and the political aftermath of his premature death. Sometimes eerie, like when he tells of the miles and miles of unburied bones amassed outside of the Russian city formerly known as Stalingrad.

Every time I listen to an episode, I am riveted. The mental images that Carlin paints, along with the sheer immensity of history that his telling reveals, stick with you for days as if it were a great movie. The wealth of information that goes into one of this shows is unlike anything I have ever heard. This is the best podcast out there.

I will join the rest of Carlin's fans though, it seems, and complain that it takes too long between episodes. I cut him some slack, though, because they are more like movies than a talk show and so the research and production needed to make it authentic and compelling takes time. It is worth the wait. Again, you can reach Hardcore History at www.dancarlin.com.

The Economist Podcast

My first trip to Europe, I packed a Time magazine to read on the flight over. By the time we took off, I had read everything of substance in it and was looking for something newsey for the nine hours I was going to be in the air. Somehow I wound up with The Economist, and I've never picked up a Time magazine again.

When I was first describing The Economist to friends, I would tell them of this incredible publication with these fantastic, well-written and timely articles, with great commentary and - amazingly - the entire magazine had no ads. I remember being struck by the fact that there were no ads.

Well, now that I have looked closer, of course there are ads. Lots of ads. There is just so much substance to it that I never noticed the ads. The Economist has become a must read weekly publication for me.

And now many blessing on my travels, The Economist is also available to subscribers as a full-audio podcast. You can literally download every article - something approaching 25 hours a week I believe -  in one bundle, transfer them to your MP3 player, drive from Minnesota to Los Angeles and have content left to play. Amazing.

I believe they have a few of the articles available for free. Either way, The Economist can be found online at www.economist.com.